What seafarers can teach us about isolation

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Like many of us right now, isolated from my friends and colleagues, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. In fact I’ve turned to the journals of a favourite historic seafarer of mine, Captain William Porter. I’ve written about him before, about his emotional struggles and his sweet romance with his wife, Bess. He was a sea captain in the mid-19th century sailing out of Liverpool, and his journals are now held in our Archives Centre.

I’ve often found myself in sympathy with William as I read his journals, but this time this section resonated particularly.

"I have been taking a rough estimate of our stores today, and I find we have from 18 to 20 days left, sometimes I have pretty good spirits on it, and at others I can’not help feeling low and dejected about the length of our passage"

It feels like what many of us have been doing - checking our stores of food, cleaning materials, (toilet roll!), and in danger of feeling low and dejected by our own long passage through quarantine and social isolation. The kind of isolation we are enduring right now, the separation from our loved ones, the uncertainty, these are things seafarers have experienced as a matter of course for centuries.

sailing ship carved on an ivory horn
Carved scrimshaw depicting a ship in a storm

 

William writes about the relief of mind he experiences from having put in to port and had the chance to post some letters, including one to his beloved Bess. William’s eagerness to post his letters reminded me of one of the many oral history interviews held in our Archives Centre. When we interviewed modern day seafarer Robert Keith, he told us he no longer writes letters but e-mails instead:

"On ships nowadays if the internet goes down it’s the end of the world for the crew. It’s amazing how from something that you didn’t have years ago to you rely upon it nowadays…you could be in the middle of an operation and if the internet goes off, job stops, get the internet fixed, back online, all carry on."

Robert’s father was a seafarer before him, and Robert told us that in his father’s day they had only one telephone which was on the bridge. Now though cabins often have wifi, television, DVDs, and Robert even had Sky TV in one. It’s clear to see just how much seafarers have benefitted from improved communications technology and the rise of the internet. William could not have expected a quick response from his wife in the 19th century, while Robert can video-call his loved ones.

In a similar way we are now all benefitting from the same technological advances. The internet, for many of us, has become a lifeline. It is a way for us to talk to our friends and families, order food and medicine, and for museums like ours to continue to connect with our visitors, all while we remain in our own homes.

sailing ship embroidered on a cushion cover
Cushion cover embroidered by Bosun's mate Phil Rex Scott during wartime service in the Battle of the Atlantic

 

So what might we learn from seafarers in combating isolation? From William Porter treasuring letters from his wife, to modern seafarers’ reliance on the internet for e-mails and video calls, we see the paramount importance of communication. Isolation is mentally gruelling, we’re all finding that out. We may need to be physically separated but we are lucky enough to live in a time where that’s not the barrier to communication it once was. Checking in with each other is vital, whether you prefer to go old school and write some letters, or to get to see your loved ones over a video chat, just keep doing it.

For the time that we are left on our own however the Maritime collections demonstrate many ways in which seafarers have entertained themselves on long sea voyages. Many traditional seafarers’ crafts would have served not only to pass the time but also to keep those who practised them mentally healthy, something we talk about in our new Life on Board gallery, due to open later this year. You can see some examples of seafarers' crafts from our collection featured here, some of which will go on display in the new gallery. They include:

  • Dollhouse made by a ship’s carpenter in 1881, during a round the world voyage, for Emily Raven, the Captain’s daughter. 
  • Carved scrimshaw depicting a ship in a storm.
  • Cushion cover embroidered by Bosun's mate Phil Rex Scott during wartime service in the Battle of the Atlantic.
  • Sailor’s rope soled shoe. Seafarers used their ropework and knotting skills to pass the time, as well as for work.

Today we might term these activities ‘mindful’ in a similar way to the current trend for adult colouring books. I’m not sure many of us will be carving scrimshaw or making shoes out of rope, but now might be the perfect time to practise skills in embroidery, wool crafts, or model making. So why not pick up your needle, your paintbrush, your ditty bag full of modellers’ tools, or maybe even just your pen?

fabric shoe with sole made from coiled rope
Sailor’s rope soled shoe - one of the craft examples that you'll see in our new Life on Board gallery 

William’s journals do much more than note coordinates and weather conditions, they talk about what he’s doing and feeling and maybe he wrote so frequently because he found it helped. His journals have certainly become an asset to our Archive 150 years on and I hope writing them gave him anything like the same amount of comfort as I have taken in reading them.We’re living through something future historians will write about. They’ll do what I do now; they’ll look for primary sources, for their own William Porter. It could be you.

Even if you don’t think you or anyone else will ever want to look back at what you’re going through though, writing can be a way to make sense of, or even peace with, your feelings.

However you choose to pass the time, let's all do so safely and responsibly. Remember, on a ship everyone's contribution is vital, and every member of the crew must attend to their duties properly to ensure the safety of everyone on board. Let’s help each other navigate the storm.