Since late October, a 62-year-old Canadian named Bert terHart has been sailing solo around the globe, on a mission to become the first North American to complete a nonstop circumnavigation, via the five Great Capes, without the aid of electronic navigational devices. He’s faced extreme weather, dwindling supplies and unexpected repairs that have extended his trip from six to nine months — and yet, he’s been dubbed “the safest person on the planet.”
Why? Because he’s traveling alone — and hasn’t seen another person since January, in Port Stanley in the Falklands, and before that on Nov. 6 in San Francisco — and floating far from civilization, the British Columbia resident presumably has no risk of contracting or transmitting the coronavirus disease, news of which emerged months into his journey.
Indeed, terHart has already been social distancing in the extreme, with the help of nine months’ worth of supplies, for nearly half a year. His sole companion is a stuffed seal, “Sir Salty,” who he likens to Tom Hanks’s volleyball, Wilson, in Castaway. Like many Americans, his quarantine activities include baking bread, but forget Zoom catch-ups — the married father of four grown children is without internet or video technology, and can keep in touch with his loved ones only by using email via satellite or making voice calls with a “prohibitively expensive” satellite phone with a bad connection.
The adventure has given terHart — currently en route to the South East Cape, near Tasmania — plenty of time to reflect and master the art of self-isolation. Speaking to Yahoo Lifestyle over email, the professional speaker, IT entrepreneur, lifelong sailor and former captain and platoon commander in the Canadian army Special Service Force shared his survival tips for flying solo for months on end, from meal planning to the importance of creating routines to maintain good mental health.
As the Gabriola Island, B.C., native’s journey — which he’s documenting on Instagram as well as on the 5 Capes blog that tracks his progress, making climate change observations along the way — approaches its seventh month, terHart also opened up about his history-making challenge, why self-isolation can be an “opportunity,” and what it’s like to be drifting along, and alone, in a sailboat while the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
“What inspired the trip [in which he is sailing single-handed using only celestial navigation] I suppose is the $64,000 question. There is not one single thing as I’m sure you can imagine but many.
“On a personal level, a solo nonstop circumnavigation via the five Great Capes is incredibly difficult to do. The number of sailors who have been able to complete this type of voyage is incredibly small, only about 300. … I have always sought out the more difficult challenges in life. And this is certainly one of them.
“On a more profound level, I wanted to do two things. Firstly, I wanted to inspire young children to seek careers in the atmospheric and oceanic sciences. We have significant problems facing us as we move forward and into our future. I believe we need the brightest and smartest of our children working on these problems if we are going to succeed as a species. And secondly, I wanted to inspire anyone with a passion to contribute as a citizen scientist to those things that they are passionate about. I believe that anyone anywhere can contribute to the global knowledge base and therefore help us solve problems that we face globally. Some of the greatest contributions in science have come from citizen scientists. First and foremost among them might be Charles Darwin. It may also come as a surprise to some that Albert Einstein, when he wrote the special theory of relativity, was a citizen scientist working as a patent clerk in Switzerland.
“I believe it is a mistake to underestimate the contribution you can make to science in helping solve some of the greatest problems our species has ever faced. That is why on board on this voyage I have a number of experiments and observations that I’m making that will help scientists with their own endeavors.
“Lastly, I wanted to inspire others no matter their age to live out their most wild and crazy dreams. Adventure and exploration are alive and well and can be had in any corner of the world.”
“I had calculated that the trip would take about six or seven months. I added a safety margin of 35 percent for everything that I bought as provisions for the trip. So all in all, I had food and supplies that should last for about nine months.
“The extra supplies are simply because it’s a sailboat; the wind and weather dictate where and how fast you can go. That is why the dates of departure and arrival in certain parts of the world are so crucial. If you miss those dates, the sailing becomes incredibly difficult, if not impossible. I am late because of some very odd weather in the South Atlantic and again in the Indian Ocean. I also had to deal with some repairs in the Falkland Islands. All in all, I am close to two months behind and therefore right at the limit of my provisions. If I do run out, then I can always schedule a food drop in Hawaii. That’s Plan B. It is unlikely, but it may come to it.
“One of the things that I underestimated is my appetite. On other sailing adventures, my appetite has been small. But on this trip, it is huge and I’m eating just to have enough energy and fuel to continue. Between the slow times, odd weather and bigger appetite, I am going through my food supplies quicker than I had calculated. I am not a fussy eater, so I can go a long time on just oats and rice. It may come to that.
“I am traveling with just the bare essentials. Very little fun food came on board, not because I don’t like it, but I am an inveterate snacker and I knew I would mow through it in no time flat. I did have small chocolate bars and granola bars for snacks. And of course, as they are my favorites, I went through them very quickly. I had counted on that, and ration as I might, I just didn’t have the willpower not to eat all the chocolate! I have a few things I save for special occasions, like the rounding of a cape — mostly canned fruit and nuts.
“In general my diet is very plain. Mostly it consists of pasta, rice, quinoa and oats. I have canned vegetables, canned meat, canned meals like ravioli, chili and stew, canned fish and pre-cooked curries. I left with fresh potatoes, onions, eggs, squash, cabbage and shallots. All that I have left are the onions and shallots. Everything else has either spoilt or been eaten.
“I like to make bread on board. That is a special treat and I have a recipe for bread that has never failed me despite having made it amid some horrendous conditions. It does take time … so I don’t always have the time to do it. Basically twice a month I bake bread. It only lasts one day but it’s worth it!
“My favorite meal is pasta with pesto, sundried tomatoes and feta. Feta lasts really well without refrigeration. I have the same block that I purchased in October last year. Everything I cook is made in a pressure cooker so I save on fuel and water. The pasta takes almost no time in a pressure cooker so I can make that meal very quickly, even when conditions are really hard. And I can make a mountain of it if I’m really hungry!”
Learning about the coronavirus
“I heard about coronavirus shortly after Italy began reporting increasing numbers of infected people. At that time, I realized that if it came to Canada, or anywhere else for that matter, that we would have serious problems. The exponential growth of infected in Italy despite their efforts to contain the infection for me was the trigger.
“As soon as I had heard that, I reached out to my wife and told her what I thought she should be doing. Basically it was be prepared to hold out for eight months with enough food and water and supplies to last that long if things, in general, began to grind to a halt. I had experienced similar things while living in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots and the Northridge earthquake. Also, living on a small island, I know how quickly shortages can develop. I actually reposted on the 5 Capes blog urging people to self-isolate early and prepare for a general slowing of services, including food and essential supply shortages.
“It has not altered my travel plans at all. There is simply nothing I can do. I am traveling so slowly by virtue of the fact that I am on a sailboat that I can’t get anywhere in time to do anything at all. So my travel plans were hardwired the moment I left the dock.
“I would absolutely agree that social distancing and a general slow-down has been of benefit to the environment and to wildlife in general. However … I don’t think the effect is going to be permanent. I can only hope that the obvious effects strike a chord with those people in a position to make decisions that make differences to realize that things could be dramatically better and that better does not necessarily have to take years or decades.”
Coping with self-isolation
“The key to remaining sane while isolated for so very long revolves around discipline and routine. They go hand in hand. You need the discipline to maintain your routines. Our normal everyday lives are very structured. We live very routine lives whether we know it or not. Some sense of those same structures and routines must accompany you in self-isolation. If they did not you would not remain sane for very long.
“I have routines for every day of the week. They revolve around keeping the boat safe, like navigation and sail handling and maintenance, and things for myself like food and rest. I know at any given time at any given day what I should be doing. That also helps reduce stress and anxiety when you’re living in such an extreme environment. I know that I have done all I can do to be sane and safe if I am disciplined enough to maintain my routines. If I start to move away from my routines, then I start to feel stressed and anxious and performance and mental acuity suffers.
“More importantly, perhaps, self-isolation means opportunity. You have the opportunity to learn more about yourself, and more about your place in the world. You have the time to read those books that you’ve always wanted to read, indulge the hobby that you never seem to have time for or spend the time with loved ones that work or some other responsibilities would pull you away from. My father, who is 92, decided that while self-isolating he should brush up on his Malaysian and Indonesian. He spoke those languages some 70 years ago when he was a professional sailor. He thought he needed to challenge himself and that this would be a good time.
“[Naturalist and essayist] John Burroughs said, ‘The lure of the distant and difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are.’ I couldn’t agree more!
“It has been a huge opportunity to move away from those things in your everyday life that are simply noise or relatively unimportant. The unimportant connections you have [fall away], leaving just those ones that you value the most. And what is surprising are those connections are not what you might think they would be. Additionally, I find that I feel far more deeply about those things that I am passionate about and about those people that I love here than I would have been at home. It is a function, I think, of the unnecessary being shed, leaving only the necessary and important.
“Self-isolation is an opportunity. Opportunity abounds in our everyday life but our everyday routines seem to drown them out. Here, the routines are just those that are absolutely necessary. The opportunity to consider the beauty that surrounds you, or the opportunity to consider those thoughts that are elemental and fundamental to the human condition rise to the fore. There is very little noise to drown them out.”
His traveling companion
“Sir Salty was a gift. He has been the mascot on a very dear friend’s boats for more than four decades. Just as I was leaving, this man rushed down the dock with Salty under his arm. He wanted me to take him as a good luck charm. I refused because I could not have such a precious thing on board when the outcome of the trip was so uncertain.
“This is no ordinary man. He is 6 feet 8 inches tall and there isn’t a thing that he owns that he doesn’t treasure. For him to give me Salty left me in tears. He has become … my Wilson. At times I suppose he is everything that I feel and would want and would like to express. I know what the complete story of Sir Salty is, but I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag.”
“I will be finishing in Victoria, B.C. and am looking forward, of course, to seeing family and friends. I am also looking forward to a nice long hot bath! Water is a precious commodity on board and what I have on board is used only for drinking. Any washing is done in cold saltwater.
“With respect to food, I am looking forward to pizza and a good old-fashioned cheeseburger. I wish I could say it was something more exotic or extravagant but that just isn’t the case!”
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