Monday, March 23, 2020

An Alaskan fisherman’s guide for singles coping with a global pandemic

Bracing for the corona virus reminds me of fishing alone in Alaska. I've seen lots of advice on how to lockdown with family and children, but none for when you live alone, like me.  So, I wrote this piece. Feel free to share it with anyone who lives alone. 
I fished in Alaska for just north of 20 years, halibut, herring and salmon, I longlined, seined and gillnetted from southeast to Togiak. For five of those years, I fished for salmon alone on the Copper River Delta on the Gulf of Alaska. Nowadays, I’m a scientist, I study maritime psychology – the interplay between human behavior and the sea. As boats are isolated and confined environments, bracing for the corona virus reminds me of fishing in Alaska. Like a bad storm brewing, all I can do is get ready, wait and hope I’m prepared when it hits. Secure the boat, make a pot of spaghetti, grab a book, set the anchor and hope she holds. Then wait. 
Alaska is remote to begin with and its commercial fishing grounds are even more so. Isolation is a daily norm for the fishing industry there and it's also what I research. Fisherfolks leave town and are stuck on a boat with whoever else is on board. They only have whatever they brought with them and make do, cut the mold off the cheese and make a sandwich out of it. Fishing in Alaska is like being on lockdown, only the opposite. Rather than leaving town for weeks on end, we don’t leave the house for weeks on end.
Having worked in an isolated environment in the past is helping me through this time of lockdowns. I live alone in a foreign country. I have a partner, but his job took him to the Netherlands and mine to Brussels. And now the border between the two countries is closed. There’s no one else here to drive me crazy other than myself during lockdown. Believe me, sometimes, I’m managing to do just that. But before I jump overboard and swim away, I wanted to give a shout to anyone else in the same boat as me, preparing for this storm, alone. All the advice I’ve seen so far on coping with lockdowns is for families with children, which isn’t entirely helpful. Which is why I want to share my experience with you. I hope it helps you navigate this storm. 

Gillnetter anchored in Prince William Sound

First off, forget Isaac Newton. I keep reading all these stories about being super productive when in lockdown and that Isaac Newton did his best work in quarantine. I’m no history buff, but life in the 17th century was a bit different than life today, at the very least there was no 24/7 news media. Regardless, I’m guessing he was the exception, not the norm. I’ve been working from home for over a week and I’m only now getting into the swing of it. What else have I been doing? Preparing for the lockdown. Worrying about my family overseas. Attempting to figure out what the hell is happening and that keeps changing daily, sometimes, hourly. I’m pretty much anything but productive. Trying but failing to be industrious and beating myself up about it. But then I’m reminded these are extraordinary times and gave myself some leeway to adjust.
So, don’t panic. Give yourself time to adapt and realize some anxiety is normal. It is a global pandemic after all. Know that lack of information and uncertainty causes anxiety. In my case, once the Belgian government finally declared a soft lockdown - meaning we can go out for essentials and exercise while social distancing - I felt some relief. Not because I like being locked down, but because finally, a decision had been made. Before then, it was like being on the back deck and the skipper couldn’t decide if she wanted to make a set, run and look for fish, or go anchor up. And all I could do was wait in the rain for her decision. 

Do a quick check and see what you already have and make a list of what you’ll need. Food, soap, paper towels and of course, the ever-elusive toilet paper. Don’t panic buy, but do prepare! For me, it seems strange buying a bunch of food because I don’t usually go through a bunch of food. To make matters worse, the food to stock up on isn’t what I usually eat, rice, pasta and canned food. So, I was stumped by what to get and how much. Well, I did the math. If I eat three meals a day (and I do) and our lockdown is due to last at least two weeks, that’s 42 meals. Some meals, like a pot of soup lasts a few meals so it might be easier to think in portions. 
I’m a lazy cook and eat the same thing for breakfast every morning, instant oatmeal I got three boxes which is 36 packages, and fresh blueberries and frozen for when those run out. For other meals, I got whole wheat pasta and since it’s spaghetti, it’s not as gross as the thicker whole wheat pasta is, but it still healthier than regular pasta. There are about three servings a package, I got six packages, about 15-18 servings. Couple with canned tomatoes or sauce, mushrooms, spinach, some onion, garlic zucchini and a little parmesan cheese and that’s not too bad for comfort food, which I really need at a time like this. I also got three bags brown rice, lentils and beans, I like to make fajita bowls which is basically a fajita without the wrap. I stocked up on canned salmon, too (wild, obviously). Salmon is a good source of vitamin D, which boosts your immune system and keeps depression at bay. Both important at a time like this. You can make salmon burgers, cakes, salmon mac & cheese with peas or pesto pasta with salmon. It’s good with eggs or quiche, too. 
For fruit and veggies, get what you normally get, then a few things that last longer like apples, oranges, limes, lemons, cabbage, carrots, sweet potatoes and onions. Sneak shredded carrots or frozen spinach in where ever you can. Eat your bananas and grapes the first week, your apples and oranges the second week and your canned pineapple and frozen berries your third. Same with your veggies. Go through your mushrooms and fresh salad the first week, then hit the beets, zucchini and peppers. Anybody who has fished in Bristol Bay, where you can’t get fresh food knows that by the time the third week rolls around, you’ll be happy to have anything fresh, even if its cabbage and carrots. And while I’m not a fan of canned spinach, if you sneak it into eggs or spaghetti, it’s not too bad. Squeeze lime and lemon on anything that sounds good, including your water to keep scurvy at bay. 
One boat rule I used was to eat your favorite meal first. That way, you only have your favorite food to make. Don’t underestimate the power of food to boost morale. Make a few good meals, then pepper in the less savory ones liked canned soup from time to time. Keep tradition, like Aloha Friday. That’s when I reward myself with pizza and wine. 
Don’t forget to get things in case you do get sick like soup, cough drops and syrup, and Tylenol (paracetamol) for fever. Don’t forget snacks. Popcorn is heathy, salty treat, so are crackers. I got three bags of chips, one for each week. Obviously, I got a case of wine and a few pounds of chocolate, too. 

This will differ for everyone. As a researcher, I work from home once a week anyway and would do so at my kitchen table, which is the only use it gets. But after eight hours, my back would hurt from sitting in a kitchen chair. Now, I have an office area with desk and a decent chair. Do what you have to do to set yourself for working from home. 
As an introvert, I LOVE the idea of working from home as this suits my personality. But I’m an introvert, not a hermit. I still need human contact, occasionally. It’s been over a week since I last saw my friends in person. However, I’m still doing OK. I Skype with my partner, friends and family. My work colleagues and I have virtual coffee breaks. It’s been helpful to see how others are coping and it helps establish routine, which is key for staying on the right side of sanity. Next, is virtual happy hour. You’ll also need to shake things up a bit as monotony and boredom will creep in. When our 3-day halibut trip turned into 10, I’d kick my boots across the cabin, just for something different to do. 
Realize that, regardless of your personality, staying home alone will grate on you eventually, as humans are social creatures. Adapt. Modify to online socializing fairly quickly. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing. Call your friends. Read. Knit. Find something to do. There are lots of free online classes now, virtual museum tours, etc. Sailors don’t scrub the decks for fun. Keeping busy will help keep you even keeled. 
The magnitude of this pandemic is overwhelming. If you’re single like me, know you are not alone. I mean, you are alone, but you’re not alone. There are a few of us out there in the same boat. So, how to deal? Do you know how to eat a whole whale? One bite at a time. Try to digest little bits of at a time rather than allow the deluge of it all swamp the decks. 
Going on lockdown was put into perspective for me when someone said our grandparents were asked to go to war. We are asked to stay at home, to save the lives of others! With a little fortitude and perseverance, we can stay the course. 
Stay safe,
Jen Pickett, PhD

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