Inside the latest issue of Pathfinder International, we showcase a plethora of information and tips on coping during lockdown in the COVID19 outbreak.

Here is a submariner’s take on things from Hugo Mitchell-Heggs of the Royal Navy and Team Leader of the HMS Oardacious crew, who completed the World’s toughest rowing race at the end of 2019.

Read the latest issue of Pathfinder here.  

During this period of new uncertainty, we felt it might be helpful to share our experience as Royal Navy Submariners, and more recently as Ocean Rowers. Whilst the experiences and practices may differ to what many are going through in their own homes, there are many useful practices and top-tips that have been engrained into our culture and ethos as “Isolation Professionals” that we hope could help:

1. Interaction
On a Submarine we live and work in close proximity with our shipmates, who become our friends and family for months on end. We rely on each other to fulfil our social needs, whilst also living in the hierarchical environment necessary to operate a nuclear submarine at sea. As far as contact with the outside world goes, we receive a weekly “Family-gram”; a 120-word message from our loved ones. This is our only connection to our families, to which we’re unable to respond, and it provides a snapshot of a parallel universe where friends and family are getting on with their daily lives. The brevity of the message means it doesn’t contain a lot of detail, but the impact to morale is from the fact that there’s someone out there thinking of us– don’t worry if you don’t feel like you have much of interest to say, just making an effort to connect with someone is an enormous boost for you and your friend.
During our Atlantic row we had a satellite phone that allowed each rower to make a short 5-minute phone call home every other day. This was invaluable for two reasons; it became part of our routine, something to look forward to as well as marking the passage of time; and it became our therapy – an outlet for talking through our highs and lows for encouragement and commiserations.

Top Tips:
• Take the time to make time for others every day. We are spoilt for choice with modern technology: so no excuses not to maintain contact, and to be creative with it. Consider others, perhaps older relatives or friend who needs that connection now, more than ever, or if you know of a neighbor who could be struggling, consider sharing your phone number with them with a note passed through their letterbox.
• Compassion, Empathy; many will be affected differently by some of the implications caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, from job security, childcare, homeschooling, anxiety, health concerns, loneliness to name but a few – a problem shared is a problem halved, share the load where you can by talking.

2. Routine
Whether you’re underwater on a submarine or drifting across the Atlantic Ocean on a rowing boat for weeks on end, it’s easy to lose sight of time which in turn can have a drastic effect on motivation, mental health and purpose.
Submariners live for routine; it breaks down a deployment into a structure that everyone can buy into and benefit from. We mostly work in six hour blocks of time, alternating on and off duty, or ‘watch’, from the warfare watchkeepers in the control room, the chefs in the Galley, the Weapons engineers in the Missile Compartment and “Bomb Shop” (the Torpedo compartment) and of course, the Marine Engineer watchkeepers overseeing the Nuclear Reactor, Propulsion and other essential Ship’s systems. Our routine is broken down into professional and social milestones, whether it’s our “Battle-Rhythm” of planning and command meetings that take place throughout the patrol or the meals that our chefs provide us (Fish Fridays, Steak Saturdays and Pizza Night on Sundays); this structure helps differentiate our days, weeks and the months that we’re away. Down time is crucial to a successful and sustainable deployment, as such we are mindful to avoid burning our teams out, taking individual and team wellbeing into consideration.
We maintained a similar, though slightly more brutal, daily routine during our Ocean row, each rowing 2 hours on 2 hours off, though our ‘off’ period included all boat and self-care maintenance, including navigation and boat maintenance. We each ‘owned’ a piece of the more detailed routine, which gave us purpose, while also ensuring the wellbeing of crew and equipment without collapsing into chaos and burn-out.

• Top Tips: build a structure to your days and your week. If working from home try to map out your domestic and professional “battle-rhythm” and find the balance that works for you: work, downtime, socialising (digitally), and importantly exercise!

3. Exercise
It is no secret that exercise has such a positive impact on both the body and mind; it helps us release those feel good chemicals, helps us sleep better, and to cope with the inevitable stress and anxiety from 24-hour news cycle. I’ve always been impressed with the creativity of submariners; with space being such a premium there is not a designated “Gym” on a submarine; we find the nooks and crannies of space onboard, free weights in the Torpedo compartment and Cardio machines and pull up bars dotted around the Missile Compartment (scattered between the Trident Ballistic Missiles). The creativity of submariners often goes even further, we create ship’s company competitions – often a body weight circuit or rowing machine challenge, a simple concept that gets the whole crew involved, and breaks up the patrol with something fun and engaging.
Obviously, we weren’t short of exercise on the row, but the rowing during the Ocean crossing was almost the simple bit. The 18 months of preparation in the build-up was the real challenge, maintaining a steady, but intense regime when just getting the start line seemed so far away. It’s easy to put off a training session until tomorrow, and then the next day, and then…. We spent months committing time and effort to sticking to a plan, fitting it into a routine, doing the training, managing rest, recovery and nutrition. We had to keep the bigger picture in our mind’s eye, each individual session was getting us closer to a more competitive race.

• Top Tip: Work-Out from Home; there are many ways to creatively enjoy exercise whether it’s a walk (whilst respecting all social distancing guidelines) or with a housebound workout from home/garden. The important thing is to set yourself goals and take realistic steps to work towards achieving them – if you can find fun ways of taking these steps, or turn it into a team competition then that’s even better! But don’t forget to rest, make time for recovery (sleep is invaluable), and throw in the injury prevention extras (yoga, Pilates, stretching etc. – there are free apps and videos everywhere). Plan your exercise, treat it as importantly as any other aspect of your professional commitments and fit it into your routine. Try and see this period as an opportunity to change your perspective on exercise.

4. Nutrition
Submarine chefs are some of the most creative and hard-working people I’ve had the privilege of working with; catering for over 150 people and working around the clock in a 6 square-metre “galley” to feed the crew and provide healthy and enjoyable food. Meals, or in Navy-Speak “Scran” forms an integral part of our routine – it breaks up the day and adds to the weekly structure. Beyond the nutritional benefits, it also gives us a sit-down moment to chat and bond with our shipmates away from work. We enjoy a treat too – “10 O’Clockers” or “4 O’clockers”; a simple treat or snack (Tunnocks’ Tea cakes, chocolate or the Chefs might bake something up) – a treat that breaks up the day even further, a bit of morale and something to look forward to. Looking ahead in a four-month patrol can be overwhelming, perhaps like the idea of a 12-week isolation period feels to you right now, but by breaking it into segments it can feel far more manageable.
During our Atlantic crossing we were rowing over 12 hours and burning through 8,000 calories each per day. We relied on cold re-hydrated dry rations (not quite as appetizing as a teacake), a lot of biltong, meal replacement supplements and snack bars. It was a different experience, the purpose of our food served two purposes – fuel and morale! We aimed to consume approx. 7,000 calories each per day to replace what we’d burned (we lost 18Kg each over 37 days of rowing). One of the morale foods, Haribo or “Morale-ibo”, whilst nutritionally pretty pointless served a purpose to get us through the long dark rainy nights.

• Top Tips: Take time to prepare meals, plan them and make an effort to learn and try something new – there are so many options and its’ so easy take a bit of pride in treating meals as more than just fuel; take a risk and push yourself for an instant reward. If you are fortunate enough to be living with someone else, take it in turns, surprise each other, plan a themed meal, be creative, and most importantly, treat meal times as a moment to reconnect, away from work and hit that re-set button.

• Snacks, treats, rewards and cheat days; these have their place, we’re not all competing for a team GB Olympic spot where our bodyfat percentage could cost our job so enjoy something naughty every now and again, treat the treat as a treat! It will make it so much more enjoyable and deserved.

5. Hobbies and Learning
Learning and challenging ourselves keeps the mind busy, stimulates neural pathways in the brain, helping us absorb more information and manage stress. It’s good for our health, and it helps us discover our own potential that can be exciting and rewarding. On a submarine you will see the majority of the crew learning, whether its revising for that next professional challenge or a more personal challenge; such as learning a language, studying for a qualification – GCSEs, A-Levels, I even had one of my Engineering Technicians crack the bulk of a law degree on patrol! It’s important to have hobbies to keep our minds active and stretch ourselves.
Rowing for 2 hour shifts 6 times a day for 37 days can become mind numbing and repetitive; whilst there was ample conversation and banter, we also tried to fit our hobbies and learning into the rowing shifts (the 2 hours rest were already too busy trying to squeeze boat admin, eating and sleep in). We regularly listened to audiobooks and podcasts through a speaker on deck or headphones, it gave us somewhere to keep our minds rather than drifting into our own thoughts, especially at night time when we were often too tired to engage each other in conversation. We got through a library of audiobooks and podcasts.

• Top Tips: During periods of isolation there are so many creative ways we can keep our minds busy and enjoy fulfilling hobbies. What have you always wanted to try that you didn’t have time for before? Can you finally start that distance/online learning course? Can you learn a new language (I’m 10 days into basic Spanish on Duolingo… Gracias!)?

6. Hygiene & Cleanliness
Every department on a submarine takes great pride in ensuring their part of ship is well organised, clean and tidy. We fit cleaning into our daily routine, it removes chaos and more importantly helps us remain safe (secured properly for sea). Likewise, this good “husbandry” culture lends itself to looking after our kit that we rely on, live around and ultimately could save our lives. Personal pride is also important, how we present and maintain ourselves is just as important as the kit we maintain. Personal hygiene and personal care are important for both our health (avoiding infection, illness and spread of germs/viruses) and also for social reasons and the impact it has on those around us. By starting with our own basic personal standards, we set that example and are able to take pride into other aspects of our daily lives. As submariners, showers are almost considered a luxury. If we’re lucky, we have a daily 1 minute “submariners’ shower”: 30 seconds water on for “pre-wetting”  water off  lather up  30 second water on “rinse”. We often need to impose water restrictions for a range of operational reasons or to ration water, so our short shower every day could become every other day, perhaps even once a week. There are other ways to maintain our cleanliness standards and hygiene (bird bathing in the sink, wet wipes etc) so doing our best, being adaptable is part of the job. The ultimate reward is that first ‘post patrol’ shower, a long shower or as we call it in the service a “Hollywood”.
Confinement to a rowing boat comes with its challenges; we rowed on deck, but the space also served as our dining room, toilet, shower, workshop etc. We made sure we cleaned each rowing position after each watch and tried to do a whole boat clean most days (cabins and main deck). We regularly had flying fish landing on deck which was fine during the day as you could throw them straight back in the sea; the issue was at night time, we couldn’t see what landed on deck and you’d regularly find dead fish at first light. Keeping the boat and ourselves clean was crucial to our health and avoiding infections. Our bodies took an absolute beating, rest was a premium, skin was eaten away by salt sores so doing our best to wet wipe and moisturize every off watch was essential to sustaining our basic wellbeing.

• Top Tips: Personal care, even if you’re isolated or working from home, maintain your own personal standards, keep it in your routine. Shower first thing, it will help wake you up and is the first step into starting a new day.
• Keep on top of your Home care, fit it into your daily and weekly routine and tidy up as you go. This will be particularly important over the coming weeks as your homes become your office, living space, gym, dining room etc.

7. FUN
Fun brings us together, it helps us manage our stress levels and breaks us away from monotony. As Submariners we pride ourselves on maintaining a good humour, even through the toughest of times. Fitting fun into a submarine patrol is a key part of interacting with those around us, striking that balance in our routine and making time for downtime. Fun comes in many forms, and can be as simple a bit of on watch banter or can be more creative and scheduled. We play uckers (a strategy version of Ludo), run a ship’s company quiz on a Sunday evening and some platforms even have some of the trainee officers run a weekly amateur radio show. It all helps that routine, that community spirit and helps us get through the grind of being away for months at a time.
On the row we had each other, a team, we made time for fun to get through the monotony of rowing and enjoy each other’s company. Banter was essential (I’ve never played “would you rather” more in my life) and being creative with how to have fun helped break up the trip into milestones. We set ourselves the goal of each being able to deliver a Karaoke song… or Kara-Row-Kay song on Christmas Day where the song had to be about rowing (Bohemian Row’psody, Country Rows and the like). It was stupid but it gave us each a week to think it through, practice a few variants and deliver some absolute gold only recorded in our memories (and that of a few flying fish that might have survived).

• Top Tips: It’s not difficult to be creative, find your fun, fit it into your day. It helps our mood, boosts our immune system (don’t quote me on this) and will help reduce stress.

These are but a few insights into our lives as Submariners and Ocean rowers; every single one of the points above links back to mental health and wellbeing. Making time for these 7 topics will put you in good stead to be able to adapt in these times of uncertainty, perhaps in an extended period of isolation. Adaptability is a key skill we try to engrain in our Submariners. We work together to adapt to the ever-shifting landscape and environment we operate in. Much like a Submarine patrol or endurance rowing race, we will need to adapt, show resilience, creativity and most importantly teamwork to get through the times ahead. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, we should consider that we are now at the start line with a challenge to complete, together, and get to that finish line.

We hope this information has been informative and helps you through this period of uncertainty. We value your feedback so do message us your stories, how you are coping with this shift in dynamic:
Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives!