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Chris Nicholson: Coping strategies for social distancing

Chris Nicholson

As a veteran of six round the world yacht races Australian yachtsman Chris Nicholson knows a thing or two about the stresses of living in confined spaces for extended periods of time. Now, as families around the world come to terms with the prospect of weeks of home isolation in response to the current global pandemic, he offers up some personal thoughts and strategies on how best to cope.

Chris Nicholson

I was recently asked to put some thoughts on restricted personal spaces and living in a restricted space.
My occupation for the last 20 years has been as an offshore sailboat racing professional. In this time I have raced six times around the world, plus about 12 Transatlantic crossings, as well as sailing with my family from Europe to Australia (14 months on a yacht with the family). This adds up to me having spent about five years of my life in a confined space with limited social interaction. (My mates will laugh and understand why I am the way I am.)

I hope I can offer some suggestions on what it takes to not only get through the experience, but to use the opportunity to come out the other side a better person with a more enlightened perspective on friends / family and appreciating the simple things.

Firstly, you have to get your head around what you are about to do.

Our government here in Australia has lowered us into the pot slowly. We have the choice to tell ourselves that the water is either boiling in the pot or we can tell ourselves that the water is warm, and we may have a swim around for some time.

NewsletterIt’s pretty easy to understand: if you convince yourself that it’s boiling, then it going to hurt and it’s going to hurt for a long time. I truly believe people always underestimate their own mental capacity. If you go back in history and look at what humans have endured as individuals and as a species, then you know that you will get through this.

Now the questions we should all ask ourselves are: In what shape do I want to come out of this? and Is it possible to come out of it a better person with new–found appreciations in so many areas you never thought of?

I can answer this with 100 per cent certainty that it is all possible.

Each time after a I completed one of the nine-month races around the world I am given a reminder about what’s important: family, friends, the environment, and how you treat people. It’s a profound experience and it’s one that the majority of the world is now – or is about to – experience.

We are already seeing people band together over the internet to communicate and support each other in ways we hadn’t dreamt of three months ago. This needs to be balanced with the fact many, many people will struggle, and we need to be there for them.

When I race around the world it is simply a race. I always considered it important. It is my job and I love doing it, but at the same time I find it an extremely difficult thing to do. It is constantly challenging but rewarding to be within a small team at times facing adversity, but it’s also completely fascinating dealing with different personalities in stressful situations. Sound familiar? The big difference is that our ‘race’ now is how to look after the vulnerable people in our society and to emerge with a viable economy on the other side of this.

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As I write this it is amazing how similar some things are but at the same time there are some big differences. When I look at our world at the moment, I feel like we are having that “Ah!” moment. Yes, it’s the biggest thing we will probably see in our lifetimes, but for the world as a whole it’s simply smaller than a grain of sand on the beach.

Yes, we will fight it with everything we have, but perhaps there needs to be more thought about overpopulation and overuse of our environment. Yes, we know the only way our economies work is by expanding, but we may also be seeing some signs of nature very politely warning us of our excesses.

Respect is going to be an important factor for all of us in months ahead.

Firstly, you have to show yourself some respect and look after yourself in a way that doesn’t impact on the people around you. It can be as simple as having some time out or laying down and thinking about the good things, looking for the positive side in things. Or perhaps it means having more salt on your food. Why? Because apart from the hardened arteries it will keep your head in a good place. You have to learn about yourself and what makes you tick.

Respect for each other. Whilst you are learning and adapting to this new temporary way of life you need to respect and understand that everyone else is going through in their own way. Be there to help them if you can, be clear with your communications, and be a good person!

Chris Nicholson
Image © Thierry Martinez/team AkzoNobel

Professionalism in yacht racing generally means we avoid attitude problems, as people are being paid and generally operating at the top of their game. We won’t have this luxury in the months ahead so remember the culture or atmosphere you create around you will influence others. If you continually drag your arse, then you will eventually wear everyone else down. If you are always trying hard to do well, then you will thrive – and equally your positive attitude will rub off on those around you.

Mental and physical fitness are very interconnected. If you are in a good space mentally then you will find it easier to do some physical exercise. You don’t need to run a marathon, but you need to do enough to stimulate your brain, so it knows you have done something. Look at this as an opportunity to improve yourself.

From a mental fitness perspective, the main points I want to reinforce are:

  • Accept that you are in this for the long ride and that, no matter what, you will see it through. Don’t kid yourself that it will be over soon. Prepare for the long road and you will be pleasantly surprised if it ends early.
  • Recognise that this situation has an end point and that you have the chance to be a better person at the end of it, your choice!
  • You will adapt and change along the way, monitor yourself and write down notes or record a video diary.
  • Limit your exposure to the bad news. Currently we are absorbing a great deal of bad news but a lot of it is repetition. Don’t get into the trap of watching the same bad news over and over again.
  • Look for and recognise the good things in your situation.
  • Help those around you when you can, as this will also help you to get through this.

I have used hypnosis a lot at different times to keep my head in the right space. I am not completely sure if it’s what you would call hypnosis as such, but it’s a time – usually just before sleep – when you have the chance to clear your head of stresses that are going on, and you get to think about the good things you have in your life, or you visualise the good things you can do in the future. Try it, it’s free and can really open up some avenues for you to explore and learn about what makes you tick.

Most of what I have covered so far comes from my experience of racing in confined spaces, but I have also sailed with my wife and two young boys from Europe to Australia. That trip took 14 months and in that time we stayed onboard the yacht the whole time. Do tempers fray occasionally? Yes of course they do and that is all part of it. What’s important is demonstrating respect for each other and not letting things get out of hand. Realise what important in the big picture.

I am a shocker at times for being hypersensitive. I know the problem and I understand it and recognise that I need to keep an eye on it. Knowing yourself and managing things like this is super important when in close quarters for a long period of time.

I was equally fascinated and worried about how my kids would cope with this global problem. After talking with many people about kids that find themselves out of their comfort zone, I have come to realise just how adaptable they are. I have been amazed by their level of understanding; they may not agree but kids nowadays surprise me with how much more they understand about their surroundings than when I was their age.

The pandemic is a particular challenge for parents who will be more involved with home schooling. This was both difficult for my wife and my kids, mainly because it’s quite intense compared to the kids’ normal day at school. It’s a lot of one-on-one at home and sometimes it can go bad. Again, learn about yourself and your kids and adapt. It’s certainly more intense learning than what they have been used to in the classroom.

Some people will question if there is light at the end of the tunnel, the answer is of course there is because it has always been this way. In the end nature will do what it needs to do. The dinosaurs once had a pretty good handle on things. Now it’s our turn and to a certain extent we can use this tragic scare in a positive way for us all to change for the better.

Look after yourself, your friends, your family, and be a good person.

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As well owning and operating the Doyle Sails Lake Macquarie loft in Australia, Chris Nicholson has also partnered with brand and marketing expert Nathalie Quéré to create W | OCEAN RACING – a specialist company aimed at managing and delivering impactful professional sailing and ocean racing campaigns and providing turnkey solutions and integrated services to brands and sponsors.

With 25 years of combined expertise and experience – which covers every aspect of running a successful campaign: commercial, financial, general management, operations, hospitality, marketing, media and communications, custom yacht design, construction and, of course, racing – they are fully equipped to manage a competitive and impactful campaign which will meet your ambitions and deliver on your objectives.

Chris and Nathalie are currently working on a project to enter a team in The Ocean Race 2021-22.

Stay tuned for more details and follow W|OCEAN RACING:


Main image © Hamish Hooper/CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand