What is it like being away from friends and family when you go to sea? Is it difficult to maintain relationships? How do you stay connected to immediate family members (spouse/partner, children, siblings, parents)? If it's lonely, how do you cope? Do you think this has affected your personality?
I'm sorry it's been three months since I last wrote a post - I've been deep in the throes of tackling a new job in a new place, and it's got me pretty overwhelmed. My sea sisters have been out there killing it, too, and I've happily followed their adventures from afar while trying to put off a swirling storm of blog drafts and thoughts filling my brain, waiting to be written. Before I start, please consider following my amazing maritime lady friends on instagram: Lia, Claire, Katie, Megan, Jill, Kim, Elinor, Liz, Jan, Amanda, Carly, Jill - and that's just a fraction of the women with whom I've connected personally via social media. There are many of us, and we are pretty awesome!
A few months ago I sent a message out to fellow sea sisters with the questions above; I had been thinking a lot about how much I've adapted to this lifestyle in the last seven years, how the industry and isolation has (or hasn't) changed me. Since we just wrapped up the holidays I felt like this would be a good time to take a look at these questions, because it's the toughest thing to be on a boat or ship out on the water and missing all the fun happening ashore: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, birthdays, weddings, and babies... When I'm ambivalent about a special occasion I'm missing, Christmas in particular, my mother gets mad at me: "your father [a ship captain] never cared about holidays either!" The difficult response to this is: you can't care, at least not too much. It hurts to care too much. If you torture yourself with thoughts of all the happy times you're missing ashore, you'll likely drive yourself crazy and quit going to sea. And most mariners I know really love their work and don't want to quit, so they adapt to a method of celebrating the good things when they come ashore. December 28th is not that different from December 25th, except for what's written in a calendar, so what's wrong with celebrating Christmas on a different day with your family when you get home? Or someone's birthday? It works, if you let it.
Relationships with family and friends take a considerable strain as well. When I first started sailing on oceangoing tugs, I spent a lot of time thinking no potential partner would wait for me because I was never around. When I did find myself in a relationship, I discovered that trust, independence, and communication were the pillars holding up our very foundation. Communication can take a lot of energy, and there have been friends that I have not been able to hold onto because having less and less time to connect and having less in common as life goes on means that you will inevitably grow apart. Sometimes you have to accept that friendships will be what they will be, and you can't force them. The people who remain in my circle are the ones with whom I have the energy to connect month after month, year after year, and they are the ones who are willing to wait until I am able to reach out.
I feel in some ways that the mariner lifestyle has made me a tougher or harder person; we cope with the loneliness by becoming rather cold and self-sufficient, and when we go home it may take a few days to get used to being around people again. When facing hostility at work in the past, I've become angry and bitter, internalized a lot of self-hate, and continued to take it out on my family when I returned from the boat. In these situations, I forgot that there was a world away from work where tugboats didn't matter that much and people would always accept me for who I am. It took a lot of time and experience to learn how to balance the effect of work on my personality and my connections with non-mariners (and I'm still learning), but one thing I know for certain is that staying open, staying vulnerable, is essential. While getting tough may help your career, it certainly won't help the people who love you.
My friend Megan has offered up her take on how loneliness at work affects her friendships and her personality, and I laugh as I read it because I identify with every word. Stay safe out there, and remember to reach out to the ones most important to you. Above all, stay true to yourself.