Cal Major survived on the waters without her family, friends or the pace of normal life for over two months. Here, she talks to Strong Women’s Chloe Gray about the lessons on mental and physical resilience she learnt from her experience, and how she’s translating that into her lockdown life.
My Paddle Against Plastic campaign began as a vehicle to talk to people about the huge environmental crisis we are facing right now. But rather than doom and gloom, I wanted to give a positive message and show people what we can actually do to positively affect the situation.
I began with an expedition around Cornwall in 2016, then, in 2017, I took on 12 day paddle around the Isle of Sky in Scotland in. It lasted 12 days, and I was totally alone. I think I walked past just one single person the entire time. A year later, I decided to take on a second challenge, paddling the length of the country, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. That evolved into being about something much more than just plastic.
A few weeks into planning the trip, I lost one of my best friends to suicide. This adventure suddenly became about demonstrating the importance of connecting to nature and driving a desire to want to protect our natural world, but also for protecting our own mental health and wellbeing and how those two are interrelated.
That trip lasted for 59 days. I managed to see friends and family occasionally when I got to land, but for the majority of the time I was alone on the water. Having nobody to rely on for that time really helped me to find my own strength and to realise just how powerful I am in my own life. It showed me my own physical strength, getting through situations like strong tidal races and gale force winds, but also my mental resilience as I was alone when making crucial decisions.
These are the lessons I’ve taken from that experience into lockdown, and you should too.
Think of the bigger picture
On the water, there were definitely days when I was counting down the minutes until I could hang up my paddle and get home, but I never gave up because I had a real purpose behind what I was doing. Knowing that what I was doing was going to help other people helped me as well.
That’s no more relatable than now, when it feels like by sitting at home we are achieving nothing. If we can connect ourselves to something that’s bigger than our individual situation, it becomes so much easier to keep going and to keep moving forward. If we can connect our own isolation experiences to helping the NHS or vulnerable people, and know that our sacrifices are so crucial, it will help.
Have an endurance mindset
My longest days on the water were 64 miles, which took about 20 hours. My mind would constantly think about the next mile and the mile after that, and it felt impossible to get to the end. When I brought it back to the present moment and just focused on what was going on here and now, everything became so much easier.
This, I suppose, is a form of mindfulness. Thinking about the fact that lockdown could go on for weeks or months is panic-inducing. So rather than your mind spiraling into how hard things will get one week, two weeks, three weeks down the line, think about what you are doing right now. Find mindfulness in the mundane. Be very present in everyday activities, such as having a shower and making dinner. It sounds so simple but it’s brought so much joy to my time in isolation, knowing that I can find peace in any single moment.
Similarly, it’s very easy to be bogged down in the negatives of our current world. I think it’s hard at the moment because we don’t feel like it’s okay to be positive given the situation, but it’s really important to focus on these things to make sure we are healthy and happy enough to help other people. If I’m feeling stressed, I focus on five or 10 things that I feel grateful for. When I was on the water, that was taking a minute to acknowledge how very, very fortunate I was to be able to see the world as I was.
Connect with nature
I appreciate that this is going to be very different for everybody at this point in time because not everybody is able to go outside or to have nature around them. But I think connection is really vital. Both physically getting out into the garden if you can, or even spending time nurturing houseplants, and also mentally, so learning about nature, watching nature documentaries or reading nature books. It’s so powerful to remember you’re part of the wider, natural world, even when you can’t appreciate it fully. It will inspire an awe or wonder that you wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise.
It’s completely normal that we’re all going to feel a little bit demotivated when it comes to exercise. I think the important thing is to just start. Everyone thinks I must have been motivated every day on my trip, but no. The first half an hour was hell. Then things got easier. They always get easier.
The key is acknowledging that something is going to be hard. If you go into it thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park then as soon as it starts to get a little bit hard you’re going to give up. Understanding things are difficult makes them easier.
Doing an at-home workout is of course different to having to complete a two-month-long challenge, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still give you a sense of achievement, especially if you’re feeling a little lost right now. Exercise has been the single most important thing to keep me going and to quell any anxiety. Once the endorphins kick in, it connects you with your body and your mind.
Be kind to yourself
With exercise, work, or any part of this new routine, the key is to go gently. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If all you can start with is a gentle yoga class, then start with that and build it up.
But this isn’t just about letting yourself off the hook, either. You need to remember your values, what is important to you, and stick to that on a daily basis.