Taking the loneliness out of solitude

June 2006

By Dodge Morgan

If practice produces insight, then I should qualify as a solitude guru. I have spent more time solely with myself than anyone I know, mostly at sea. The more practice I have accumulated, the further from both ignorance and knowledge I become.

I am not even sure how to define solitude. The simple definition of solitude is the lack of a presence of others or, as Webster notes, “Solitude is the quality or state of being alone or remote from society.”

That simple definition is about as enlightening as describing a star as a bright pinpoint of light in the night sky, or a wave as a pressure gradient, or love as an emotional bonding with a brand of coffee as well as a person. Does the word mean a circumstantial lack of communication, of connection, with others? Is physical or intellectual isolation the significant component? Is it more isolating not to hear or not to be heard? Can the feeling of being alone be solitude as well as the actual act of physically being alone?

I know that solitude has little to do with loneliness since I have been lonelier in the middle of a huge city than I ever have at sea by myself. Obviously I need some conceptual help here.

The act of solitude is embracing to some and intimidating to others. Some of us use short breaks of solace to re-energize or to escape the confusion of the human anthill. Some of us avoid it like a virus. Some of us are addicted to it.

I love to sail alone but I also enjoy sailing with others. The two are very different experiences for me. When sailing alone, every act, every experience, stands by itself. When sailing with others, their very presence dominates. A sunset observed alone is there for me for its own sake. A sunset with others has to be shared and the sharing is the point. When alone, a coming about is routine, a sail change is a simple chore, a meal is a non-event, a nap is nothing but respite time focused on the sounds and motions of the sea and the wind. These same events in the company of others always take on an overriding sense of personal sharing that has very little to do with the event itself.

I certainly do make mistakes sailing alone, but find that fewer mistakes are made in total than when sailing with others. This is because several individually competent people doing a job together that I am used to doing alone can add some curious, at least to me, steps in the procedure that may or may not work.

Of course this means I am not much of an on-the-job communicator. I recall one time when Gary Jobson was sailing on Wings of Time with a large crew of mixed skills and I was astounded by how well he barked and assigned orders and each time got an untroubled execution. “Aha,” I thought, “group performance says don’t allow independent decisions of others to intrude on the process no matter whether that process is just right or almost right.”

I should know that. In running a business, I have always insisted that there is just one sheet of music and have resolutely communicated it to the others. But for some strange reason, in sailing, I tend to act as if there were no others. I do not tend to consider sailing as a group activity. This may be a critical flaw of so much solo sailing — acting alone even when there are others.

People like me who embrace solitude yet never get to fully understand it can become enigmas. If the solitude is devoted to sailing, the trip is at least compartmentalized there. I think I began on this strange trip as a boy the first time I sailed alone out of sight of land. And then I kept going there mentally as well as physically.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.