Self-reflection at sea: the first independent journey

February 20, 2020

We’ve made it to Panama! I wrote this entry between Dominica and Panama. In Panama, we had our first independent journey.

The third leg of our journey started in Dominica. Dominica is amazingly green. It’s even more green than the Netherlands. On Dominica, we visited the Rastafari. We hiked to the boiling lakes, which was an eight-hour hike. When we returned from the hike we spent three days with the Rastafari, which was a fantastic experience. They provided us with delicious food and we did some fun activities together. I wrote an assignment about the culture of the Rastafari when I got back to the ship.

We also celebrated Christmas on Dominica. There was a huge buffet with lots of food, and we were given the gift boxes that our parents packed for us before we left. Mine had lots of M&Ms in it, a new t-shirt, and a USB stick with a film and some Christmas greetings from my family on it. It was really special to hear from home on Christmas day – my first away from my family.

Christmas tree aboard the Thalassa: School at Sea

From Dominica, we went to Curaçao. Curaçao felt a bit like home. Quite a few of us, including me, went to the Albert Heijn (Dutch) supermarket which felt good after not having seen one for almost three months – it was great to stock up on home comforts.

After Curaçao, we went on to Panama. We anchored in the bay at Portobelo and Mr Adam Caller, founder and CEO of Tutors International, came to visit us. After a couple of days, we went on to the San Blas islands where we took part in a survival experience. We were dropped on the island with our gear and some food. There we had to build our own shelters, make a fire, and cook our own food. It was a real taste of independence – challenging but inspiring.

After cleaning up and saying goodbye to the Indians on San Blas, we went back to Portobelo and started our individual exploration journeys. I was in a group with three girls, two other boys and our beloved mentor Pascal. First, we went to Panama City. We spent three days there because one of the other boys and I had to go to hospital; I got a skin rash which itched so much it kept me awake at night. But the hospital treated it well and it cleared up after a week.

From Panama City, our travel group went to David, which was eight hours by bus. We waited for Pascal to catch up with us there because he had some unfinished business in Panama City. From David, we went to Bocas del Toro, which also took us eight hours. There we stayed in a lovely hostel called Flying Pirates. It was quite a challenge to work out what trips to do together because we couldn’t split up the group. So, we spent a lot of time discussing our plans and changing them around. Pascal says we have a lot to learn about compromising and he hopes we will do better in Cuba. He will be going home after this trip. He gave me some very insightful feedback: it’s okay to withdraw from the pressure of the group if that’s what I need to do, but I should be careful not to get left out because my input is worth hearing. This is a valuable lesson and one I am determined to learn from as my School at Sea voyage continues.

In terms of schoolwork, I studied a lot of economics material during this period and I sat my test. So, I have now finished my first set of tests, and I’m currently working on the second round. I’m pleased to be making good progress on my schoolwork while still enjoying the travel aspect of the journey. With input from my school mentor Marian, I figured out that I get more work done if I focus on a single subject for a whole day. I completed nearly all my physics and biology work in a couple of days so I can get those tests out of the way soon too. I hope I can also make this strategy work for my other subjects.

The watches on board have been thought-provoking too. I learned how to sail in 8 Beaufort winds, and we studied the sextant. I wasn’t watch leader very often, but I did notice on my watches that I find it challenging to keep my focus until the end of my watch. I’ll be working on this during the next leg of our voyage.

Working in the kitchen with my team was a bit difficult at first – it involves a lot of communication, compromise, and organisation. So we decided to discuss our issues with the captain, and after that, things were much improved. The cook left us at Curaçao, so now we have to organise our own kitchen duties. We bake the bread (which we do really well!), plan the meals, and keep an eye on the stores. The cook noticed that I try really hard in the kitchen but that I sometimes get the logistics mixed up. She is positive that I’ll sort it out, though. She gave me a handy tip that I’ll live by in future: don’t boil the couscous! 😉

Communication skills remains a tricky competency for me, so I’m very conscious of continuing to improve my performance there. The first time I had to hoist the sponsor flag it set really nicely on the forestay. However, the second time we tried to put it up higher, I couldn’t coordinate the hoisting and fastening of the flag well enough; there was too much tension on the corners and the flag got damaged. In hindsight, I don’t think that went well at all – something to learn from.

The other situation I would like to reflect on is the teamwork element of the journey through Panama. We spent a lot of time discussing what we wanted to do, so when we finally decided to go cycling, there weren’t enough rental bicycles left for us. We ended up walking around town and shopping for a bit. I didn’t really mind as long as we didn’t all day at the hostel, so didn’t really care if we went cycling or walking. All in all, I think it turned out fine; everybody enjoyed themselves, though walking may not have been our group’s first choice. Perhaps we need to work on making group decisions and compromises more quickly, and also recognise that ‘plan B’ can also work out well.

For the next part of our journey, I would definitely like to get better at communicating and working together. There is room for improvement in all the competencies I have been challenged with, but in particular, improving my communications would be very useful for my schoolwork. I think focusing on working together is a good idea because I naturally prefer to work by myself; sometimes that’s fine, but at other times group work has a better outcome. I want to be able to do both well, and I’m going to incorporate both into my schoolwork planning consciously.

Lots to reflect on, as you can see – but overall, I am amazed at how much I am getting to know myself through this adventure. Being in a group for an extended time, often at sea without contact with the rest of the world, really brings your own qualities into the spotlight. I don’t think I would be getting to know myself half as well if I was still at school; the opportunities for self-reflection and personal growth don’t exist there in the same way. This really is a lifechanging experience for me.