Man who spent 267 days sailing solo during the pandemic returns home: 'What did I miss?'

When Canadian Bert terHart set sail from British Columbia in late October last year to embark upon a months-long solo journey circumnavigating the globe, he anticipated that his own day-to-day life would dramatically change. What he couldn’t have imagined, however, is how the world he was leaving behind would also become unrecognizable, all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that would take hold just a few months later. TerHart also had no inkling that by traveling on his own — and going months without human contact and, by extension, exposure to the coronavirus — he’d make headlines as the so-called “safest person on the planet,” a moniker that made fellow sailors familiar with the risks involved with his trip bristle.

Roughly nine months after setting off to become the first North American to complete a nonstop circumnavigation via the five Great Capes without the aid of electronic navigational devices — a grueling adventure that saw treacherous weather conditions, delays, a food shortage and prolonged, extreme isolation — terHart has come home. On July 18, the married father of four arrived at Saxe Point Park in Victoria, B.C., where he was welcomed by family and friends — and promptly thrust into the realities of life under COVID-19.

“When I got back, the first thing I said was, ‘What did I miss?’” he tells Yahoo Life in the video interview above.

Speaking from his father’s house in Victoria, terHart — who first spoke to Yahoo Life in April, as his sailboat approached the South East Cape — reflected on the completion of his journey and why he felt “anxious” about coming back to civilization.

“In a nutshell, I've been sequestered completely, totally isolated from the rest of the world,” he says of the past year. “The closest human being to me actually was on the International Space Station because they're 35 miles that way [points up], and everybody else is 3,500 miles that way [points to the side]. So I was a long ways away from anything and everybody for a very long time, but it's the only way you can do it if you want to get around the world by yourself on a sailboat.”

Over the course of his 267-day trip, terHart, accompanied by a stuffed seal toy christened Sir Salty, encountered other humans just a few times since he set off: in November in San Francisco; in January in the Falklands; and in late May in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, where he was forced to stop for supplies after running out of food and diesel. On the latter journey, he got a taste of the COVID restrictions to come, as special protocols had to be set up in order to safely source and deliver his supples during lockdown.

The prospect of arriving home to a pandemic made terHart “really anxious about coming back,” he tells Yahoo Life. “I had some idea of what was going on with respect to COVID, but you can't fully understand or fully grasp it until you actually are immersed in it.”

TerHart says he soon recognized that the world as he knew it was on pause. And even after spending months on his own, it’s been a struggle to adjust to the “surreal” new norm of COVID restrictions, mask-wearing and avoiding handshakes and physical contact with old friends.

“I miss the closeness that used to be [there],” he says. “You could walk down the street and you could pass someone nearby and say, ‘excuse me, ‘and smile at them. And they would smile, and not everyone is automatically moving away from you, which is very odd. Because as human beings, we don't necessarily want all other human beings to constantly be, you know, migrating away from you. You suddenly feel like [you’re] a leper.

“It's a really, really harsh and brutal introduction to the new world,” he adds.

Though he was “fully expecting to have to spend another two weeks in isolation” given Canada’s strict lockdown restrictions, border officials made an exception given his unique situation. That said, he’s yet to return to his own home on Gabriola Island, which is particularly protective during the pandemic given its population of retirees.

While on the boat, terHart, a public speaker, IT entrepreneur and former captain and platoon commander in the Canadian army Special Service Force, “never felt isolated” because he stayed mentally occupied by keeping up a rigorous routine of manual sailing tasks, writing blog posts and responding to every single email he received.

“I never would allow myself the luxury of saying, ‘Well, I can always ... quit,” he says. “That was just never going to happen. So part of that ‘you’re never going to quit’ [mentality] is [realizing] that you're always going to be alone until you actually finish, and then you won't be alone anymore.”

But now, ironically, he’s struck by the sense of feeling alone while surrounded by other people.

“You're sort of existing in your own little world and, and everyone else is trying to do the same thing,” he says, adding that he misses once-mundane interactions and random acts of kindness.

There are, of course, “fantastic” moments of joy — like seeing his wife and family members. Sitting down for a meal with other people is a novelty, as is going to sleep without being strapped down to the bed — a sailboat precaution — or going to bed fully dressed because “it's just too hard to get undressed and dressed when the weather's terrible.”

Now that he’s off the boat, terHart has a few new challenges in mind, including potentially writing a book about his journey, and the unique circumstances surrounding it.

“Everyone says, ‘Oh, you know, you're going to change,’” he says of his history-making adventure. “‘So when you come back to us, you're going to be a changed person.’ ... But what's happened is that I've come back to a vastly different world ... No one thought that I would go away and the world would change dramatically in my absence.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

—Video produced by Stacy Jackman

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