Optimizing the confinement experience: 5 tips from a former submarine captain

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the confinement of half of the world’s population. This is an unprecedented situation for most of us. So how to react, stay positive, and restore regularity? We asked Fabrice d’Ornano, a former submarine captain of the French Navy.
  • Establishing new reference points
Adapt your own daily routine
Bringing gentle attention to yourself and others, making the most of having more free time, setting a new intellectual and physical routine: What if this involuntary confinement period were an opportunity to refocus on the essential?

Fabrice d’Ornano is the Exploitation and Project Director of the Saint-Gobain Tower. But he is also a former nuclear submarine captain of the French Navy. Confinement is therefore a familiar subject to him... And yet he willingly admits: “This situation is very different from any other that I have been through, mainly because this confinement is involuntary. We did not choose to remain shut up in our homes, even if it is for a good cause; and we were not prepared for it.” 

Through the years he spent under the water’s surface – cooped up for 70 days at a time with 110 men in a 153 yard-long tin can – Fabrice d’Ornano developed a sort of “tool kit” that he is happy to share with us. 


“During this unsettling period, you must be attentive of, and considerate to, yourself,” he explains. Indeed, during a prolonged confinement, your psychological state varies, fluctuating between phases of well-being and unease. “That is a normal response to a profound change of pace that was not of your choosing: life in confinement is not natural, and it creates imbalances. What is important is to be aware of that and to accept it... Humans have exceptional adaptation abilities, but accepting a limitation is a prerequisite for adapting to it. And keep in mind that everyone is in the same boat.”


Speaking of which, for Fabrice d’Ornano, “Feeling like part of the crew can bolster your spirit when you are facing an unusual, significant restriction. On a submarine, the seamen have a strong connection: each one’s life depends on the others. As a submarine captain, my life was also in the hands of the young quartermaster behind the sonar who could save the crew by detecting a danger, such as a fishing trawler ahead, quickly enough.” 

So remember to pull together, whether it’s with your friends, your family, your colleagues or even your boss... “These meetings are an opportunity to discuss things and see that everyone is undergoing the same kind of experience. Sharing a hardship brings people together and makes the constraint more bearable,” he explains. “This connection is important to us and to others, perhaps even keeping some from going under.” 

Indeed, during these periods of social distancing, we are more vulnerable, and our psychological chinks and cracks become more prominent. This is especially the case for individuals living alone: “Finding yourself alone for weeks on end is a very strange experience, and it can be a risky one when it is undesired and imposed on someone who is unprepared.” 


So how to stay afloat? According to the former submarine captain, the key is first to create a “routine.” “We all need meaning, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. So (re)creating a daily routine during the confinement period is what enables us to look forward, to manage the everyday and to pace ourselves throughout the week. The idea is that at the end of the day, you feel useful, you feel like you’re getting somewhere.” 

But don’t go too far, warns Fabrice d’Ornano: don’t set excessive, unattainable objectives. “To succeed in establishing a daily discipline and sticking to it in the long run, you must be attentive to yourself, be considerate of yourself, set simple objectives, and keep in mind the little pleasures. Maintain down-time on a day off to keep from feeling like you always have to be involuntarily disciplined and contained.”


During confinement, our physical activity is drastically reduced, and caloric expenditure goes down with it. You can easily gain weight, which you might not feel good about.

“Without setting unrealistic objectives, which can be frustrating, it is a good idea to establish a daily physical training workout. You can do a lot with very little equipment (push-ups, sit-ups, stretching, and so on), and your exercise session can be a time you share with loved ones,” suggests Fabrice d’Ornano.


And most importantly, the former submarine captain recommends that we enjoy ourselves: that we take some time out for those little things that make us happy. “René Char said it well: ‘The essential is constantly threatened by the insignificant.’ This confinement period is also an opportunity to take time for ourselves that we weren’t taking before and to look at things from another point of view: a less urgent one. Take time to read, to get close to others, to reflect, to get back to what you consider essential, and to put things in perspective.” 

In the end, “What’s important is to be considerate of yourself,” concludes Fabrice d’Ornano. “There is no single answer that will help everyone through this difficult period. We are all vulnerable. Remember to be attentive to yourself, be considerate of yourself, be honest with yourself when you are going off the rails, avoid being isolated, engage in human relations, share things with others and know that you can depend on others: resilience comes from knowing you are part of the crew.” 

Photo credits: Shutterstock / Saint-Gobain