Digital detox: I went on an off-grid sailing trip to fix my toxic relationship with technology

I spent 10 days off grid on a sailing trip from Inverness to Belfast.
I spent 10 days off grid on a sailing trip from Inverness to Belfast.   -  Copyright  Marthe de Ferrer
By Marthe de Ferrer

I am completely and utterly addicted to technology. From my work phone to my personal phone to my iPad to my laptop to my smart watch - there is rarely a second in my day when I’m not looking at a screen.

The only time I’m not looking at screens is when I’m exercising. Even then, I’m likely to be back in my gym with a multitude of devices as the weather gets colder.

This is why, when offered a 10-day off-grid sailing trip on board the Snark, I was both incredibly keen and a little apprehensive. But I love being outdoors and have never been one to shy away from a challenge - so I decided to give it a go.

How to go offline in the first place

The ethos of the Snark, established by its wonderful crew Paul and Qiao, is all about connection and disconnection. They want you to disconnect from your normal life, providing “a temporary refuge from the trials and tribulations,” while connecting with others on board, the spectacular surroundings, and yourself.

This means they encourage phones to be stored away and ask guests not to walk around with headphones on or use other devices.

For someone who spends most of their day staring at screens, this was exactly what I needed.

Marthe de Ferrer
Paul and Qiao encourage people to disconnect from their normal life while on board.Marthe de Ferrer

Unlike in previous journalism jobs, it is a little easier for me to switch off in my current role. I turned my out-of-office on, left my work phone in the newsroom and I was away. Step one completed.

Step two was detaching myself from my own social media accounts - a somewhat harder task. I started to phase my usage out in the week before I left, hoping I could cut it out completely while on board the boat. It ended up being a lot easier than I thought. 

With my notifications switched off and a Twitter version of an out-of-office posted, I was feeling confident.

On to the next step: breaking up with my phone. As an adult with a husband, two dogs, a Ukrainian houseguest, a mortgage, and a fast-approaching wedding reception to plan - I knew a complete shutdown wouldn’t be possible.

I decided instead to create some rules for myself:

  • I could send one update to my family each day, mainly so they knew I was alive
  • I could leave notifications on in case of any familial or canine medical emergencies
  • I could maintain my 150-day Duolingo streak, but only by completing one short lesson a day ( that little green multilingual owl has a hold on my life that I can’t explain)
  • I could watch the women’s Euro 2022 final - but none of the post-match analysis (there was no part of me that was willing to miss the Lionesses making history)

For the final step, I needed to consider what I was allowed to do in my capacity as a travel journalist reviewing the trip. I knew I needed to photograph and film the journey and share the experience on social media.

I chose to allow myself a daily tweet, sharing photos from that day - but I couldn’t start to scroll or post about other things.

I decided I could also record as much as I wanted, but with no editing or assessing the content - just capturing, to minimise screen time.

Early success, freedom, and a hell of a lot of reading

Like I do with a lot of things, I threw myself head-first into this. I took my photos and videos but otherwise was pretty much entirely screen-free for the first five days.

The freedom from messaging apps, doom-scrolling and incessant emails allowed me to read six books cover to cover during my time on the boat.

I’m an avid reader at the best of times but have found myself in recent years with a growing stack of physical books that I can’t seem to tackle.

I bring books with me when I go on any trip and while they rarely go completely unread, I never manage more than a few pages in a single sitting. Between my ADHD and my love of Twitter, something always pulls me away.

Marthe de Ferrer
One of the many books I read while on board.Marthe de Ferrer

I couldn’t tell you the last time I read any book cover-to-cover within a single day, yet here I was, doing it six times in a row. Netflix, who?

I finished the books I’d brought with me so quickly that I didn’t know what to do with myself when I finished. Thankfully, Paul and Qiao have an extensive and eclectic library on board, which I gleefully delved into too.

In the end, I found myself connecting with books in a way I haven’t in over 20 years, not since I burned a hole in my duvet with a torch aged eight while reading past my bedtime.

I hadn’t noticed this fervour for reading slip away over the last two decades, but it definitely had as technology and screen time took over.

Did I manage to stick to my digital detox rules?

Remember those rules I set for myself? Well, I didn’t quite manage to stick to them.

I’m not saying I was tethering my laptop to my phone and streaming episodes of Gilmore Girls while ignoring the breathtaking scenery and the crew’s desperate pleas to unplug.

But I definitely didn’t follow my plan.

Marthe de Ferrer
Struggling with seasickness, screen time started to creep back in.Marthe de Ferrer

As we moved out into the sea, I found myself struggling with seasickness and reading while feeling nauseous has never been my strong suit.

Looking for something to distract myself, I turned to podcasts. I thought it was a good way to avoid looking at a screen but was still frustrated to be returning to technology only halfway through my challenge.

Thus began a slippery slope, as I started texting a little more, opening up a silly puzzle app, and even posting the occasional Instagram story towards the end.

Here’s why everyone should take a digital detox

The phrase ‘digital detox’ is something only terminally online people would ever utter. I do believe, however, that everyone who knows what the phrase ‘digital detox’ means should try and unplug more often.

While I definitely didn’t manage to spend the whole trip strictly offline it did help break a toxic cycle I’ve been in with technology for a long time.

Just having a chunk of time without constantly consuming content seemed to reset something in me. Sure, the very next day I started my 6am shift the next day and was straight back on social media - but when I finished work, I didn’t reach straight for Netflix. Instead, I decided to go for a walk.

Marthe de Ferrer
A digital detox was much needed for this screen addict.Marthe de Ferrer

The next day, I found myself reading a book for an hour before bed. The day after that I left my phone at home when I went into the office, and barely noticed. My screen-time tracker shows that I’ve more than halved how long I stare at my phone since going on the trip.

I’ll never be able to give up technology long-term, it’s too ingrained in all of our lives. To be honest, I don’t want to either. But I’ve sustained these healthier habits for almost two months now - and I feel so much lighter for it.

In the end, taking an off-grid trip helped me recapture a part of myself. The eight-year-old girl so enthralled by literature that she nearly burned her house down is still very much alive, but hopefully, now she’s a little less suffocated by technology.