Stranded in paradise

Team
April 20, 2020

By Håkon Åmdal, Software Engineer

My name is Håkon Åmdal. In September 2018, I switched jobs and started as a Software Engineer in Spacemaker. I wanted to work in a smaller, more agile environment with high velocity and Spacemaker offered me exactly that.

In 2019, my significant other and I decided we wanted to “sail the world.” In our case, this meant taking a year off to sail from Norway to the Caribbean and back, commonly referred to as “Melkeruta” in Norwegian. We had close to no experience sailing, and we did not own a boat yet, but as we were both software engineers, we knew one thing: The boat was going to be named “Hello World.”

Spacemaker was very understanding of my wish for a sabbatical. Not only would they let me take a year off, but they offered me a part-time position in the Boston-based Discover squad, whose goal is to impact the direction of Spacemaker by working on research-intensive product innovations with a much longer timeframe. It was the most suitable team for a software engineer turned digital nomad on high seas.

We left Hello World’s home port of Stavanger in July 2019, in a rush towards Las Palmas. Our route took us through the east coast of Denmark, Germany, through the canals in Netherlands, France, the channel islands, Northwest Spain, Portugal’s west coast, and then to the Canary Islands. We saw so many beautiful places; each place would be deserving of a blog post of its own.

"For the world has changed and we must change with it." - Barack Obama

At the same time, I needed to be brutally honest with myself and the Spacemaker team. My original plan to work frequently while checking into various co-working spaces in Europe did not materialize, as it turns out that sailing and the upkeep of a blue water yacht is indeed a full-time job. So, together with the management team, we turned the idea of working part-time into a full-time sabbatical.

Sunset programming in the Saint Martin lagoon. Photo: Marte Løge

We set off from Las Palmas November 24th and, 17 days later, made landfall in St. Lucia, one of the islands in the Lesser Antilles. Since then, we’ve been cruising the islands in the island chain, meeting interesting people and exploring beautiful places.

Fast forward to COVID-19…

A month ago, we (naïvely) thought we’d chosen the perfect year for our adventure with all this “Corona stuff” going on in Asia and Europe. The graveness of the situation did not dawn on us until we started receiving numerous messages from worried family and friends. We cross borders regularly and suddenly realised that it would be just a matter of time before the Caribbean was going to shut down too, leaving us stuck somewhere for the foreseeable future. To make matters worse, we learned that our travel insurance was not going to cover us for COVID-19 related health treatments, as the policy was signed in early February, after the outbreak in China.

We were right. All the islands are currently shut down with closed borders and curfews. A boat that leaves a country will not be able to enter any other, stranding it on the ocean. Here’s a story of a Norwegian sailboat in Curaçao threatened to be towed out in the open ocean by the Dutch coastguard.

We made it to St. Martin. St Martin is a French island, which means we’re technically in the European Union. We, therefore, have the health benefits from home, and perhaps more importantly, free 4G coverage (“roam like home”). The infrastructure here is good, supermarkets are cheap and well-stocked, and boatyards and boat supply stores are plentiful. We’re in a saltwater lagoon, which means we are sheltered from ocean swell and wind. A good place to be Corona-stuck.

Working on the dock at Shrimpy’s Laundry, my new office. Photo: Marte Løge

We wanted to sail home via the Bahamas, the US, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands and Shetland, but our planning was outpaced by Corona. Our options are few. The hurricane season, which lasts from June to October, is approaching and we don’t want to cross the Atlantic ocean with only the two of us. Shipping our boat back home is too expensive, and even if we wanted, the ships leave from islands we cannot enter. Our boat is listed for sale, but there are no flights to St. Martin so the prospective buyers cannot inspect the boat themselves.

We do need to get the boat to a hurricane-free country before July 1st but all of these countries have closed borders or are on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. So, all that is left to do right now is wait.

Now, the upside of this story is that I can finally live my dream of a “digital nomad”. I connected with Spacemaker and was able to open my “home office” to work for the Discover squad. My home office is actually a laundry which is considered an essential service, so it’s not closed as most other businesses in town. Beats any Silicon Valley garage, don’t you think?

Working with the Discover squad is a perfect fit for the situation that I am in. First, their work is more project-based and individualistic, which means I can work independently on research topics like ML-based surrogate models, office buildings, and parking. Lately, I have been heavily involved in the LIDAR project where we try to extract buildings and vegetation based on point clouds. Second, because I’ve spent my time working with the product team in Oslo, I can help bridge the gap between the two offices, meaning our research and our product team. And third, despite being in much warmer climates, I am in the same time zone.

My new office at Shrimpy’s laundry. Photo: Marte Løge

The world is a different place now than when we left Norway. I am, therefore, grateful for working in such an agile organization that was able to come up with a solution that works for both of us. The organization is well set up for remote work, and except for the in-person social interactions, working from the laundry feels like working from any other office. I am not sure what the future brings, but I’m sure whatever it is, both Spacemaker and I will be able to handle it.

--

Håkon is a software engineer in Spacemaker, currently stranded in Saint Martin where he works remotely from his sailboat. He works together with the Boston-based Discover squad, specializing in integration, architecture and infrastructure of the functionality developed by the squad. He holds a master’s in Computer Science from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Follow Hello World’s journey on Facebook and Instagram.