We now no longer take our onward passage west for granted, maybe that is a metaphor for life?
Calm before the Storm
On the 9th of March, Ireland announced that the St. Patrick’s Day week-long festival, which is so important to the Irish economy, would be cancelled in light of the Global Corona Virus Pandemic. A pandemic which had, by then, spread to Europe and was gaining considerable traction there. Saint Patrick’s Day and the festival which takes place across Ireland, is worth millions in annual revenue. News of that cancellation, which being Irish was of interest to me, set off alarm bells. It is the moment when the virus and its threat to world health and economy got very real in my mind. We began our trip sailing around the world last April (2019) and having sailed almost 9,000 miles from Europe to the Caribbean, we were in Saint Lucia at the time having just sailed down from Martinique. Although not evident yet, we regularly tuned into the local radio stations awaiting news of local virus outbreaks, but no news came. On the radio there were corona virus awareness campaigns encouraging social distancing and hand washing but everything felt quite normal still. I remember going to a bar without any sense of apprehension. No sign at this point of face masks or taped off service counters to mandate distance. However, it felt like the calm before the storm. We made our way from Rodney Bay in the North West to Marigot bay further South. We ate in a few restaurants and swam in the pool of a nice hotel nearby. The bars were busy enough and lively. People were in good spirits. In parallel though I was becoming more drawn into the global conversation going on among the world’s media as the number of people with the virus and associated deaths began to soar. Until then we had regularly seen enormous cruise ships docked outside bays in the islands of the Eastern Caribbean but stories of virus outbreaks on board those started to dominate the local news discourse and I began to realise that the virus was getting very close to us indeed. We left Marigot Bay and travelled south to Soufriere to scuba dive and hopefully hike the iconic Piton mountains there.
Time to run
I enrolled in a refresher Scuba course. It had been at least twelve years since I had last dived, and I felt nervous. The evening before we went into the town and I noticed all the bar and restaurant staff were wearing latex gloves as they worked in empty establishments. The cruise ships had stopped operating in the area and the businesses that depended on their custom were deserted. In the morning I had my scuba lesson. I looked at the scuba breathing apparatus with a different kind of skepticism than twelve years earlier. Back then I was worried about ‘trusting the equipment’. This time I was thinking about hygiene; how had my regulator been cleaned and with what, who had been wearing it, where had they been before and how clean and well were they? Anyway, I undertook the dive but struggled to keep my breathing slow and relaxed. The instructor took my hand under water to make me feel safe and led the way. We swam slowly past colourful brain coral and bright, healthy-looking fan coral as well as many reef fish. After about fifteen minutes though I had a truly clear thought. We need to leave this place. The dive became secondary to everything else as I started to think through all the events around the world that had been cancelled and countries that were shutting down. The realisation that this was not home was profound at that moment. Nobody here had to look out for us. I became certain it was only a matter of short time until Saint. Lucia would close its borders or worse even, ask us to leave with nowhere to go. It was time to rush south and out of the hurricane zone. That evening I scrolled through the world’s news online. I watched as Ireland and the people I know there began to brace themselves for a lock-down similar to that in other affected countries like China and Italy. I watched in horror at the uncertainty this was creating for every aspect and dimension of every society; food access in the third and developing worlds, deaths from the virus globally and industries and then economies collapsing in the developed world.
CARICOM Borders shut down
At 8am the following morning we pulled up our anchor and sailed north to stock up on provisions and refill our fuel tanks back in Marigot bay. Going back to Marigot bay only five days after leaving there was surreal. All the bars and restaurants were completely empty, and some were therefore closed. The stream of land-based tourist income had dried up, and no new flights were coming in. The United States had just declared its borders closed and so nobody was leaving there to holiday in the Caribbean anymore. In the local shop the shelves were fully stocked because nobody was there to buy anything. Really with no idea for how long I was provisioning, it was difficult to decide what and how much of everything to buy so I focused on the basics; UHT milk, rice, lots of eggs, meat and chicken for the freezer, shampoo, toilet paper and washing up liquid. On our way back from shopping we decided to drop by Customs to let them know we would be checking out in order to depart south for St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) the following morning. We were told to sit down. ‘The CARICOM* countries are closing all borders as we speak. They are working in a co-ordinated manner and as of midnight tonight Saint Lucia’s borders will be entirely closed. That means that if you check out now, there is no coming back. Where is it you want to go anyway? They are probably already closed’. I replied ‘Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’. ‘Well, I would expect them to also make their announcement shortly. If you choose to leave, there is a significant risk you will be at sea with no country to accept you’. Jim and I asked if we could discuss in private and come back in a few minutes. We dropped our shopping home and within two minutes we agreed in unison, ‘We’ve got to take the risk’. My heart was pumping fast with adrenaline. We were right, I thought. We didn’t want to get stranded in Saint Lucia for what could be many months. First, our insurance company precluded it because it is north of their acceptable safe from hurricane zone. Secondly, we did not want to have to deal with a hurricane and the risk to our safety and the safety of the boat which was more likely in Saint Lucia. We went back to the customs officer and instructed him to please check us out. He shook his head not looking at us as he completed our papers and sent us packing. We docked the boat at the fuel station and filled every single fuel container on the boat in addition to the main diesel tanks. On our way home, we passed another boat of the same name as ours, we greeted the friendly young Swiss family onboard. They were unaware of the news we had heard, and we gave them the update. Early the next morning both yachts departed in haste for the main island of Saint. Vincent.
Sail to St. Vincent and the Grenadines
We hoisted our main sail with extra caution and set the Genoa together. Now, more than ever, we could not afford to break anything with access to parts or yacht services probably totally out of the question. We both felt slightly sick not knowing what awaited us at the end of the day long passage. Throughout the trip I checked all the local news websites. There were updates being published about the status of the Eastern Caribbean country’s borders on almost an hourly basis. We had until 4pm to get to customs. We were concerned that if we missed that deadline the government could announce the country’s closure that evening. Further along the south west corridor the borders of Grenada were slowly moving towards closure with reduced ports of entry and complete restriction of movement once within those ports. While the restrictions sounded like a pain there was a draw to going there; it was even further from the hurricane zone. However, we decided to try SVG first. With twenty minutes to spare we dashed into Wallilbalou bay, but we had missed an announcement that customs and immigration was no longer available there due to the pandemic. As we left the first bay we were intercepted by the coastguard and we thought, this is it, we are going to get escorted out of SVGs waters. How wrong we were. We were greeted with warmth and a smile. Our details were taken, and we were instructed to continue down the coast to the other Customs. We were now running really late. After mooring the boat, we jumped into our dingy and tied up to the dock. Our swiss friends were doing the same. We found Customs and had a friendly interaction with them. With the business of checking in complete they wished us well and early the next morning we departed for Bequia.
In the first month spent here we watched as all our neighbouring country’s closed borders and went into lock-down. We had friends on boats dotted all over the Caribbean mainly north of us and therefore in the dreaded hurricane belt. Some of the restrictions placed on boats there were extreme. Some were not allowed to swim, and most were not allowed to leave their boat without a specific purpose like to visit the pharmacy or supermarket. In Saint Lucia, all shops were closed with only a few hours’ notice to try and curb the spread of the disease although some spectators suggested this led to panic buying. Hearing this caused us concern. When would we see the same rules being implemented? But they never really were. Here is SVG, we saw countless bars and restaurants close voluntarily because it was not profitable to stay open and they did not want to contribute to the spreading of the disease. The voluntary closure of these businesses, although noble, was heart breaking to witness. Almost overnight the tourism industry of the Caribbean countries including SVG’s which is so depended upon was ripped apart. We tried to support local businesses by buying their delivered produce however we did not dine or drink out any longer even in the handful of places still open. I noticed the boats in the main anchorages were not socialising anymore and the sight of a few dinghies off the stern of a boat was both rare and quietly frowned upon. At country level the numbers of reported corona virus cases remained low, although the number of tests carried out were proportionately very low too. The global media’s coverage of both mandated and self-imposed abstinence from partaking in society in a normal fashion was influencing many people here even though we were almost totally free to do as we pleased. Jim and I did not meet anyone new and nobody set foot on our boat for a least two months after our arrival here in March. We did however go hiking, snorkeling and explore the islands just the two of us.
Back home in Europe things were escalating in the wrong direction. The number of cases seemed to be out of control and in response, Ireland was under an extremely strict lock-down. Family video conferencing calls replaced cancelled holidays and celebrations during the months leading up to summer. But here in SVG by early May, the atmosphere began to change. The boaters who had waited to be told there would be a lock-down heard no such news. There was no lock-down and some semblance of normality could be observed across the anchorages of the Grenadines. Multiple dinghies were parked at docks beside newly reopened restaurants. There were social distanced beach parties and in town the supermarkets were busier than before, it felt like business as usual again. The anchorages on the other hand were quieter than usual. With few new boats coming in and many people finding ways to be repatriated back to their homelands there were only a small but now familiar handful of boats around. By then, we stopped avoiding getting to know those people and eventually when invited onboard one of their yachts, we accepted. It was a relief to meet new people again and exchange stories of what the last few months had entailed for each of us. Meanwhile, images and news articles from home continued to pour in and things seemed to be filled with increasing despair for many of our family and friends. Although we felt relatively safe here in SVG we were fearful about being in a foreign country with a poor health system. At least though we were surrounded by friends all in the same predicament; stuck here and conscious there were no other countries available for us to travel to at that point. No way out, no easy way home.
Five months after arriving we are still here in SVG. These days borders are re-opening but under what circumstances and for how long is highly uncertain. Simultaneously second waves of the virus threaten to permeate the world. While we wait here, we make the most of this beautiful place. We are so fortunate to spend our days doing magical things. We kiteboard, dive, snorkel, swim, hike, write, photograph, bake bread. We cook, clean and fix things too. We spend time with friends. We scour the internet for answers, we find none. It is certainly true that the pandemic months so far have been filled with many rich experiences although those have also been tempered by certain low points brought about as a side effect of the pandemic; news of people suffering from the virus, not being able to see family, being in a slightly precarious location during hurricane season, having crucial systems on the boat breaking and the great difficulty of getting replacement parts during a pandemic in this country. The year 2020, or the disaster year as some have dubbed it, has also been the year that we started our first season in the Caribbean after completing our first ocean crossing on our boat, Polaris. And so, 2020 has been full of wonder too. As I search for the meaning in it all or what we can learn from it, I feel as though the ever-changing flux of the world has inadvertently been training us to be better sailors. They say the plans of sailors are written in the sand at low tide: we can set out a plan, but we always need to be prepared to make extreme or subtle changes. This notion has never felt truer than in 2020 for all of us whether sailors or not. A cruiser friend wrote to us ‘They say expect the unexpected, but a Global Pandemic? Seriously! Who would have thought it? I hope it won’t ruin your plans’. It has not at all, yet. Reflecting on it, if anything, we have had the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with a very beautiful archipelago of islands which we may never have spent so long in without the removal of choice that the Global Pandemic brought. Of course, we desperately miss home. We miss our family and friends deeply. The realisation of how difficult getting home would be right now is very upsetting and the lack of an end in sight for this Pandemic is too much to get our heads around. So, we work with what we have for now. We try not to worry too much about the things beyond our control. In the year that we planned to travel a great deal, we have been forced to pause a lot longer than expected; and to be where we are with the people who happen to be here, which has in itself been such a worthwhile experience: we have connected with other sailors during the lowest and highest of moments. We know we have a very long way to go as we continue our circumnavigation around the world and we now no longer take our onward passage west for granted-maybe that is a metaphor for life?. Instead we take things a week at a time keeping the bigger plan in the back of our minds as we wait for news to inform our next steps in whichever direction we need to go. Until then, we thank the people of SVG as we wait here a little longer…
*CARICOM- means the Caribbean Community and Common Market and is defined as an organisation made up of 15 Caribbean nations to promote economic integration among members