Pandemic in Paradise - Part 1

Pandemic in Paradise - Part 1

As reports of Covid-19 outbreaks began to circulate, the OCC was monitoring the situation in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and IndoPacific regions. What could we do to assist stranded cruisers?

By - 27/05/2020

Reports from China of a highly contagious novel coronavirus began circulating in January. But China was far away from most places in paradise. At first, tourism remained active and cruisers went about their business blissfully unaware of the mounting threat of a pandemic.

As tourists flying in from severely affected European nations began to show signs of infection and coronavirus began to spread, the local governments responded. Many of these island nations have limited medical resources and a history of devastation due to outbreaks of diseases against which native islanders have no immunity and no defences. Very quickly, the situation began to change.

The OCC AGM and Awards Dinner was to take place in Annapolis in April, the first time it was to be outside the UK and we had a record crowd attending from around the world. We made the decision to cancel that event early on and to move the AGM online. One by one, events were cancelled in the sailing world and elsewhere. Cork 300 was cancelled, cruises in company were cancelled, the Olympics were cancelled. It was going to be a strange summer as many boats weren’t even being launched. It's hard to imagine now that this was just two months ago.

Distance sailors were facing an especially difficult challenge. Many were far from home, living aboard their boats, and had to keep moving with the seasons. Some on circumnavigations were halfway around. As the pandemic unfolded, we realised that the OCC could be of invaluable assistance to cruisers getting stuck in places they did not expect to be when borders closed.

There was a good deal of desperation caused by misinformation circulating among the cruising community. We decided quickly that we should open our Facebook Atlantic and Pacific Crossing groups, and our Caribbean Net+ group to non-members to facilitate exchange of reliable information. At the same time, we received a request from Noonsite to ask our Port Officers around the world to send us verifiable information as it came in. We began sending all the information to Sue Richards, editor of Noonsite, making Noonsite the central trusted source on Covid-19 border restrictions for recreational craft. Island after island began restricting the movement of populations.

First, stay at home orders were issued and social distancing recommended. Tourism was curtailed and businesses shut down. Only essential services remained operational. Not bothered by such restrictions, cruisers are used to long periods of isolation and provisioning for extended periods when crossing oceans. As borders began closing, and distance sailors realised they might end up in a hurricane or cyclone-prone area without insurance coverage, many took action early to lay up their boats and fly home while they still could.

For others, this was not a possibility. Some could not afford to fly out, others did not have a space reserved for haul out, and still others have no home to fly to as their yacht is their home. Some who had arranged for their yachts to be shipped across the oceans were told the transports were cancelled. What to do? Suddenly, as borders shut around them, hundreds of yachts became stranded in places they did not expect to be at the wrong time of the year. What were their options? Stay where they were and sail out of the way should a storm be forecast? Sail south hoping to get entry to an island or a country out of the named storm box. Sail home when the weather permitted, taking a chance that they wouldn’t be allowed to refuel or reprovision en route? The worst off were those who set sail when everything was fine, only to arrive at a closed border at the other end.

One family of three arrived in Curacao after a sail from St Maarten only to be told that they could not enter and could not even anchor. Several more boats arrived after them and were told the same. Our OCC Port Officer in Curacao sprang into action and wrote articles for the local press to put pressure on the politicians to allow the vessels to remain under quarantine. He was successful in convincing the authorities to make an exception. He brought them provisions and ensured their safety.

Suddenly, the Q flag, which for decades had been just a formality, had meaning again. Yachts flying the Quarantine flag at anchor were not to be approached and their crew was not to disembark for 14 days. In some places, the crews were not even permitted to swim around their boats. In a similar boat were those who were told to leave when they had no place to go. For example, the French islands of the Caribbean and French Polynesia took the home directives of ejecting foreigners quite literally. It didn’t matter that other borders were closed and the cruisers would have to sail thousands of miles in challenging conditions -- sometimes without even being able to take on water, food and fuel -- to reach home, or at least an open border. There were no guarantees that after a month at sea, the situation when they arrived would be the same as when they left. And there was no amount of explaining that a month at sea meant no virus was aboard. The World ARC was called off mid-way in French Polynesia. That was a clear signal that things were about to get worse.

One boat was turned away from South Africa and continued on to St Helena, where they were initially turned away as well. Their only choice as a US-flagged vessel would be to sail to the United States, but they had crew aboard who were not American and without visas likely to be turned away. Eventually, they were allowed to refuel and disembark crew. The skipper continued on to the USVI. This small yacht sailed many thousands of miles without stopping, something that was not undertaken intentionally.

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, a British/Canadian family of five at anchor in the Balearics for weeks was suddenly told they had to leave. They had until then lived by the rules as the residents did, the parents taking turns shopping for provisions once a week, otherwise staying aboard in isolation. Now they were told they had to leave without reprovisioning. OCC Port Officers secured entry for them into a marina but an attorney in Ibiza instructed them not to leave without written permission to enter their next destination. So complicated and, with three children aboard, frightening. They ended up sailing to Italy and were welcomed there.

To help get the story out, the OCC collaborated with a journalist who is also a single-handed sailor on lockdown in Greece. Susan Smillie wrote an article in the Guardian which captured the attention of the world and BBC World News. Suddenly journalists, documentary makers, and authors were captivated by the story of cruisers stuck in paradise -- not billionaires on megayachts, but normal people trying to maintain a modest, sustainable, adventurous lifestyle. 

Continue to Part 2.

Photo (c) Kristi Black, Bahamas.

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