When countries locked down because of COVID-19, thousands of cruisers were stranded. We hear some of their stories
Some, such as those taking part in the World ARC and on a 3,000-mile passage (the longest on the tradewinds circumnavigation route) between the Galapagos and Marquesas Islands, found themselves temporarily refugees, with nowhere to go.
Many had to add more miles to what had already been a long voyage and were low on water, fuel, supplies then moved on again from the next country. Others were summarily ejected, and to this date find themselves liable to be moved on at short notice, or now perilously out of step with seasonal winds.
In some countries, for example St Lucia, those arriving were put in quarantine and unable to clear in. A month later, they were still not being permitted out of quarantine.
Others were on passage back across the Atlantic to Europe and, according to Sue Richards, who runs the cruising website Noonsite (a hugely valuable resource for world cruisers, and a mine of exchanged information in the crisis), some are having to give up the dream altogether. Those who have sold everything to move on board, or are funding themselves through rental property, now found themselves with no income and rising costs, and perhaps stuck in a marina.
“There is also a lot of fear – of being stuck in a place where the hurricane season or cyclone season is looming, and where they can’t get to a safe port or to haul out the boat, or even to fly home while there were flights out,” says Richards. “The hurricane season starts on 1 June and people need to get out of there.
“Working with the Ocean Cruising Club, we pulled together a list of refuge ports in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and northern Europe for boats needing to get across the Atlantic to repatriate to Europe. Grenada, Trinidad and the BVIs are working towards finding solutions for owners that want to haul their boats for the hurricane season.”
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Cruising clubs and organisations such the Ocean Cruising Club, Seven Seas Cruising Association, Cruising Association, the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Cruising Club all pulled together, with Salty Dawg rallies and World Cruising Club looking after those crews in their events.
What will coronavirus mean for cruising in the next few years? With a heightened sense of instability, some will certainly choose to stick closer to home. It may change the view of living on board as offering a greater freedom than on land. There could be a boost for organised events, where a team ashore is responsible for fixing and negotiating solutions to any unforeseeable problems.
But hopefully many will take their chances and go. There is always something to worry about. World economies are changing, there may be a different geopolitical order, we may look back at how COVID-19 was a watershed – who knows? But, as the saying goes, time is the only thing we really own, and it is finite.
Trapped in paradise
By Jennifer and Peter Bernard
“Whiskey Jack, Whiskey Jack, this is Uligan Coastguard.” We’re immediately on high alert. The coastguard is calling the yacht anchored right next to us.
“Coastguard, this is Whiskey Jack. Go ahead.”
“Whiskey Jack, this is Uligan Coastguard. We suggest you raise anchor and leave the Maldives, and find another country to go to.”
And there it is. The call we’ve been dreading for the past four weeks. With those 16 words, our worst fears have become real.
Immediately, the WhatsApp group that we set up with the other 11 boats in our anchorage in March starts pinging.
“Did you hear that?”
“Did I just hear what I thought I did?”
“Does that mean all of us?”
Clearly, everyone is listening in. And we all know the implications: our world is about to be turned upside down.
Where we are at
It’s May and we are anchored in Uligan, the second-most northern island in the Maldives. We left Sydney in July 2018 to begin a five-year circumnavigation and sailed through south-east Asia visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka before arriving here in the Maldives in early March.
Our plan for 2020 was to follow the weather systems through the Indian Ocean, travelling southwards as the year progressed and arriving in South Africa around October.
When we left Sri Lanka in early March, word of the coronavirus was on everyone’s lips, but the term COVID-19 had barely entered public consciousness, and ‘social distancing’ was a phrase used by people who didn’t like Facebook and Instagram.
We checked with our agent in the Maldives but were reassured that all was good, and we would be welcome. It was a six-day passage during which we had no internet, so we were shocked by how much the global situation had deteriorated by the time we arrived on 12 March.
Two days after we arrived, the Maldives shut its borders, and we were told it might be a week or two until our cruising permit was issued, while the government worked out their approach to the emerging threat. By this point 12 boats were waiting in the anchorage with us. 55 days later, we were still there.
We were required to shelter at the current anchorage, and initially were not allowed ashore at Uligan or anywhere else in the Maldives. After a few weeks, we were given access to a small, uninhabited island five miles from Uligan for exercise, which significantly improved morale.
We were allowed to visit each other on our yachts, we could swim and snorkel among beautiful coral, and receive occasional visits from turtles, dolphins and manta rays. These are wonderful privileges, especially compared to some of our fellow cruisers locked down elsewhere in the world.
In the meantime, we were painfully aware of the dramatic impact COVID-19 has had on just about everyone on the planet. We consumed the news hungrily each day and feared for our friends and family who were on the front line: death or severe illness; economic meltdown; loss of personal income; future instability; and massive disruption to daily life.
And at times we felt guilty, as they wrote to us about lockdown and its impact. “Talk about the perfect place to practice social distancing,” they’d say. “I wish I could be sitting on a yacht, sipping cocktails watching the sunset, with no risk of contracting the virus.” But the truth was less romantic.
A precarious situation
Like many bluewater cruisers right now, our short- to medium-term future is fraught with high levels of stress, anxiety and danger. We have no home to shelter in, at least not in the conventional sense. We have limited supplies of food, fuel and water, no shops to visit to resupply, and limited access to land for exercise.
We’re subject to the vagaries of the weather, with storms, cyclones and worse and, with the south-west monsoon setting in, we can expect our anchorage to become progressively less comfortable. With an average height of less than 3m above water, the Maldives is not exactly famed for its secure anchorages to ride out storms. We’re strangers in a strange land, and know the locals are struggling. From social media we see some are fearful that crews from the yachts are carrying the virus to their homes or are consuming their scarce resources.
Underpinning everything is a persistent dread – how will we cope when (not if) our engine, watermaker or other critical system breaks down and we have no access to spare parts or replacements? Above all, each day is consumed by the thought of what happens if we are asked to leave, while every other country’s borders are closed and being defended by Navy gunships.
The Maldivian authorities have been helpful, providing regular supplies of basic groceries and diesel, and so the plan had been to sit out the worst of the coronavirus in Uligan, and then resume our onwards journey when borders reopened. But after a period of stability and low infection rates, the virus began to spread rapidly through the Maldives, and this call from the coastguard is clear evidence that the authorities want us to move on.
What are our options? We follow up with our agent, and he confirms that the authorities have asked all foreign yachts in the Maldives to prepare for emergency departure if the situation continues to deteriorate. Although there are two marinas further south, they are currently closed due to the virus – the authorities have so far been resolute that we cannot move our yacht there and fly home.
A couple of cruisers have chosen to sail home, no matter how long and unsafe the journey, hoping to take advantage of an assumed willingness of each country they pass to top them up with fuel and provisions. While a ‘short hop’ strategy like that might work if you’re in the Mediterranean and trying to sail back to the UK, for example, it’s more difficult in the Indian Ocean due to the huge distances and seasonal dangers to the weather.
For us, sailing directly home to Australia would be particularly challenging. The direct route via Christmas Island and Darwin is over 4,000 miles against the prevailing winds and currents. In fact, the Indian Ocean Cruising Guide does not even include a direct route from Maldives to Australia – instead the recommendation is to sail down the east African coast, turn left at Cape Town and then sail east to Fremantle and Sydney, turning it into an 8,500 mile non-stop passage in some of the most treacherous waters in the world.
While both options are technically feasible, they’re not passages I’d undertake willingly. I think they pose too much risk to our vessel and crew, especially considering there’d be nowhere to refuel or reprovision along the way, and no bail-out ports if serious problems arose.
So as we contemplate being asked to leave Maldives imminently, our criteria for finding an alternative are:
- Is the journey there viable and safe from a sailing perspective?
- Is the border open and the country itself safe to be in?
- If the border is not open, are there still some kind of medium-long term options there (either shelter in place on our boat for several months, or facilities to leave the boat and fly home)?
Every country that borders the Indian Ocean fails test No 2. Although Tanzania’s border remains open, their prime minister prefers to tackle COVID-19 through the use of onions, garlic and prayer rather than social distancing and lockdowns. Sadly, that means for us it fails the second part of the test. It’s also 1,700 miles away, mostly upwind, with very limited facilities for yachts of our size, making tests 1 and 3 marginal at best.
Between April and October, the south-west monsoon in the northern Indian Ocean means that the safest option for us is to sail to Malaysia or Thailand. Both countries have the facilities to store yachts like ours, meaning they could also pass test 3. Unfortunately both are in lockdown, and have stated that while they will refuel yachts, they will compel them to keep moving, and they will not be allowed to shelter in place.
Despite this, if we are formally asked to leave, our best option currently seems to be to set out on the 1,800-mile passage from Uligan to Malaysia, knowing it will take 15-20 days at this time of year. Throughout the journey, we will have no insight into what awaits us.
Challenged by the Malaysian Navy, with guns pointed at us? Refuelled and moved on? And if so, to where? And in what mental state will we be as we embark on the next passage, again without knowledge of what awaits us at the other end? On the other hand, if the Maldives does allow us to stay here until our visa expires, it buys us some time to try and make the best decision we can about where to go.
To help with answers to these questions, we’ve reached out to our embassy, both in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. While they are trying to be helpful, they are simply not geared up to deal with our tiny niche, and so the initial advice has not been relevant to our situation. The constant refrain is: fly home.
“But what about the yacht”, we ask? “We can’t just leave it to sink, can we?”
“Oh yeah, well you need to stay in the Maldives then.”
“Yes, but we’re being warned by the Maldives that they may ask us to leave imminently. What then?”
“You need to have a plan in place in case you can’t stay.”
“That’s why we contacted you. Can you liaise with the authorities in Malaysia or Thailand about our situation?”
“No, their borders are closed, and we cannot challenge their laws. That’s not our role here.”
And round and round we go.
A new reality
When we first started considering our options, we imagined it was just a case of waiting out a few months, and then we’d be able to resume our circumnavigation. Now we’re not so sure.
Malaysia or Thailand are definitely the best choice for us if we think it’s going to take a year or two for normal border crossings to resume. And if we can’t get in there, then finding a way to get back to Australia with or without the boat is the fall-back.
On the other hand, if we thought normal cruising could resume in the next few months, we’d regret heading back east, only to have to retrace our steps.
So our decision (if we have the luxury of making it ourselves) is really all about one question alone: will normal cruising resume later this year, early next year, or some time later than that? Obviously we have insufficient data to answer that with any confidence right now. It will involve a guess and a gamble whenever we have to choose, but the later we can make that decision the better our data will be.
Since this article was first published (June 11th), Jennifer and Peter left the Maldives on July 11 and are currently en-route to the Seychelles. You can follow their ongoing adventures on their blog Sailing Steel Sapphire.