The worldwide coronavirus pandemic had a huge impact on the sailing and cruising community for almost everyone who was cruising in 2020. My intent is to write several articles that document my experiences, the choices I made and the reasoning behind those decisions. There is also a great deal to share about the ongoing impact the pandemic is having and what I am seeing as the winter of 2021 evolves. My experiences throughout 2020 were mostly very positive, despite many of the challenges that had to be confronted. Hopefully, anyone who is dreaming and hoping to go cruising in the near future will learn that it is not all gloom and doom. Cruising can still be attainable and very rewarding. However, it really does depend upon where you go – and more importantly as individuals, the restrictions and limits we place upon ourselves. Just as Henry Ford said, “whether you think you can, or think you can’t…you’re right.”
Things Changed Quickly
For everyone cruising on a yacht in the spring of 2020, it was a very challenging time. I had a family that had booked to join Oh! in the Bahamas in mid-March. To meet their plans I needed to reposition Oh! from the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) to the Bahamas at the end of February. This was just as countries from around the world were starting to really react to the growing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Normally I would have stayed in the Caribbean until early April – sometimes fate, or just plain and simple good fortune is a sailor’s best friend. On March 7, after the 6 day passage, I arrived in the Bahamas as many countries were starting to lock down their borders. By March 13, as I was preparing to file the required Bahamian documents and pay the fees for a charter permit, it all came to an end. My guests were packed and waiting for the cab that would have taken them to their flights when the decision to cancel was made. The pressure from work, family and the Canadian government was overwhelming – their much anticipated sailing adventure was not to be. Over the next 24 hours, four other potential groups that had plans to come spend time on Oh! during the next 2 months also terminated their trips. What a difference just 24 hours made. However, as events unfolded over the next two months, it became clear how very fortunate I was: of all the places in the Caribbean (or even the world) to be locked down while on a yacht, the Bahamas was clearly the best. Sometimes a person just gets very lucky.
During the last two weeks of March, virtually every country around the Atlantic and Caribbean slowly but surely closed their borders. The only exception was the United States. A confusing new world of restrictions and regulations evolved almost daily. Some blatantly ignored centuries of maritime laws regarding safe harbour and rights of innocent passage. Others just seemed to be mean spirited and simply bizarre over-reactions. Access to internet became paramount, as the only possible way to try and keep up with the flurry of rules and regulations that appeared daily. Noonsite.com had an excellent reference page that organized the latest news on countries around the world. It became a regular destination for my daily checks trying to keep up with it all. The pace of change and uncertainty surrounding almost every aspect of sailing that was needed to make good decisions was unsettling. It seemed the only thing you could count on was “change”. However, by late May, most of the islands and countries around the Caribbean and North Atlantic were starting to reveal their plans for emerging from their closures and lockdowns. The magic date in the Atlantic and Caribbean was June 1st, the official start of hurricane season. The reason is not only the potential for pretty nasty storms, but that it has a big impact upon most insurance policies, and mine was no exception. Staying put in the Bahamas would have been very nice but not possible, especially after seeing the destruction Hurricane Dorian unleashed on the Abaco Islands along the north side of the Bahamas.
Weighing Options in Uncertain Times
As I looked at the various options for hurricane season and each country’s plans, it became very clear that re-opening links for airline travel would be the last item on their priority list. That meant running cruising experiences on Oh! during the summer months was virtually impossible. It also ruled out any reasonable assurance of being welcomed over the next few months, or able to fly home from Bermuda, The Azores, Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, the Madeira Islands, or Canary Islands. So, my hoped for second Atlantic circuit was clearly not viable. There were also credible forecasts that this situation would extend for at least the next 3-6 months, or more. Then there were the early, long range forecasts that the 2020 hurricane season would be “more active than usual”. Keeping track of all the variables was like looking at a lottery ball machine and trying to predict which ball would drop and when. The most pressing concern as May rolled on became “where could I take Oh! for hurricane season?” I wanted a location which would:
- Welcome me and allow Oh! to be stored;
- Have a reasonable assurance that flights would be available for me to return to Canada; and,
- Not place me in a difficult position geographically for whenever I could return to Oh! – most likely in the Fall of 2020.
The list of possible destinations shortened with each passing day. The four primary contenders were Grenada, the Azores, the USA and Canada. Eventually, the only viable options came down to Nova Scotia, Canada or the United States. Canada was finally ruled out due to being in an area with potentially severe fall weather. The eastern United States offered plenty of options, but figuring out all the different regulations and restrictions in the various individual states was confusing. Some parts of Florida would not allow even other US flagged vessels into their harbours. The farther you went north, the less restrictive things became until you reached Maryland, which has the northern part of the Chesapeake Bay. In Maryland and north there were increasing regulations. Many marinas and boatyards were closed and recreational cruising was banned. Even the canals through New York were closed, so many Canadians could not even return home via them. Through a long drawn-out process of elimination, the decision was finalized in mid-May. Oh! was headed for the Virginia end of the Chesapeake Bay to be hauled and stored for the summer and I would be returning by air to Calgary. I had identified three yards that could haul Oh!, although each had warned me that their ability to operate was subject to change at the stroke of a pen from the Governor. There were also no firm assurances that foreign vessels would still be allowed to enter the USA by the time I reached the Chesapeake.
It is often said that “the only things guaranteed in one’s life are taxes and death” – maybe we should add to that quote, “and unexpected change”.
Worldwide Cruising Restrictions
Over the past two months, I had watched in splendid isolation as the world of sailing and cruising was slowly strangled, with ever tightening restrictions and eventually total lock downs and border closures. One by one, all the normal options for extended ocean cruising disappeared. In many countries the restrictions placed on foreign yachts were so tight you could not even swim off the back of your boat, let alone go ashore. Unfortunately, the rules in many countries appear to have been made by bureaucrats with little or no boating or cruising knowledge and experience. Seriously, would going for a swim off the back of a boat at anchor in anyway affect the transmission of the COVID virus? The only thing ridiculous rules such as these did was create a great deal of uncertainty and unnecessary hardship for many cruising sailors. Marina groups and cruising associations were left scrambling to try and work with local governments to find a way to keep their businesses alive, and help ease the restrictions on transiting yachts that needed supplies or a safe harbour. The reality is that the chance of COVID-19 being transmitted from cruising yachts has to be extremely remote. Despite that, arriving cruisers were often treated as if they carried the plague.
Bahama’s Response to COVID-19
Fortunately, I was in the semi-remote Exuma Islands of the Bahamas during the time these restrictions evolved. The Bahamian government placed some reasonable restrictions on movement between islands, but otherwise the rules were pretty accommodating. Given the large and sparsely populated area the Bahamas encompasses, it was a beautiful place to cruise. I was physically isolated and very safe from the virus spreading around the world. There were many days when the news that greeted me each morning from my iPad seemed like something from a science fiction movie. During this time, I rotated anchorages in several shallow bays off deserted islands. I enjoyed the stunningly beautiful world around me and the tranquility it offered. The Bahamian government was very reasonable and required transiting and visiting yachts currently cleared into the Bahamas to do three things:
- Submit their movement history since arriving in the Bahamas;
- Submit a plan for isolating while remaining in the Bahamas during their curfew and lockdown periods; and,
- Submit a plan and time frame for transiting the Bahamas when you exit the country.
The challenge was the third point – when and where would I go? Fortunately, in my case the Bahamian government was supportive and reasonable in their expectations. They approved my cruising plans as long as it respected their rules and the spirit of what they were trying to achieve. Their objectives were to protect their citizens and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 between the islands of the Bahamas. Throughout late April and the first two weeks in May, I had been waiting for news regarding the lifting of restrictions on sailing yachts caught in ports all over the world. Unfortunately, with each passing day, the news was not good. Most islands and countries were remaining closed, or imposing more even stricter rules governing all visiting yachts. Some required lengthy quarantines ashore in hotels that would be expensive (and an invitation for your yacht to be broken into while left unattended). Others required lengthy quarantines and no guarantee of being cleared in after the quarantine ended. Some would only allow yachts in that had confirmed reservations at boat yards, or expensive marinas. Some would allow yachts to stop, provision and repair, but would not allow a yacht to clear in and you were expected to leave as soon as weather permitted. Finally, even if you could find a country that might allow you to clear in for a longer term, or to store or haul your boat, there was no assured way to get home to Canada, or for others to get to you.
Delightful Dallying and a Decision
From mid-March to early May, I spent my time exploring deserted islands with friends I had met in February while sailing in the BVIs. Miake and Axel had taken a year off to cross the Atlantic and cruise the Caribbean in their beautiful Pago 9.9 meter sloop. It was a light performance boat with a swing keel that was a delight to sail. They had been fortunate to arrive in the Bahamas just 24 hours before the borders were closed and we all looked forward to meeting again. We agreed to rendezvous in the Exumas and together we enjoyed many weeks of great cruising, friendship and shared meals. Our conversations around the breakfast and dinner tables would inevitably come around to – “where to next?” The equally inevitable answer of, “I don’t know” was the usual conclusion. However, we enjoyed some of the best cruising experiences I have ever had, with beautiful weather, plenty to explore and splendid isolation from the madness going on in the world beyond. Unfortunately, they had to depart in late April for Florida where they would ship their sloop back to Germany. After April 20th, I was again solo-sailing until wherever and whenever Oh! would ultimately get hauled out.
After Miake and Axel departed, I spent my time between two beautiful anchorages at Pipe Cay and Compass Cay while I waited for a weather window to head north to the USA. There was also a single day trip to the designated provisioning point of Staniel Cay, where I could pick up some fresh veggies and fruit for the pending passage. Even though I was alone and physically isolated, I was still connected via the internet. The experience was wonderful and I am very grateful for having the good fortunate to have been in the Bahamas during that time. Especially when compared to the situations many of my cruising colleagues and friends were having while trapped in other countries. In the end, the only viable option for Oh! for hurricane season was the USA, north of Cape Hatteras. The logical first step was to sail to the Chesapeake Bay where a final decision would be made on where to store Oh!.
On my last evening in the Bahamas, I made time for one last extra-long swim and snorkel. I also enjoyed an extended beach yoga session and one final, long, sunset paddle board around the islets and rocks before packing everything away. The next morning on May 18 at 0800h, Oh!’s anchor was raised from the soft white sand bottom off Pipe Cay. It was a stunning bay that I had called home for most of the past two weeks. As Oh! headed out of the bay, I bid farewell to the pair of gulls that had been my sole companions during most of that time. For whatever reason, these two curious birds would come by twice a day to soar effortlessly around the back of Oh!. They were so close I could watch their eyes adjust angle to keep focused on me as they floated back and forth in the breeze. Maybe the anchorage I was enjoying was so rarely used by other yachts that Oh! was simply the new oddity they had to keep checking out. They are beautiful birds and the white underside of their wings always reflects the colour of the sea below. On a beautiful sunny day, the underside of their wings are light aqua green colours. Anyway, they arrived for one last flyby as Oh! pointed her bow out of the bay. We squawked a mutual “goodbye” and went our separate ways.
The first leg of the passage was due east around the southern end of Eleuthera Island, then north to the Abacos and beyond. With light southerly winds Oh! was in her element. Under full sails and clear skies, she averaged 7.8 kts in just 10-12 kt winds off the beam. The 34 NM crossing of Exuma Sound was an amazing sail. By 1300h, Oh! was turned north and progress slowed to 4-6 kts in the light following winds. However, it was velvet smooth sailing in flat seas with no swell. A wonderful opportunity to catch multiple naps to prepare for the night watches, and bake cookies between naps; after all, there can never be too many cookies onboard.
As the sun set, the sky filled with stars. The smooth seas and warm light winds made for a beautiful evening of stargazing while reclining on the trampoline. During the night, I follow a simple watch routine of 25-40 minute naps with 5 minute boat and situation checks. During solo passages, I live in the galley where there are a multi-function display and separate AIS, as well as a comfortable place to sleep. It makes it very easy to keep a lookout and hear any unusual noises that seem to wake me from even the soundest sleep. My companions are my iPhone timer that ensures that regular watches are performed, as well as the various alarms that are set to notify me of approaching ships, or changes in weather, or my course.
At the 0300h watch on May 19, a glow on the horizon to the west of a long line of distant lightning bursts was noted. There was a weather front that I needed to keep an eye on. By 0330h, the subsequent check noted the bursts had grown in intensity and frequency. Checking the radar revealed a long line of squalls that had formed to the west, just 6 miles away. After 15 minutes of tracking a few menacing yellow blobs on the radar, it became clear that my beautiful starlit skies, warm breeze and smooth seas were coming to an end. Weather fronts can move very fast, so despite only 8-10 kt winds, I decided to put a first reef in the mainsail and also reduced the genoa. There was a slight chance the front would pass north of me. By 0415h, as the reefing was completed, the first light rain drops arrived and 15-20 minutes later, a wall of wind hit that packed gusts to 43 kts. It all happened so fast that any attempt to further shorten the mainsail would have been very risky, especially solo. Instead, the genoa was furled and I turned into the wind. With both engines running, it then became a simple exercise of holding the nose at 25-30 degrees to the apparent wind and riding it out. That way, the lateral forces on the rig were minimal and the mainsail was not heavily flogging. Fortunately, there was no swell and I had open sea for 20 miles in all directions so it was a surprisingly effective solution.
After about 20-30 minutes, a break between two massive squall cells appeared, and for the next 20-25 minutes I kept Oh! positioned in the calmer area between them until the big squalls blew past. By 0600h, the front was in the rear view mirror, Oh! had received a power wash and life was back to sailing in light airs on calm seas. I could now retrieve my iPad and iPhone from the microwave oven and resume my naps.
Plans for 2021
My thoughts for the next season were already starting to firm up. Rather than risk the challenges of dealing with multiple independent island states and the complex and inconsistent rules that evolved in the eastern Caribbean, I decided to limit my cruising for 2021 to the Bahamas. That way there is only one governing body for the hundreds of beautiful islands that would be waiting for me to explore. There are also deep ocean sounds where guests can get multi-day open ocean sailing experiences and a chance to explore the cruising lifestyle. The Bahamas are also serviced by direct flights from Canada, which makes getting to Oh! much simpler for my guests.
However, first…the world needed to define its “new normal”. As I write this seven months later, whatever “new normal” is still remains a work in progress. At least the Bahamas seem to have a very workable solution.