Sailing During a Worldwide Pandemic
You think it’s hard being cooped up in your home, with only access to your yards and your car, where you have full size freezers, can only drive to secluded trails or parks, or to go shopping? You think this is “hard”, well, you aren’t wrong, but I’m inviting you to our story: being a full-time liveaboard, in a foreign country.
When we left the United States in December 2019, we knew we’d likely be gone for the next several years, with me (Lisa) only returning once each quarter for work purposes. This was our second cruising season (we refer to the non-Hurricane or Cyclone seasons as the cruising season) and it was time to step beyond the beautiful gin colored waters of the Bahamas and see more of the world.
Part of the reason we became sailors is because we wanted to see more of the countries we could visit by plane, but do so on our terms and schedule – which is largely and wholly dependent on favorable weather to carry Music & Lyrics (our 2005 Lagoon 440 Hybrid-Electric catamaran) and us, Erik and me, safely from island to island.
So for the 2020 cruising season, we would test our skills and fears and sail south from Georgetown, Exumas, Bahamas to Providenciales, Turks & Caicos, and on to Hispaniola, – specifically Luperòn, Dominican Republic, where we would park the boat and explore the entire island, including Haiti, over a 7 month period of time. Come November 2020, we will continue on with traveling across the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico, then the Spanish Virgins, and US Virgins where we are hoping to spend our birthdays and Christmas.
Before I share the day to day life here in Luperòn, I need to share how we got here. Before Pandemonium and Chaos struck the world.
On Feb 3, we left Georgetown for a run to Mayaguana, Bahamas, a 30-hour sail. Unfortunately, almost midway there we ran into a problem with the main sail that would require us to obtain parts to fix, and we knew we would NOT be able to get parts shipped to Mayaguana – so after 13 hours, we turned around and continued through the night to return to Georgetown.
After receiving the necessary parts from the USA, we fixed the sail issue and waited for a new window. Our window opened up on Feb 26 and many boats from Georgetown departed at the same time we did. The seas were decent crossing from Exumas to Long Island, but as we rounded the cape on the northern tip of Long Island, everything changed (for me.) Our destination for this passage was to be Providenciales (aka Provo), Turks & Caicos. Given the favorable arrival conditions into the Sandbore Shoals, the 40-hour sail would be both a challenge at the beginning but a major accomplishment for me.
Approaching Long Island, we had good wind between 40-60 degrees and were flying toward the island averaging 7.5 knots. But as we approached the cape, with the wind effects, the sea state picked up considerably and once around the cape, we found ourselves with 5-7’ seas on the nose, with short intervals and some waves reaching 8-10’. No sooner would we bury our bow in the white-capped waves, another would hit, and we’d bury again. For the next 3-4 hours, it was a constant up, up, up as we’d climb the face of wave or swell, followed by a crashing down the back of it, burying one or both bows, with spray flying up to the helm which is some 20-feet off the water line. The freeboard (the area between the two hulls) was a constant recipient of the sea state confusion and responded with some of the worst sounds I’ve ever heard, making me (falsely of course) believe the boat was breaking.
Two of our buddy boats decided to duck in the lee of Conception Island and wait for the predicted wind shift later that night. We decided to join them.
With some rest and a good dinner, we lifted anchor at 10p that night returning to fight our way south. The wind had not shifted. The sea state was still too much – and I didn’t feel safe. We had left that morning at 7a, it was now 11p and I begged to turn around once again for Georgetown, crying as I admitted I didn’t feel safe. There was nothing to be done. Fears are real, even if they are unfounded. Erik turned the boat back.
We arrived back in Georgetown with tail tucked and amidst a squall, but we anchored at 7a and immediately crashed – hard. After discussing long and hard whether I could do this, and after many tears, I vowed I would never willingly turn back, having recognized that I hadn’t been ready and didn’t have enough experience. But with the right weather conditions, where there was both a North wind and North sea component for that type of passage, I wouldn’t be frightened (as much).
And that is exactly what arrived the next day, Friday 2/28. Another boat, Lover of The Light, set off at the same time we did to make our way south and after discussing plans over VHF, we decided to buddy boat together to Mayaguana – which ironically was our first intention from the get-go. To make shorter hops.
As we got close to Long Island, a single-handed sailor, aRùn joined our flotilla and the three boats set a schedule of 2-hour check-ins to make sure everyone was good and didn’t feel so alone at sea. We all arrived safely before noon the next day, set anchor, and headed into town to see what Mayaguana might have. We met another boat in the harbor that day, Freya, and realized we were now 4 boats all looking to get to the same place, taking the same routes, and exercising the same weather cautions.
The topic of COVID-19 was not even something any of us sailors were talking about yet. It wasn’t permeating every conversation, peppering our sail plan with a flurry of what-if scenarios. We weren’t checking the daily cases and body counts. We were just more concerned about weather and sea state than anything else at that time. That’s part of the benefit of being at sea – we don’t want to be bombarded with 24-hour news like in the USA or other nations. Our worlds are much smaller and simpler, and we like it that way.
Waiting out a weather front in Mayaguana, the next favorable weather window opened up on March 5. We would stage at the south east end of the island on Friday and then depart around 11p for the 8-10 hour sail to Provo with buddy boats, Lover of The Light, aRùn, and Freya. Together with Freya, we anchored at the south east end and that was like riding a hobby horse – and after a consult with our other buddy boats, we all agreed we’d take off NOW, at 4p, and enter Sandbore channel in the dark and set anchor right away – moving to our anchorage after daylight. It was a drama-free passage, and with a partial moon, we had no problems entering the channel and anchoring at 1:30a.
Talk of the virus started making its way to our consciousness at this point. We all were planning to continue to the Dominican Republic, and we’d just heard there was a case there, but it was a tourist from Spain in the north east area, and there was none in the Turks. So again, this was not concerning yet to any of us. Not yet.
We spent a week in the Turks & Caicos, waiting for the weather window to sail us south across the Equatorial current, often feared because it can catch a sailor off guard and unable to safely enter the inlet harbor at Luperòn.
Our new window arrived to leave Turks on Thur March 12, where we would stage at Long Cay, South Caicos for the night, and depart on Fri March 13 for an overnight sail to the DR. As we checked out of Turks on Wed, March 11, the immigration officer sternly advised us that once we left, if we were to make it to the DR and for any reason decided to return to this island, we would NOT be welcomed back. We were in disbelief. I quickly did Google searches and could find nothing that corroborated this statement. No government issued edict about the borders closing. Nothing.
Our sail to Long Cay was uneventful, but we talked a lot. The inevitable “what-if” scenarios started playing out. What if we leave and the Dominican borders are closed? What if we get there and are then asked to leave? What if we stay longer in the Turks? Where would we anchor? What if we return to the Bahamas? Are we then giving up our dream of sailing the Caribbean? What if? What if? What if?
To many, the threat of COVID-19 was still a very new issue in the sailing community. We are by nature, preppers and isolationists. We generally have several months’ worth of food in our lockers, can make our own water (for those of us with reverse osmosis water making systems), have solar to keep our small refrigerators running, or generators to top off our house batteries if needed. We can spend weeks anchored off the beach of an uninhabited island, diving for lobster or catching fish, hiking trails and snorkeling reefs, and feeling at peace with our commune. We respect and honor the islands that allow us to visit, often times doing for their community what is never asked, but which is always appreciated, whether this is a donation of material or cash to a school or church, or a beach clean-up. For us, and our buddy boats, we decided to push on.
The morning of March 13 arrived and brought with it a line of squalls that brought my fear back. It was 8a and we were due to depart at 10a. The What If game started playing out again and I was looking into returning to Provo to wait for a new window. And after playing out this scenario, I realized that in returning to Provo, I was about to once again be giving up. That the line of squalls was expected to pass by noon, and that there was no lightning in that line, so it was just rain. Checking with the Puerto Blanco Marina, I was assured there were no current restrictions on receiving us, and that no ruling would happen that day, given the weekend elections, and after talking to another buddy who was on the northern side of Turks, who rightly gave me the swift kick in the Grandma Panties I needed, I agreed to lift anchor to the DR.
The sail to the DR was not drama-free. It was 19-hours and involved a clogged raw water-cooling plate pump, a fuel pump replacement, 2 fuel-filter replacements, a forced fuel tank switch, and a squall, but we arrived, and the Puerto Blanco Marina manager met us at the entrance and guided us in. A very thankful event.
Check in was easy, and the armada welcomed us, and the owner of the marina took us all into town to complete our check in with Immigration. We were now safely and legally allowed to be in the Dominican Republic.
That was March 14. Two days after the World Health Organization officially declared a worldwide pandemic. We had checked out of the Turks the day before that announcement, and with no news or awareness of it.
Since that day, all islands in the Caribbean have closed their borders (except USVI), some very harshly and unforgiving (Puerto Rico) and some with very extreme rules (24-hour curfews and week-long lockdowns, with no ability to leave your boat for even essential services like water or food.)
Here in the Dominican Republic, President Medina issued a state of Emergency and a curfew on March 18. The state of emergency allows for the distribution of funds, and the curfew intended to help flatten the curve to prevent an over-burdened health care system from falling apart. We have nearly 3000 cases right now for a population of about 11 million people. We are not allowed to visit beaches, parks, or to congregate. There is a roadblock preventing unauthorized travel out of and into every town, including Luperòn. We must be back on our boats by 5p and only allowed to leave our boats for essential services (pharmacy, food, fuel.)
The strain on the cellular infrastructure – with more demand for cell and cable internet – has forced a decision to indefinitely suspend international carriers from accessing their data. Guess what, that’s 2/3 of all cruisers, including us. As I type this, I have no internet access. And while there were SIM cards available at the Claro store last Wednesday (which we couldn’t buy “just in case” because we weren’t sure they’d fit any of our phones), there is no guarantee they’ll have them when we return on Monday.
Since we are renting a spot on a floating dock, we are guests of the Marina, therefore I am allowed to come to the marina and use their wifi for free, which allows me to work, since I work full-time. But for others, they may not have this luxury, and can you even imagine how isolated that would feel? It’s one thing being on an uninhabited island, where you can always up anchor and return to civilization, it’s another when you are unable to move.
Let me paint that picture. Imagine being confined to just ONE room in your house. The size of a small kitchen (with just one counter/sink), a small eating area (like a kitchenette), and a tiny bedroom (with a small oddly shaped bed.) You have no air conditioning and the breeze that comes in through your windows is 80+ degrees, and the breeze dies altogether, every night, like clockwork, between 7p and 9a. Your home is in a foreign country, which you haven’t mastered the language, and the food sources are limited, and in some cases, you are not allowed to even shop unless the first letter of your last name falls with that day’s acceptable visitors. You can’t leave town, your family cannot enter town, and now, you have no internet.
In that ONE WEEK – just one week – the world for sailors changed. In that ONE WEEK, friends and acquaintances we’ve met along the way, have been turned away from a port, harassed by local police, demanded to up anchor in the middle of the night, refused to be allowed to fuel or provision, and forced to return to sea despite weather conditions. And this has happened, and to boats with ripped sails, damaged engines, and low fuel. Damage to boats is a common occurrence at sea. Imagine what this feels like to be turned away?
Safe Harbor laws and International Maritime laws have been abandoned. Humanity as we know it has irrevocably changed for sailors. And it’s only April 12, 2020.
We are 6 weeks away from the onset of Hurricane Season. It is predicted that because this is a La Nina year, we should expect to see more significant hurricanes this year. Many sailors who cruise the Caribbean continue to Grenada, Panama, Colombia, or Suriname each summer to keep themselves and their homes safe from the wrath of a storm.
What is going to happen over the next 6 weeks? Or 8 weeks? Or 12? Will borders open to allow vessels to safely transit to avoid a storm? Will they be allowed to enter a new port for safety reasons but then refused entrance to that island after the storm? How many sailors will take what meager supplies they have and risk life and home to evade a storm? How many will be caught in a storm with no insurance and nowhere to run? We are in the safest harbor in all of the Caribbean, with its high mountains and position to the west of Puerto Rico. We have insurance for being here. For Music & Lyrics, we are going to be fine here. But for others, well, I hope the day in the life of making passage decisions and reasons for them, and what it’s like living aboard in a foreign country with limited freedom helps you understand what it’s now like Sailing During a Pandemic.