“To cruise or not to cruise?” – that is the question of the moment. We’ve seen several social media posts recently from yotties who are holed up in one particular port and who want to move on to another where the grass seems greener; and we’ve even heard from people who want to rush out and impulse buy a boat – right now, this week – so that they can flee from the plague. With the coronavirus rampaging around the world faster than a dance craze or the new iPhone, this desire is very understandable. People stuck in ‘hot spots’ want to up anchor and move to a virus-free paradise, and those trapped on terra firma imagine that sailing off into the sunset will set them free. Suddenly, the ‘leave-it-till-we’ve-earned-a-pile’ yuppies and the folks who wanted to wait till the kids had started at university wish they hadn’t put their cruising plans onto the back-burner.
Well, we can see where you’re coming from, and we sympathise very deeply with your fears and with your yearnings and aspirations; but the advice from over here is, “Don’t do it!”
Now is not the time to set off across an ocean, because this pandemic has not only infected and affected the big countries that we’ve all heard about. It has put the whole globe into a new, and very wobbly orbit. Now is not the time to think of dashing across to New Zealand, the Marquesas, Carriacou, the Falklands, St Helena, or Tonga. Now is not the time to be going ANYWHERE – because the people in those virus-free or very much safer lands don’t want you.
And come to that, they don’t want you in Spain or Portugal, either.
Right now, they don’t want cruising yotties ANYWHERE!
Indeed, this crisis has brought to light a basic flaw with the ‘Escape Boat’ philosophy, or concept.
With our floating homes, equipped to travel by means of the wind and stocked with enough food to last for three months or more, we cruising yotties ought to be well set up to cope with a pandemic. We make our own electricity. We even catch our own drinking water. We’re used to dealing with our own problems by our own means. Surely, we are the lucky ones; the independent ones? Surely, we can just go where we please?
Well, if all you want to do is go to sea and stay at sea then, yes, you can still go. I imagine that there are a few people doing just this, right now – and every now and then we consider joining them – but most people are not interested in the idea of circling around on the ocean for months. (How many months would it have to be, one wonders? The Spanish flu was rampaging around the world for almost three years.)
Most people don’t want to just drift aimlessly or sail for the sake of sailing; most want to escape to another shore. And that’s just what you can’t do right now, because pretty much every country in the world has closed its doors to all but its own citizens.
Worse yet, in many places visiting yotties are being regarded as a potential source of the virus and therefore as a threat to health and safety.
Yes, I know: by the time you’ve sailed from the Canaries to Brazil, or from Panama to French Polynesia, you’ve been at sea for well over 14 days – so there’s absolutely no way that you could be carrying the coronavirus. But the locals don’t care. A large percentage of the world’s population is in panic mode, and thus their ability to think rationally has left them.
We’ve heard stories – first-hand accounts – of yachts in French Polynesia which have been attacked by stone-throwing natives. It’s worth noting that the ancestors of these particular ‘panicked people’ were almost all wiped out by diseases which were brought to their islands aboard sailing ship. For example, the population of the Marquesas is said to have been reduced from 100,000 to just 2,500 by smallpox and measles epidemics. So why should the natives believe it when their politicians and civil servants tell them that this is something different?
Similar tragedies occurred elsewhere throughout the globe, and this has evidently spawned similar fears. In Brazil, a resident yachtsman has felt it necessary to set up an online group for the protection of foreign yotties who may be endangered by irate locals.
More to the point, even if the ill-educated natives don’t try to drive you away with poisoned arrows, when you arrive at your island paradise the authorities are currently very unlikely to welcome you aboard their ark. Yachts arriving in the Galapagos are simply being sent away. Likewise, a friend who arrived in Chile was sent back whence he had come – and since he had come all the way from the Falklands, this involved a hard beat and could easily have entailed facing a storm. We hear that yachts arriving in Iberia have been treated with similar disdain.
French officialdom apparently has a slightly more reasonable approach. Yachts arriving in French Polynesia – a territory which occupies more space than the whole of Europe – are currently being told that they must proceed directly to Tahiti. Since this is the only island in the entire territory which actually has the coronavirus (50 cases, when I last checked) this is almost certainly not what our hapless voyagers signed up for when they embarked from Mexico or Panama – but at least they aren’t being sent straight back out to sea.
Upon arrival in the capital island, these yotties are apparently being encouraged to leave their boats at anchor and fly home. Those who refuse to abandon their boats – obviously for several months, and perhaps for years – are not being cleared into the country; they are simply detained in a limbo called lockdown.
The French could hardly cast these seafarers out into the path of the cyclones which cross the South Pacific at this time of year – French officialdom is far too grown up for that possibility to be entertained – but after the cyclone season has passed, then what? Will the vagrants be given their marching orders, despite the fact that absolutely nowhere to the west is open?
No one knows.
In the meantime, the French Polynesia cruising community – both those who cleared into the country before the crisis and those who arrived since – are imprisoned in Paradise. Even those whose arrival entailed a crossing of 40, 50, or, in one case that we have heard of, 71 days, are required to observe the nationwide lockdown.
Lockdown seems to have a different hue depending on which Polynesian island is enforcing the rules. So far as the locals are concerned, it means that all but Essential Workers must stay at home except when they need to shop or want to exercise, but for the Undesirables, aboard their boats, it can mean being allowed ashore twice a week, or it can mean never being allowed off the boats but being provisioned by an agent, or it can even mean being allowed no shore visits and no sustenance whatsoever. Then again, we know of one merry fellow, on a Polynesian island which I shall not name, who can shop whenever he pleases and who is still allowed to snorkel and visit the beach!
One thing that is common all throughout French Polynesia, from the Marquesas down to the Gambiers and up to the Societies, is a total moratorium on cruising. Yachts must stay exactly where they are. This seems to be the case all around the world, from Tonga across to Ecuador, down to Chile, around the corner to Brazil, and up through the Caribbean to Europe. Wherever we were when the siren went off, that’s where we remain.
Oh well… most of us have plenty of things to keep us busy. Most of us have a long list of maintenance chores to be done around the boat, and what better opportunity could there be for doing them? Then again, one could spend the time learning to meditate; or one could write a book.
Somehow, however, these plans and ideas are not coming to fruition, because most of us are very uneasy about our situation. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Where shall we go?”
Where CAN we go? And WHEN? How long is this going to go on for? The lockdown was supposed to last for 14 days, and then it turned into a month. Now, in some places – those places infected by the bug – there is talk of another month or three in order to stamp out the beast.
And, THEN what?
We scour the internet – those of us who can get a signal – and find articles telling us that this crisis will certainly continue till the end of the summer. Or until the end of the year. Or for two years. Or for five years…
The fact is that no one has a clue how long the coronavirus will be running our lives, and like everyone else, we find that thought disturbing. In fact, for people who are not on their home patch and who are manifestly unwelcome where they happen to have washed up, the uncertainty is doubly disturbing.
Added to that, most yotties have shore ties and the worries that they bring at a time like this.
My daughter is trapped on her university campus, and I have no idea when I’ll ever be able to see her again. I also wonder when we’ll be able to get back to our not-quite-acquired land, and plant those much needed trees. (I guess in the end we’ll do the obvious thing and sail back; but right now, even that is not a possibility since they won’t let us in.)
Meanwhile, the guy on the posh boat anchored nearby worries about his business, which is likely to fold; and he, likewise, can’t get back to deal with it. His wife worries about her mum.
Others simply worry about their itinerary, because they only planned on being away from ‘real life’ for three years – and nobody likes having their plans messed about.
Even those who don’t have to worry about anything are beginning to get a bit twitchy. In theory, the destination doesn’t matter for these folks; it’s all about the glory of the ride. But the fact is that we all like to be masters of our own destiny.
Thus, regardless of wherever they happen to find themselves, it seems that almost all cruising yotties currently want to be somewhere else. There is obviously a moral, or a lesson, embedded at the heart of this. Something about desire, and the way our whims harden into plans and passions which run our lives.
(Of course, the folks in French Polynesia have a rather more basic desire: They just crave to be allowed to go ashore and walk around!)
In essence, just as the pandemic has brought home to mankind the vulnerability of his network of trade and travel and has demonstrated the fragility of civilisation, so, simultaneously, it has revealed to the cruising community the perilousness of an itinerant’s status.
In a crisis, foreigners make easy scapegoats. Far better – far more comfortable – to blame that floating riff-raff for your problems than to face the fact that your kids, returning from boarding school on the main island, are a much more likely vector for disease and a far greater danger to your health. Far better to blame those foreign-speaking wogs in the bay – those people that you’ve only ever tolerated for the money that they spend in your shop – than to admit that the first local case, from which all others are descended, was introduced by a local politician returning from an international congress.
2020 is a very bad year to be trying to cruise.
And what does the future hold? After the danger has passed, will Tonga and Fiji set aside their fears and swiftly open their doors wide again? Will Barbados (70 cases; 8 deaths) be keen to renew contact with the outside world? And even if it does, will Carriacou (no cases; full lockdown) want to receive visitors from an island which was stricken by the plague?
French Polynesia is evidently having a damn good shot at being virus-free (hence the severe restrictions), and so too are the other Pacific islands, from little Pitcairn all the way up to New Zealand. Some yotties are hopeful that this will open a corona-free cruising ground – but isn’t it more likely that these countries will prefer to guard their precious, healthy status, at least while this particular plague is still in existence?
Why would the people be willing to trust us when we say that we’ve come directly from the other side of the ocean and have been at sea for weeks? Why would they take that risk?
For the sake of our money?
Perhaps, but I doubt whether cruising yotties are considered to be big bucks.
Just as, on the wider scale, the pandemic has led to a temporary but massive loss of freedoms and to the introduction of laws and ‘guidelines’ which many regard as being the thin end of an authoritarian wedge, so I foresee a much more restricted life for travellers. I can imagine a future in which AIS becomes compulsory aboard cruising yachts and our movements are permanently tracked. Then the authorities won’t have to take our word about where we’ve been.
I think we can also anticipate fewer opportunities to visit remote atolls, where the people may well have decided that they prefer the safety guaranteed by isolation.
Even though the island nations in the Caribbean and the Pacific are strongly dependent on tourism, I imagine it will be a long time before cruising is as easy as it has been for the past three or four decades; and if fears of a future pandemic take root, perhaps it never will be so easy again.
Hopefully, my fears will not be realised – but, in any event, now is definitely not the time to go cruising.
It is too late – or too soon – to be setting out for anywhere, and our advice is to stay put.