(Long Read – 3,000 words)
Finally – at long last – we’re back on the boat!
I’d always imagined that when the world fell apart – when Global Warming hit hard and the droughts and storms made food scarce, or when Capitalism toppled over, or when the bombs began to fall again or Fukushima blew apart – then, I imagined, we cruising bums would be well set up. With our own means of international transport and with the lockers always stocked with enough food to get us at least half way around the world, we’d be able to flee from the problems and sail to a better place. (There’s always going to be somewhere which isn’t being nuked or flooded and where there’s still food in the shops or on the trees – isn’t there…?) We yotties will always get by, thought I. We can carry cargo; we can barter our various skills in exchange for food. We’ll move from place to place as the situation warrants.
And then along came the pandemic… and just like everyone else, the world’s ocean cruising community was locked down.
There was, of course, no reason for countries to close their doors to small sailing boats – or, at any rate, there was no reason for them to close their doors to yachts arriving from the other side of an ocean. A small group of people who have just spent a month in isolation cannot be carrying covid. Moreover, if you’re seriously worried that they might somehow have the lurgy hidden on their breath or in their bloodstream, you could quarantine them. An extra 14 days on the boat? No worries, we’re used to being on the boat; we have plenty to keep us busy. Another month? Whatever; we don’t mind very much. However, absolutely no country offered this opportunity to yotties. Every country which closed its borders to cruise-ships simultaneously closed them to yachts, too.
When Covid hit and the world locked down, in that amazing, unprecedented way, yotties all over the world faced the same sort of stresses that everyone else was under. “How long are we going to be forced to stay aboard our boats? Is civilisation going to totally collapse? What are we going to eat? Are we all going to catch this ghastly disease and die?” However, for us there was one other fairly major worry which could be summed up as, “Are they going to throw us out of this country? And if they throw us out, where are we going to go?”
All over the world, yotties were asking themselves, “Will we have to leave the boat – and, if so, where can we leave it, safely? – or will we just have to head out to sea, not knowing when or where we might be able to stop?”
An individual’s fate is always far less certain than most of us would care to admit to ourselves. For most of us, it almost never goes according to plan. But seldom has the future been so impenetrable and worrying as it was for several thousand yotties scattered in various ports around the world.
Cruising yotties responded to this stressful situation in different ways, according to our different temperaments and our particular circumstances.
By and large, most of the people cruising the world’s oceans are following a schedule. Very few are inveterate, long-term liveaboards such as the Mollymawks. Most of the cruising families and the older couples have houses and businesses to return to, and most of the younger couples are making ‘the trip of a lifetime’ before settling down to acquire a mortgage and two kids. Quite often, these days, such voyagers don’t even own their cruising home; it was bought with a loan and, effectively, therefore belongs to the bank. Either way – whether they own the boat or not – such people tend to have a fixed itinerary. They generally plan to be sailing around the Atlantic or the Pacific for two years, or around the world for five. And thus, as you can imagine, the last thing they wanted was to have their careful itineraries smashed apart by Covid.
What to do now? – that was the question facing everyone.
Most of us took around three months to select a solution to this problem, but one Australian-flagged vessel that we know of made an overnight decision. She was locked-down with us in an anchorage in French Polynesia and she simply disappeared. She was there in the evening and in the morning she was gone and the authorities were calling her on the radio. She hadn’t cleared out of the country. But then, because she had arrived just after the lockdown began, she hadn’t cleared in, either. So perhaps her crew planned to talk their way into some other country, somewhere, pretending to be ignorant about the pandemic. All I can say is that they won’t have talked their way into any of the other Pacific nations, because French Polynesia was the only one which allowed yachts to arrive during the heat of the crisis.
Other travellers took a little bit longer to think things through but arrived at a similar decision to the Aussies. Pascal, a French singlehander who had planned on being away from home for five years decided that the situation was too stressful both for him and for his wife, who had stayed behind. A few weeks after the lockdown was over, he hoisted the sails aboard his catamaran and set off across the Pacific. Since the French kept their borders open for their own nationals, and since they own territories in the western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and South America, Pascal was able to make the journey in stages (New Caledonia, Mauritius, French Guyana, France). We’ve heard of others yotties who were in Chile at the time when everything went wrong and who subsequently had to sail all the way home again, to Europe, non-stop.
It’s worth noting that any decision to move, anywhere in the world, generally involved making long ocean passages, and the season always had to be taken into account. Pascal set off just before the beginning of the South Pacific cyclone season. Between November and April everywhere west of Tahiti is basically out of bounds, unless you like playing Russian roulette. Likewise, a number of American yotties came up with the idea of dashing north to Hawaii (which was still open to US citizens), but they needed to take into account the North Pacific cyclone season (June to November). By the time the lockdowns were over it was already May, so there was no time to be lost.
Another solution for those of the get-me-outta-here persuasion was to put the boat on a ship and send her home alone. Yeah, I know! It seemed a bit OTT to us, too. An extreme reaction. But Covid was a stress-maker, especially for people who were apart from their loved ones, and it caused people to react in extreme ways. A French couple, Alain and Margo, had planned on being in French Polynesia for some years, but even after the place opened up and we could go wherever we pleased in that vast water-world, with its numerous archipelagos, the fun was gone. It’s hard to explain it, but being forced to be somewhere, even if it’s somewhere beautiful, is not the same as being there by choice. (This is a conundrum which we might do well to ponder, if we would be happy.)
For a boatload of Dutchmen, the question of whether or not to ship the boat home was even simpler. They had planned on a world tour, and their wives were to have joined them at various places along the way. With that plan in tatters they wanted to be home with their loved ones.
In each of these cases one might ask, but why not leave the boat, go home, and then come back later? With the benefit of hindsight perhaps these people would have chosen that option; but, at the time, when we were still in the thick of things – with the scientists saying that it would take at least two years before they could possibly come up with a vaccine, and with everyone imagining that the whole world would be locked down, with the borders all closed, until a vaccine was available – we weren’t sure if there actually would be a later. Leave the boat for six months? Maybe… But leave her for a year? Two years? Five years….? Would there still be a boat to return to after five years? Would there still be planes and tourism? Would the world ever be normal again?
Despite the doubts and worries, a great many people did select this less panic-stricken, more optimistic approach. Our good friends, Daniel and Beate, were in New Zealand when the Covid crisis erupted – and that was basically a very good place to be. They did their time aboard, like everyone else, and then, when the rules allowed, they began to explore the country. Like many long-term liveaboards, at the outset they weren’t too fazed by having to remain in one place, especially since it was a big place and an excellent cruising ground. However, after they’d sailed right around both islands, and the world was still locked down and showing no sign of a speedy recovery, Daniel and Beate took the chance to fly home to Austria on a repatriation flight. I think they assumed that they would be able to return in a few months’ time; but, of course, as it turned out, New Zealand didn’t open its borders until August of 2022, which was two years later.
There were, of course, people who took the pandemic in their stride and made the most of the situation. A kind of, “love-the-one-you’re-with”, or “love-the-place-you-are” approach. Xoë and Gean had been on the point of setting sail for Brazil, but when the borders closed they simply remained where they were, in the world’s most southerly town. Every now and and then, when lockdowns and other circumstances allowed, they made forays along the Beagle Channel to the glaciers. Meanwhile, in Polynesia we came across Andy and Katy and their children, who had originally planned to sail around the world but who dealt with their new situation in a similar, laid-back style. They spent a thoroughly enjoyable three years sailing their catamaran, Belladonna, around the paradise of French Polynesia. Other friends started out with an equally pragmatic attitude but eventually, after the thing dragged on and on, got bored with having their lives organised by a virus. Neil and Heidi, a retired couple with a perpetually happy, optimistic mindset, originally told us, “We don’t mind where we are” – but after a year they had evidently seen enough of French Polynesia’s reef encircled islands and atolls and they decided to pay their way into New Zealand.
Ah, yes, I forgot to mention that: New Zealand, with its wonderful Socialist government and its exemplary locked frontier, introduced a scheme whereby yotties who were willing to fork out seriously large sums of money were allowed to enter. We could call that Socialism-with-iffy-ethics, or we could simply call it greed. Rumour has it that yotties wanting to sail there while the border was closed had to commit to paying at least $50,000 US in a boatyard. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that some friends who offered to pay $35,000 were denied entry. I haven’t actually asked Neil and Heidi how much they had to cough up, but they don’t look like the sort of people who have fifty grand to blow on a whim; so I assume they simply managed to talk their way in, somehow.
Well, by now you’re probably wondering, “But what did the Mollymawks do?”. Then again, if you’ve been watching this blog, you’ll have noticed the fact that the past two years have been utterly barren and you’ll have guessed what we did. Not so long ago, when two out of three of the junior Mollies were still living aboard, we would have been perfectly delighted to spend two years or more hanging out in French Polynesia, studying the wildlife and perhaps learning to wing-foil. Not so long ago, we would have had no choice in the matter anyway, because not so long ago we hadn’t a penny to our names and couldn’t have bribed our way into New Zealand or paid for the airfares to some other home. Indeed, not so long ago, we had no other home.
That was a good life. We had no other home but the boat, and no other worries.
But I must admit that, all the while that we drifted around, borne on the current of our own whims, I was quietly wishing we had the money for a piece of land where we could do something useful. A piece of land where we could plant some trees and do our bit to try to avert the looming climate catastrophe.
And then, a few years ago, we inherited enough money to buy a piece of fire-damaged hillside and a ruinous stone cottage. As a result, our lives are no longer simple! We now have two irons in the fire. When the pandemic hit, we had the choice of either sitting on the beach, cracking coconuts and watching the sharks swim by, or leaving the boat and flying half way around the world to our remote patch of half-naked hillside in Iberia. There was no contest. The land was calling out to us.
So it is that we have spent the past two years battling brambles and planting a few hundred trees in the most unpromising of locations; shielding them when it snowed; watering them through a severe drought; and fighting back the brambles again when the rain finally returned.
We planned on being away from the boat for a maximum of six months, but it turns out that seedling and sapling trees need lots of TLC. Having never previously planted anything – not even a carrot seed or a cabbage – we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. However, I must say that we all thrived in our new work. Besides putting two hundred fruit and nut trees into the ground, and two hundred baby oaks, chestnuts, yews, and other native trees, we also planted a vegetable garden, near to the stone cottage, and we bought some chickens and built them a beautiful house; and by the springtime of the year following our arrival we were self sufficient in veg and eggs. It was bloody hard work, I may say. And the half-ruinous cottage is still half-ruinous. There wasn’t time to be messing about rebuilding walls or the roof, or installing a loo and a shower. But we showed ourselves that we could do it: we could get somewhere close to self sufficiency (we still needed to buy flour, rice, and coffee, etcetera) and we could plant and maintain some CO2-eating scenery.
The only problem was that, throughout all of this, we were worrying about the boat. There is nowhere in French Polynesia where one can haul out a boat of Mollymawk’s weight and girth. (This is something to consider if you’re going cruising, by the way. Finding places to slip and maintain a chubby boat of 50ft is very difficult.) Thus, our pride and joy had been left swinging to her anchor. Naturally, we were paying someone to look after her. And it was only for six months, right?
Hmmm… Well, the fates seem to be on our side, or the skipper’s karma is bright, because Molly stayed put and stayed afloat during the two years of our absence. But – oh, boy! – when we finally got back to her we found that she was in a very sorry state.
The story of Mollymawk’s exceedingly rapid, fairly major refit is best left for another day. Suffice it to say that, as it turns out, we weren’t the only ones to be AWOL for such a long time. Many of those yotties who left their boats because of the pandemic have got themselves involved in other things – and, it would seem, much more deeply and totally involved than us. Young couples have started families; long-term ocean wanderers have rediscovered themselves on terra firma. Many have decided not to return at all, and many cruising boats have therefore been placed on the market.
But it would take more than a two year hiatus to tear these particular Sea People away from the ocean forever. After a frantic and very stressful all-out effort to get the boat ship-shape again, Mollymawk is about to set off across the Pacific. She is now skippered by Caesar, the old man having been tipped the black spot and demoted to Bosun. I guess that soon Caesar will find a replacement Admiral… (with luck, she will also enjoy planting trees!) but I’m hoping that, even then, I’ll still be allowed to tag along as Cook.
Simultaneously, Xoë and Gean, having spent the entire pandemic in the Beagle Channel, are about to set sail for Brazil. Thus Roxanne, the baby of the family, will be the only one not casting herself out onto the big blue. Rox spent the entire pandemic at university and is still studying now. She’ll probably find something more useful to do with her life than to be a drop-out seafarer and a part-time tree planter. Then again, Xoë also has a degree and a masters, and she reverted straight back to type and returned to her vagabond roots; so perhaps Roxanne will too.
In our next article we’ll tell you all about our recent, crazy refit.