It’s hard to believe it’s been one year (and counting) since the shutdown and battle against COVID-19. Looking back we had no idea what any of it meant or how it would initially change things forever. In one post I don’t know if I can convey every single moment and feeling we experienced but I can tell you being a cruiser in the time of Coronavirus has been a life altering experience and a huge wake up call.
During our quick stop in St. Barts, word on the high seas was that a travel ban was coming and all of the Caribbean would soon be closing its borders.
It was a mad dash to beat the border closures, which was a bit scary considering majority of us are not in our native countries. Several islands followed protocols of clearing their anchorages and essentially kicking out those who were not residents of the island. Forcing cruisers into a game of musical chairs/anchorages, when the music stops you better have picked an island that will take you in.
With the pandemic sweeping through the US and Europe at an alarming rate, returning “home” to the US wasn’t even an option. We didn’t have time to prepare potentially leaving the boat, we couldn’t sail fast enough back to the states, and at that point we might as well be where the cases are low.
Change of plans
Honestly our season 3 sailing plans were sorta up in the air. When we decided it was probably a good idea to head North, we weren’t really sure how (or even if) the coronavirus pandemic was going to affect us or our travels at all.
Our main goal was to make sure that we were safe, and in a country that we’d be happy spending “X” amount of time in. We hoped to make it to USVI, but decided on staying in St. Martin for three reasons:
- Its two countries within one, expanding our options/anchorages.
- It’s a big hub for marine supplies and groceries. Both offer excellent variety but more importantly its very convenient and affordable.
- Protective anchorage in the Lagoon, ensuring no swell in the event of bad weather.
We arrived to St. Martin on March 7, 2020, at the tail end of the 40th Heineken Regatta – a massive event and party. We scored free tickets to see Flo Rida perform and met up with cruiser friends for dinner. Essentially, carried on with life as normal as we anticipated the borders to close. In hindsight, that all sounds super naive given where we are now and how serious this was/still is. The tone among most people/cruisers at that time was that we’d be staying in one place for a little while and as long as we stayed in small groups we could still carry on as normal. This should blow over in a few weeks.
However, it was only 8 days later that the entire island abruptly went into lockdown. And a “few weeks” turned into 13 weeks of no movement and ever-changing regulations.
Isolate & Wait
Despite what most people probably think, living on a boat during a pandemic is actually pretty stressful. The lockdown stopped a lot of services, like water delivery (no watermaker) and propane re-fill. Two really important essentials to living on a boat. We ventured out for trips to the supermarket only via a government permission slip. In which you are allowed 1 hour. Along with the existing regulations (23 hour curfew, no public exercise, no take-out, no food delivery, beaches closed, no swimming (even off the back of our boat was deemed illegal…a fine of up to $5,000 or 6 months in jail). It wasn’t until about six weeks of lockdown that mask were mandatory inside essential businesses. Luckily we had a stack of dust mask from when we did bottom work in BVI. Haha. The longest we were confined to the boat was 14 consecutive days, then we would venture on land to stock up at the grocery store, empty trash, fill up water (by jerry cans), do laundry. Then back to the boat for another lengthy period of time.
We had limited resources and ways to entertain ourselves. It was a challenge establishing a new routine. Our days consisted of wake up, listen to the cruisers net for news, partake in my squat challenge, make tea/coffee, sit around till lunch, boat projects, clean up, sit up top in the cockpit, then make dinner. If we were lucky maybe the internet was decent and we could download a movie or episode from Netflix to watch in the evenings. With everyone tied down in one area using the same service, wifi was very very slow. We didn’t have the option of unlimited streaming or electronics to distract us. Summer was approaching, it was hot and there’s no air conditioning.
To break the mundane routine, our anchorage established a virtual trivia night, hosted over the VHF radio. Mixed with evening happy hours of name that tune. Comical! Its safe to say that the cruising community is largely made up of retirees so some of the trivia questions and happy hour music played was pretty terrible! Not to mention the drunken ramblings from some of the solo sailors. So the young cruisers got to take over every now and then. We’d blast Spice Girls, Green Day, and chat about pop culture. Its crazy to think we spent so many weeks communicating over a radio with people we never met in person. There was no fancy Zoom chats or Hulu watch parties to attend.
The 1 hour rule was pretty strict, it was common for the French coast guard to police the waters and ask for paperwork. At one point it got really bad and people were fined ($1,000) if too many people were in the same dinghy together or if caught crossing between countries (French/Dutch sides). We were once sent back to our boat, luckily without a fine but it still sucked. We just wanted to take an isolated dinghy ride and get some air. A loophole to extra time was if you had a pet. They have to be walked often and our friends SV Sayonara has a dog, Charlie, who was lent out to other cruisers to go walking – lol!
Safety was never an issue, but did become a concern after a few reports of items missing. Boat theft happens, more so late at night. With shutdown circumstances you never know who’s out there looking to take advantage of the situation. So as a precaution our anchorage set up a night watch schedule. Volunteers took shifts monitoring any movement. Brent of course had the Friday night 3am-5am. Woo hoo! There was only one unusual incident of a person in a dinghy at 4am, you could hear their motor but then they’d shut it off and float throughout the anchorage. When confronted they wouldn’t identify themselves and eventually were chased away. It never happened again.
I also gave Brent a pretty fabulous quarantine haircut + beard trim!
Lockdown in a foreign country
Even though St. Martin is an island, it’s still very much apart of France. All orders and communication come from the Prime Minister of France. Whatever curfews, closures, or restrictions that are set in place there was also in affect in St. Martin.
If you do not respect lockdown or curfew rules, you may be liable for fines. Further offenses may lead to larger fines or prosecution. Police checks are enforced. You MUST wear a mask and respect the barrier measures.
Not to get too political, but I’m really grateful to the French government and the people of St. Martin who were trying their hardest to inform and protect everyone. There was no panic, no fighting over food/toilet paper, or selfishly protesting they couldn’t get a haircut. Not having the mobility were used to isn’t fun but there was a sense of respect in doing what needs to be done to overcome. These small islands can’t afford to lose people, revenue or tourist. For cruisers, there was lot of fear of being stuck in a place where hurricane season is looming and sometimes people would get cranky over the radios. All we could do was make the best decisions with the knowledge we had at the time and follow the rules.
It was a very different experience unlike what we were seeing back in the United States. From a distance it was overwhelming and you could really sense the hostility and anger. After being consumed by the news week after week I stopped reading articles and engaging on social media. As an American Citizen I still feel that disappointment and confusion of those turning their “free-time” into political bullying, people making careless mistakes, or just “first world problem” complaining.
There were many friends and family with the false illusion that having a boat meant we were “sitting in paradise, drinking cocktails without any worries”. But the truth was far less romantic. There were plenty of challenges that came with being on the boat 24/7. Overall, I wouldn’t change our experience of being locked down in a foreign country.
Pointing our bow towards the US Virgin Islands
We spent FIFTY FIVE days sheltering in the St. Martin lagoon with 25+ other boats.
With the release of the St. Martin Economic Re-Opening Plan – Phase 1. On May 13, 2020 the government finally allowed us to move anchorages within St. Martin (and pulling up our slimy anchor chain was pretty gross). This was a really big deal, especially after several failed attempts to get the two sides (French/Dutch) to cooperate and open both bridges. At 1pm we staged up with 2 other boats, friends SV Polar Seal and SV Sayonara. Even though we weren’t going far there was so much excitement! Marigot bay has pretty blue water and it was a change of scenery after sitting in the brown lagoon for so long.
Business as usual for the bridge openings, however this time around we were escorted out by the Dutch Coast Guard. Once in open waters they chatted with us over the radios to confirm boat information and for us to consent that we were aware that there is a global pandemic and leaving meant we would not be able to re-enter the lagoon. As borders are still closed. USVI was only an option because its US territory, as citizens we could enter but otherwise we would have been stuck in St. Martin for a very long time. We confirmed, “Yes” and that ended our friendly chat. Our next steps were to anchor in Marigot and wait for good weather to cross back over to USVI.
First order of business, swimming after 13 weeks! We jumped in at sunset and rejoiced, it made us reflect on what we have, what we miss, what is important to us.
With a little more freedom and physical activity restrictions being lifted. We got to explore the surrounding area of Marigot. Across the way is La Belle Creole Hotel, a bustling resort that was damaged by hurricane Luis in 1995 and never reopened. We wandered the beaches, property and enjoyed the pretty views from its abandoned structure.
It was two weeks before a good weather window appeared. We used that time preparing for our overnight sail, boat maintenance, stocking up on all our French favorites, and enjoying time with those we built close relationships with in the strangest of times. Boat friends really are the best! We couldn’t have asked for a better send off.
Our first meal off the boat in 13 weeks! Pizza and cocktails all around at Yacht Club Pizzeria.
We officially left St. Martin on May 23, 2020, with good weather in our favor and a beautiful sunset to begin our overnight to USVI! Sailing in times of the coronavirus has left us all with a lot of uncertainty and continues to pose the question. Will post-lockdown sailing ever be the same again? We don’t know.
Cheers from the Caribbean!