The South Pacific is closed

In the wild elasticity of time since Coronavirus shadows began gathering, although it feels like an age since we canceled plans for the South Pacific – it’s barely been a week.

Since February we’ve been in prepare / wait-and-see mode. The worst-case scenario, in early days, was rerouting to Tahiti; later, waiting out a delayed departure. In terms of seasonal weather, we could comfortably leave from Mexico as late as middle or late May; lots of time to decide! In hindsight, this rationalization earmarked my first stage of grieving for the loss of those plans: denial of the reality that was trying to get our attention, lights flashing.

When I wrote about provisioning for a pandemic, my heart of hearts wanted to believe that the deep stores we were packing onto Totem would be carrying us across the water to French Polynesia and beyond. That the methodology dovetailed with an approach anyone can use to think through stocking up for pandemic isolation was a tidy convenience. But the beliefs which had for a week been flitting in the edges of consciousness coalesced into reluctant acceptance that day. The telling moment of the mental shift was when my shopping buddy, Karri, asked offered to share a six-pack (hey, it’s Costco) of two pound bags of masa (corn flour for tortillas)…and I declined. We can’t get that in Fiji, but it’s on every tienda / super-mini shelf in Mexico. I didn’t need it.

Later that day – March 16 – we texted our intended crew, advising him that plans were on hold. Jamie and I slowed down our manic prep pace long enough to do some concerned thinking: wait-and-see no longer made sense, even with a two-month window to dawdle. We would not go to the South Pacific this year.

If you had told me even a month ago that we couldn’t sail to French Polynesia this year, I would have been crushed. Devastated! We love Mexico, but our feet are itchy: everyone aboard is very ready for passage-making to fresh horizons again. The possibility of not going was unfathomable until it was undeniable. But once we woke up to the reality, this was an easy decision to make.

  • Coronavirus was spreading fast, and globally
  • Sea time as quarantine is a fallacy for most crews; asymptomatic transmission could harbor a virus stowaway
  • Remote countries and territories – perfectly exemplified by our intended island destinations – are particularly vulnerable; they do not have the medical facilities or transportation to cope

Those reasons are logical enough. Then, there’s action and reaction in our intended stops at that stage:

  • Four days elapsed since French Polynesia had cut off cruise ships to repatriate their passengers
  • Borders were closing (a few by the 16th; now, it’s nearly all of Pacific island nations)
  • Signs on beaches in French Polynesia asking visitors to stay on their boats and not come ashore
  • Islanders comments in news articles and social media online expressing bitter feelings toward visitors

Sign posted in Fakarava, early March. photo: Nathalie Gorin

“Notice to Visitors. Don’t come to our beach. Don’t come to us, stay at your place. We do not want to be contaminated by the corona virus. Thanks”

Is some of this surprising? When you consider that people of these islands were nearly wiped out by the diseases brought by European sailors to their shores in the 19th century, the growing xenophobia in the time of Coronavirus is easier to appreciate.

Right now, the people and government in French Polynesia might as well be beacons signaling “don’t go! you’re not wanted, you may hurt people!” On March 18, French Polynesia announced closure to non-residents and repatriation plans for existing visitors. 

The next day, two options were outlined for new arrivals by sea. Simplified, these are: 1) you may provision and sail away (after 14 days quarantined at anchor – and to where? Most Pacific nations are now closed), or 2) you must sail to Tahiti to store your boat, and fly away. Staying was not an option; no more visas are granted. It’s been nearly a week, and since then, the country went into lockdown: everyone stays at home. For cruisers, even swimming around your boat is specifically prohibited.

Yet despite these messages, cruisers continue plans to go this season. Every day there are requests to join the Pacific Voyagers Facebook group from people who answer in the screening questions that they intend to depart. Even today, a boat departed from Panama bound for Marquesas, and others there contemplate the same – as if this was going to just blow over, near term. It is hard to see this as anything but choosing personal desire over greater good, at a time when the greater good really matters.

I had to wait a while to write this, for a few reasons. First, because I harbored deep stress and a lot of despair that boats continued to depart, or make active plans to depart – hearts set on sailing to the south seas. Second, to allow time to process some swirling emotions around these choices, and try and to understand and express them rationally. Third, because in the vortex that has been Coroninsanity, it feels each day there is a meaningful, further shift that’s necessary to roll into the full picture. The tipping point to put this down: that there aren’t more voices saying “don’t go!” – and a lot saying “but I think we still can!” Time to shift from posting factual updates to the news feed of Pacific Voyagers as they unfolded, and be frank.

The initial working titles (saved on my phone in awkward insomniac thumb typing) for this post are telling of my mindset:

  • Don’t Go!
  • Arrogant Cruisers
  • What The Hell Are You Thinking?!

See, waiting was good! Now, as I process thoughts on how we’re all coping in the face of this unprecedented (in living memory) pandemic, these responses make more sense.  An excellent HBR article illuminates how many of our reactions to the Coronavirus pandemic are, in effect, signs of grieving. It outlines how we are grieving collectively, for what has changed and is lost. We are also grieving in an anticipatory way, for the uncertain future.

I’m trying to find compassion for those cruisers by filtering their decisions through expressions of grief. Denial: I won’t be part of the problem! Bargaining: I can help with my tourist dollars, they will be welcomed! Anger/defiance: I can go if I want! Grief, yes, but also I, I, I… self-centric expressions of personal desires, in person and email and social media, blind to begging otherwise for the greater good.

A clear decision point: changing Darwind’s course from Hiva Oa to Hawaii. 19-year-old Richard has singlehanded from Alaska

What about boats that left before those lights flashed brightly enough, or even did more than glow? Many wait under lockdown and quarantine, not quite cleared in, not really able to stay. Those with time to make routing changes largely have; it’s a diminishing set of options. In the South Pacific, just Fiji and American Samoa. In the North Pacific, Hawaii (with 14-day quarantine). The brave could route upwind to the Americas where only the USA, Mexico, Nicaragua remain open.

The impact of actions today on the reception of future arrivals is worth considering. The cumulative impact of the collective stress right now is hard to contemplate. There is a meaningful burden on those there now to be model the best of cruiser culture. In the Marquesas, cruisers at anchor observe others failing to respect the articles of lockdown. All eyes are on them.

And then, even for those trying to do the right thing – departing before Coronavirus blew up, arriving in remote islands after the fact – their mere presence creates complication. Recent arrivals to Gambier islands shared their discomfort. “The locals do not want us here, and seem to feel we are bringing disease. Local authorities announced to all cruisers there were no provisions or fuel for cruisers. They report being overwhelmed by local needs. The supply ship left. All cruisers here need diesel, propane, and provisions. We are hoping another supply ship will come in the next month. But not sure they will have enough for us.”

In case that’s not clear enough, her partner offered: “For those who are contemplating it, I would humbly and respectfully propose that they seriously consider not leaving, and also consider the growing impact that all of us boaters will have on the islands.”

What will Totem and crew do? There is a very real question of greater good when considering where to remain in Mexico, or if we remain in Mexico, and a lot to think about in working towards an ethical choice. Even though we are low risk, that “What If?” tickles the back of my mind. Should anyone on our boat needed help – we could take resources away from someone who needs it. It is incumbent on us – on all cruisers – to be model citizens in safe behaviors, if we choose remain guests of a host country. Repatriation isn’t an option for us; we have to be very conscious instead.

Jamie and Steve “Mechanico” Willie getting our Yanmar 4JH3 turbo shipshape

For now, we’ve resumed life on our floating island – engine work completed, the umbilical cord of a marina cut. Our expectation is that we’ll meander north into the Sea of Cortez for hurricane season, but first, a period of self-isolation. We’ll try to make sure we’re OK, and stay tuned into what’s happening around us. It’s going to take a while, but we’re prepared – very prepared! Totem’s lockers are stuffed with provisions (dark chocolate, capers, gin…ok rice and beans), we generate our own power, some fuel is the tradeoff tomake water, and there’s enough propane for several months with a solar oven to stretch even further. We’re hoping to keep largely to ourselves, enjoying socially-distant socializing once that feels appropriate again.

Is it stressful? Sure it is. We face an unknown future, like everyone else. It is the biggest shift that has ever happened in the lives of our kids, who don’t remember or weren’t born on 9/11. The economic hit coming could be very tough to our family, too (…our coaching service is OPEN again, by the way!).

If there is lightness to be found it’s in some of the memes going around. I’m still waiting for the one from a cruiser that cries out “ISOLATION – THIS IS WHAT WE’VE BEEN TRAINING FOR!”

Self-isolation, cruiser style: how many boatlengths apart?

46 Responses

  1. Sobering.

    Grenada just announced curfew and closing of non-essential business’s for 21 days. Lots of people leaving if they can. We’ll stay and hope we come out stronger at the end.

    But still – a lonely feeling in my stomach as one more friend says goodbye.

  2. Behan even though I feel your disappointment, you are making the right choice. All of us are basically self quarantining in the US. I read an article yesterday where it stated Mexico is going with life as normal and no social distancing. I hope they don’t pay an awful price for that.

  3. Very Well Said.
    Having to cancel plans is never what people want. BUT when you finally decide it is the right thing to do, all of a sudden it becomes easy.
    Unfortunately people are finding it really difficult to change their NORMAL. And when I say people, I’m not just referring to sailors. The cities have been full of people living life as if there wasn’t an issue. Things are changing, but it has been slow to happen.
    Thanks again for your very poignant note, and thanks for making the right decision!
    Fair winds when the Coronavirus has blown away.

  4. Wrenching decisions & realities indeed.

    Be interesting to see how long the Pacific islands will remain off-limits; back of my mind says could be years. Long range cruising and all the facilities/businesses that support or are supported by it have a very uncertain future. Could be U.S. cruisers will return to near shores to re-discover the beauty & variety we have here in our own back yard.

    Best wishes to all aboard dear Totem.

  5. As a longtime follower I thank you for sharing this concise (for once ) post. I wish I had your writing skills since you have helped me to understand serious issues where I am (stuck in self-quarantine) after having made a land-based move to a location overlooking the gap between Cape Charles, MD, and Langley AFB in Hampton: a channel you used leaving DC for the ICW south where your adventures last year are well documented in your posts/blogs.

    That the current emergency is like a Cat-4 hurricane hitting the entire world in stages of a week apart is an analogy I have heard from some of my friends in the crisis management field. I share that unfortunate view (I’ve been through 8 hurricanes in the last five years in VA,FL,TX and Louisiana).

    Keep up the good work, especially with your coaching clients, and continue to provide us “land cruisers” with transferable advice!

    Best Regards, -jim

  6. Oops, I must be getting old, I think your ICW Virginia passage was quite a bit earlier than “last year” as your son was still taking his SATs then! Time flies.

  7. Behan
    Thank you for the thoughtful article. Your expresses from a cruisers point of view what we should all be practicing for Each other , most of my detours have turned into my greatest adventures.

  8. Beautiful piece Behan – I so hear and understand your feelings/ thinking and rationale…
    Respect and admiration for making this decision – and considering empathetically others in this world….
    Thinking of you all,
    Caroline x

  9. Hi Behan,
    It makes total sense – and I am hopeful that the islands can stay Corona-free. Loads of love. Enjoy and be safe! Ruth-Kamaya

  10. Well stated Behan. The greater good of the people of these island nations has to be respected. Some of these Pacific island countries really suffered even in the last year from a deadly measles outbreak (and sadly low vaccination rates). I was in Samoa earlier this month for UN work. The situation felt so fragile. I spoke with people who had lost three small children in one family from the measles just last year, and were still numb from that. This experience with that virus I think scared them a lot.
    You mention Fiji as still a possibility. Friends there today are saying it is closed. And the health system there really does not need foreigners coming in right now.
    Hoping all the best for you and yours.

  11. I am quite informed about the global impact(s) of Covis-19) I am dumbfounded that ant port receiving a small, slow sailing vessel could contain a problem. Keep sailing and pushing to where you need to be.

    1. This is wildly irresponsible. We don’t have the resources to deal with this epidemic in the US. How the hell do you think a place like Vanuatu is going to manage when some idiot shows up with a potentially lethal illness? Have you read ANYTHING about the history of these places? Or even of Hawaii? Whole civilizations were wiped out by the common cold.

  12. Thank you Behan for a beautiful and well written post. We’ve been wondering what the impact of this terrible virus has on the active cruisers contemplating voyages. Best to you and your family and stay well.

  13. This whole experience has been nothing but a bummer. How ironic something so tiny can bring mankind to it’s knees. Ingrid and I are hopeful that the next few years still allow both of our families to enjoy the South Pacific.

  14. Fantastic article. I too have thought about our potential impact on the limited resources of the people of Loreto, as we pause south of the community in order to be connected for concerns at home. There are 3 respirators in their small hospital, yet I see cruisers behaving as if nothing has changed. The local government is closing establishments and public gatherings and supporting social distancing. This is good. We look forward to seeing you somewhere here in the Sea of Cortez! Safe travels, peace and health to you.
    Alison

  15. Hi B
    Thanks for this article, really good info and insight.
    Currently in Abaco waiting for a window to Florida. That should happen soon…this afternoon. We brought in relief supplies for what looks like the last run. We clearly are not welcome here on Green Turtle Cay relief supplies or not. The Bahamas are locked down with 4 confirmed cases in Nassau.
    I am sad for you guys regarding the South Pacific… sad for the world.
    Stay safe
    Much Love
    Judy

  16. I feel for those that started their journey when coronavirus was a mere “glow” as you stated. They’re in a quandary now. It feels like the behavior of cruisers will impact whether these beautiful places will welcome cruisers back when this has passed. There’s already been pushback from isolated places against tourism that stresses their resources. Fair winds to all.

  17. Behan
    Think of the years that have elapsed since chasing your kids around our old oak tree at PaB! Now that your parents have issues, your decision to pull back a bit makes a lot of sense. Your writing has been so so beautiful and expressive it has made us feel like we have been sailing with you all these years!
    Wendy and I are locked down in Sarasota but still able to take a short walk each day. We are OK. Brace is home in NJ with his no-longer kids (KK, Gardner, Will) as they have returned home from schools. He has enough property to create veggie gardens, raise chickens, etc. Our Wendy O’Neil is home in the Berkshires in western MA with Tom and Lilah and Charlie and is also locked in but on the edge of endless woods and sunrises. She continues with her silver work.
    We all have the internet to thank to be able to share our life styles and enable continued communication including video.
    Best of luck. We think of you and your family very often! The world thanks you for your reasoned and helpful decisions!
    Bill & Wendy

  18. Well thought out post. These are tough times for world travelers. I’m sad because it looks like the world is going to be a less open, welcoming and friendly place for long after coronavirus is beaten.

  19. As I am in isolation with my 17 year old son in Mazatlan, I have been thinking each day about what should we do next? Do we stay here? Do we go further North to be closer to the USA? Do we spend the last of our savings for more food and fuel? I am so worried to make a mistake.
    One thing I think many of us are not considering is that people can not stay home in isolation forever. They will be forced to come out and go back to normal lives even if the virus is not contained. Everyone can not self sacrifice themselves by never returning to work to buy more supplies. Its a harsh reality that I think we will all have to eventually face. The vulnerable will need to stay isolated while others carry on to keep the world turning.
    I am thankful that we are well provisioned for several months and I work online. Isolation has been a normal lifestyle for myself. I only worry for my son that should be having a more sociable lifestyle and hope a change for the better comes sooner than later.

  20. Thank you for publishing this. It is so important that boats do not cast off for the South Pacific now, yet denial seems to more stubbornly cling in some minds than in others. Our boat is on the hard in Tonga, where she is legal to be there only through mid-August. Even if we are allowed back to her by then, we have work to do on her before we continue our voyage to Australia, and we probably won’t have time to make it to Australia within the safe season to do so. We are thus facing the hard decision that we might have to postpone our dream of sailing to Australia for another year, and hope that the government of Tonga will be persuaded to extend our boat’s permission to be there. Tough choices for us all, but there is no higher priority than preserving life itself.

  21. Yes, it’s time to put aside our wants for the greater good. To think beyond ourselves. To think about others. I am clinging to this hope that people will indeed, think of others just as much as they think about themselves. My son’s life depends upon it. He is almost 39. He died in front of three of his 4 children while he was playing with them 7 years ago. He was successfully resuscitated over a dozen times, but now lives with a pacemaker and a heart that functions at about 60% of its capacity, as well as sarcoidosis in his lungs. We also live in ground zero for the epidemic here in the Pacific NW of WA state. He lives 2 minutes from the hospital that treated the first known victim. I almost lost my son 7 years ago, the horror and pain we endured for a week of them telling us he probably wouldn’t make it almost destroyed us. His children still suffer the trauma of watching their daddy die in front of them when his heart stopped. He won’t make it this time if he catches this virus. Please everyone, think of the families and loved ones affected and stay home or stay put for this but blink in your lifetime. Your life will not end because you had to change plans, but others may lose their lives because of people who chose not to change their plans or follow the rules. Your post was thoughtful and thought provoking and I know so many look up to you guys and I pray they will listen. Best wishes to you and your family as you ride this out 💕

  22. Behan, your posts always set a high standard (which I am aware of as I try to catch up on progress on our own blog) but this was raises the bar even higher.

    I cannot believe some cruisers still think they can still “muddle through” by arriving into FP. The islanders have every right to protect the health of their people especially considering the history even if it is inconvenient for the yachties. Fluenta and whatever subset of her crew are still onboard intend to return there someday and hope those there now are “leaving a clean wake” for the rest of us.

    Thanks,

    Max
    SV Fluenta

  23. I feel bad for you that this virus attack has thrown a wrench in your plans. However, it confirms the excellent timing you had for your first circumnavigation and those memories will endure. Now is the time for all to focus on the safety of ourselves and others. Odd, isn’t it, that the best thing we can do is ‘nothing’: Don’t travel, don’t go out, stay with your cohorts. As disappointing as it is, I think your decision to not leave was wise and compassionate. You could do a lot worse than sheltering-in-place in the Sea of Cortez.

    I send you my warmest regards and very best wishes. Fair winds and calm seas.

    -Neal Schneider

  24. Thank you for another insightful article, especially in these hard times. We live full time aboard cruising. We just experienced some very stressful days I would not want any other cruisers to go through!!
    We left Grand Cayman on 13 March heading to Panama or Providencia, Columbia after doing as much research as we could, knowing we would probably be quarantined upon arrival (so we were well provisioned). We heard that San Blas Islands had just been closed on the radio and decided the smartest thing was to get to a safe port that allowed clearance as it was obvious things were escalating.
    We arrived 15 miles off Providencia and we’re hailed by the military. “No. You cannot come to port. No you cannot rest or try and fix a transmission leak. Continue to your next port.”. Same thing happened passing San Andreas (although they were a little more polite).
    Okay, Bocas del Torro is the next option. Luckily I had signal and was able to make contact with some people and we’re told, yes Bocas is open. We arrived in the evening. The next morning port capt told us to leave. Then the navy came by and told us to stay after discussion. We waited all day trying to fix the transmission worried we would be told to leave. Which is what happened. 4:00 the navy boat came, guns out, “Do you have food, water?”. Yes. “You have 10 minutes to leave Panama!” Where can we go? “I don’t care. leave panama!”
    Thankfully other local businessmen and other expat cruisers went to appeal on our behalf. And we were allowed to turn around and come back.
    We are in quarantine for another 7 days. We are safe and the people here have been amazing helpful. I wouldn’t risk doing a passage now because things change far too quickly.

  25. Behan, such a beautiful post, and obviously carefully crafted. Glad you shared the potential titles – those are such valid messages! We have all read enough about the history of travelers unwittingly bringing deadly maladies to isolated communities – awareness of this is crucial, and my heart breaks for the inconsiderate folks who aren’t looking beyond themselves, and may cause harm.

    We have put the kabosh on boat-buying for now! It may work out well as time will tell. Meanwhile, thank you for your heart and your beautiful mind. Xx

  26. Thanks so much for all this information about the Covid-19 dangers to the islands, the difficulties sailors will meet and your own decision to not go to the South Pacific. Makes all of us more aware of the world travelers on the seas.

  27. On the bright side, we are hoping to splash from Guaymas next fall/winter, so maybe we can actually wave at each other from our respective boats. Haha. Be well!

  28. Really enjoyed reading this article, as our thoughts have been with all folks on boats at this time. Hard decisions and challenging times! An aspect to the cruising lifestyle I had never considered! I relate to your comments on the collective grieving process and have been processing the same emotions from just landing home to Canada. After our first leg of cruising from PNW to Mexico this year, everyone looked forward to a raucous homecoming of friends, celebration, and gardening. With our blanket expectations that life unfolds just as we tell it to. Rather it has been 14 days of isolation(not on our fertile homestead as we chose to rent it long term… but a cabin without a garden!) and a world that has shut down indefinitely. As I surrender to the moment to moment and the grief, I recognize the beauty to be found as well. The earth is healing and people are reminded of the simple things in slowing down. Our future arrogantly stacked in organized little boxes, it turns out we are just a drop in the vast sea after all. There with you in spirit, maybe we will see you out there next spring.
    Fair winds!

  29. Began- great article. You are spot on in what you wrote. Be very careful since Mexico has not locked down. The epidemiologist in me says we will see a repeat of Italy there if they do not change plans. We are still likely in the upward curve of the epidemic and have not yet reached the point where we will see diseases decline. We are in lockdown in Colorado except for essential services. I had my knee replacement on the last day of elective surgery on 3/16 and was able to go home the next day. At my therapy appointment Tuesday I was told I am walking as well as someone 3 weeks out versus being only one. Will continue to push myself. Now only using a cane when out of the house. We are permitted to walk outside as long as we practice social distancing. I do our stairs up and down several times a day now as well as about 1/4 mile walk when weather is good. Hope that you and your family stay well. It is good to hear that island nations are closing to outsides as it will likely be their best protection. And, as you said many do not have the resources we have. They do not need problems that tourists might bring to them. Take care- stay healthy. Marie Fornof

  30. our cruise ended in 2016 after two amazing years- mostly in the south pacific. i cant imagine making the decision- as we had a very limited mid-life time window to take advantage of. and the South Pacific is SO amazing- but i’d hope we make the same decision you have.
    for what its worth- we are sheltering place in northern california, and its a lot like a three week crossing to the marquesas from mexico . its not that wierd for our family at all- we are provisioned to the gills, we have way more space that our catamaran and we are loving the closeness of the family again. but its not quite the same. hope you all stay safe, and continue following your dreams. chris SV Family Circus

  31. Hello Behan and family…I so enjoyed your article! Please stay safe and continue to encourage others w your poignant writing skills and cruising expertise. I had never considered how COVID-19 would impact a part of our world that many (most) aren’t familiar with. Sending my best and prayers for health, calm, and patience. Pam Semp

  32. Behan, you put it just the way I see it. It really pains us to have watched friends depart from Panama when they could have stayed. However, we effectively cast our lines off back.in mid February when we left Panama for Galapagos, where we are now in lockdown. We have studied the ocean charts and returning to Central America really doesn’t look like a feasible option. (Even if borders were no issue). We think we will have to hope that New Zealand will reopen it’s borders…it sure is a worrying time for us all.

  33. Nice post Behan. Much food for thought. We bring or brought much of benefit but we also bring challenges.

    We are on Gaia in Guatamala now and came in just before the country closed from Cuba. With no thoughts of countries closing. That was three weeks ago. We had not planned this early an arrival but had sudden engine failure.

    Still have nice thoughts of our joint Indian Ocean crossing.

    Stay safe and enjoy Mexico. This to will pass.

    Jim and Helen

  34. The world is indeed a different place than we once knew. Whatever the actual course of the Coronovirus19 pandemic the bubble economy in the USA, (based upon just-in-time globalization and mal-distribution of income) is dead and global economic depression is a near certainty.

    Just looking at the Windy arrows streaming North all the way from the California border to the Alaska border as they usually do at this time of the year. Perhaps its time to go visit your co-authors the Roberstons in Kodiak and have them help teach you how to catch and can salmon. I’d bet on that life style ahead of hoping that Mexico doesn’t follow the rest of the developed world over a cliff. If you decide to make the voyage via Hawaii and a quarantine, going over the top of the Pacific High in the summer is usually a calm and foggy voyage.

    And where is Nial at this time? Hopefully not in a dormitory at Lewis & Clark with all classes closed?

    Fair Winds

  35. Glad you were able to postpone and avoid being unwelcome. How miserable would that be after a 3 week passage? Timing is everything.

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