Cruising: the ultimate pandemic prep

Totem is a floating island of self-isolation, swaying gently at anchor in Matanchen Bay…the SUP is stowed, Siobhan’s longboard rests on the side deck, the dinghy is hoisted; gear languishing in the face of our Coronavirus-era retreat.

This afternoon Jamie and I tried to remember how many days since we’d been ashore: without consulting a calendar or receipt, we couldn’t. Not a single crewmember is phased by this. During a time of uncertainty and upheaval, gratitude provides solace: that the way we’ve been living for over a decade means that some restrictive societal shifts brought by the virus are softer when experienced by a boat living in the margins.

Delayed gratification is the norm

In a culture conditioned to instant gratification and fast shipping to meet any need, suddenly being without that certainty must be unsettling. It’s a practical reality that we often cannot source something that we would like to have. Our location may be too remote, the country we’re in may not have that particular item , we may simply be away from developed world distribution.

 

Boys fishing off a village in Madagascar; no Amazon, no supermarkets, not much of anything really

Cruisers are accustomed to making creative substitutions, waiting the weeks or months necessary, and simply going without.

Staying at home is not a big deal

When you’re used to being out and about, commuting, at work, dashing out for a forgotten ingredient – the sudden imposition of stay-at-home directives is surely jarring. But for cruisers, life within our tiny footprint in remote places has prepared us well to live comfortably with restricted movement. Confined to the boat for days at sea condition us well, too: confinement is wholly non-negotiable on passages.

Meanwhile: photo-dating determined this last gasp of socially-distant socializing, 19 days ago. Funny how even our carefully spaced cocktail hour with a friend looks tone-deaf now that stay at home direction is the norm.

 

Six feet apart, people! Sundowners with our friend Alexa at the La Cruz waterfront

We’re accustomed to stretches of restricted socializing. Breaking up a passage with celebrations (halfway cake, Equator party, mystery gifts) helps; being respectful of the needs and sensitivies of others while sharing a small space does, too.

Accustomed to keeping connected from afar

One of the hardest parts of cruising, especially in the beginning, is being far from loved ones we’ve left behind. Tech tools to maintain contact help: my mother learned how to use email in 2008 so that we could stay in touch more easily. A few days ago, we had an extended family Zoom meet-up for my father’s 85th birthday – a larger, if virtual, gathering of relatives for his birthday than any in some time.

 

Brady Bunch style gallery of family members catching up

Uncertainty is unexceptional

The vague future Coronavirus has forced on the planet – our uncertain timeline until Normal resumes – is hard to accept. Cruisers face uncertainty like this routinely. It may be wondering what the welcome will be like upon landfall at a remote island, where the language is unknown to our ears. It is the uncertainty of a weather forecast, always capricious beyond a near-term window and yet a very real impact to our immediate comfort and safety. If this encompassing uncertainty left us feeling unmoored, we wouldn’t be cruising. Instead, it has surely inured us to an element of the stress around today’s situation.

Stocking up is a fact of life

We’ve had to stock up the boat knowing it will literally be months until we can go to a store, and no, we don’t catch fish that much. Our deepest provisioning has been not just for passages, but remote areas: if you forget something… too bad! Make do, or go without. I was able to do our provisioning on the fly with minimal planning thanks to my meal-list method (see Provisioning for a Pandemic) – but had I done my expected, detailed-spreadsheet version it wouldn’t have looked terribly different.

Provisioning in Namibia: not a lot of options from South Africa (January) to Connecticut (June) in 2016

 

We don’t just stock up on food – we have to, well, disinfect it too. I was yanked from complacency about soaking a stalk with dozens of bananas after having a stowaway scorpion bite me in Papua New Guinea! But the bleach-water dip, the shedding of packaging, is also part of our habits to stay pest free aboard – and it works well for virus risk mitigation, too.

No schedule? No problem

Our lives have no routine except that which we impose. Cruisers rarely wear watches for that reason: it just doesn’t matter. But for the unaccustomed, the lack of a schedule risks sliding into boredom. Families are hit the hardest as parents are suddenly faced with remote working AND homeschooling AND childcare – an impossible task in good times. It must be especially disconcerting for kids who typically have highly structured days.

One of the great gifts cruising provides families is that kids, by necessity, learn how to deal with being bored on their own. Sure, we help with tactics as parents – but largely, kids learned to entertain themselves.

 

Deeply engaged in imaginative play, somewhere in the Pacific ocean

Everyday life

Quite a few other habits align well with shifts in the time of Coronavirus; this is just a smattering.

  • Wearing a face mask feel awkward? Full-face sun protection is a tactic used by many tropical sailors; a Buff neck/face gaiter covered my nose and mouth, saving me from the sun on hot beach walks in Peñasco last summer.

 

My alter ego, La Bandita. Covering your nose and mouth can take getting used to

  • Having trouble remembering what day of the week it is? WELCOME TO OUR WORLD! We sometimes have to pause and think to remember the month, and watches are rare in our community. It’s kind of liberating (as long as you don’t have that conference call at 3:30 to have a clean virtual office view ready for).
  • Hair getting shaggy? DIY haircuts and low-maintenance styles are about all you’ll find in the cruising community; nobody is fussed and I can’t think of anyone dependent on a regular salon visit.

 

OK, so this particular cut was mandated by lice… mid-ocean

  • We’ve been baking bread for years! It’s kind of cute seeing people connect with their inner baker under confinement. Unless you’re lucky enough to be in the Med or French territory islands, there’s a lot of squishy white junk out there… baking is a survival requirement. Grateful to have a solar oven to bake baguettes without propane, which could become precious in isolated Baja Mexico.
  • Holidays in isolation: like that time we had an Easter egg hunt on the deck of Totem, anchored at Ascension Island, and the real race was to find every chocolate egg before it turned into a puddle in the heat. At least families can share a seder through Zoom!

 

Easter egg hunt in the remote South Atlantic

Adaptability

One of the greatest skills the cruising live teaches us is how to be adaptable. It’s a requirement for life with a constantly changing set of rules, languages, cultures, foods, environmental conditions, etc. When our son, Niall, started college – he (and we) attributed his relatively smooth transition into the mainstream and a radically different way of life to the fact that most of his life conditioned him to adjust to new situations. The life changes inflicted by Coronavirus aren’t terribly different: I suspect the CLODS – cruisers living on dirt, as former cruisers often refer to themselves – are having an easier time than most right now.

It’s still challenging

I don’t mean to make light of dealing with the stress that Coronavirus has brought. It’s real for land folks and cruisers alike. We’re processing them in our own way. Totem is heading for isolated parts of the Sea of Cortez. We’re provisioned for months and expect very little interaction to Baja towns and villages that we know well. At dinner last night we bemoaned that our last “real” taco was a month ago (it’s just not the same, making your own).

Meanwhile, like many cruisers, we’re quite content to pass extended time on the floating islands which are our homes. We’ll manage our resources carefully and hope the post-Coronavirus normal isn’t too distant. We’re catching up on boat projects, keeping up with coaching / sailmaker work, reading a few more books, learning independently and together, playing cards and games, having group chats with friends and family, and watching movies. With the addition of decent internet and a stable anchorage, this is far easier than a passage!

Join us this weekend for TOTEM TALK: SUNDAY BRUNCH! We’re going to host an open meeting on Sunday, April 12, at 10am Pacific / 1pm Eastern. We hope you’ll join us to talk about life in Mexico under Coronavirus restrictions, some wild stories as cruisers we know get locked out of landfalls, and we’ll take questions about how to cope … or … whatever you want to talk about! Details on how to join will be posted to our Events page soon.

11 Responses

  1. Sounds like you are ready like we are on SV Corina during this virus stalemate. We have been on anchor in Mazatlan since it all began and plan to wait it out here unless hurricane threats send us North before people resume normal life.
    If you guys are stopping in the Mazatlan old anchorage there is plenty of room. There has only been 4 boats here with a few that stop for a night or two on there way North. Please contact me if you do come to Mazatlan because I would like to get my rigging tuned if possible. My son and I have been quarantined for 6 plus weeks.

    1. Thanks for the update Corina! We sailed by Mazatlan late last week, and waved from afar on our way to Baja. We’ll be on this side of the Sea and hope to connect eventually! would be great to meet you / your son and see about the rig.

  2. Beautifully written Behan!

    This isolation seems not unlike what long duration astronauts must experience on the ISS. Best to all aboard dear Totem!

  3. Been a CLOG for 5 years and miss my previous life aboard in the Caribbean, things were disorganized but somehow more organized in that disorganization. Your writings are appreciated in these Covid19 times- stay safe.

  4. I wish I could join you guys this Sunday. I’ll be teaching! I’m taking over a navigation class for a colleague who doesn’t want to do it online! I hope we’ll be able to catch up very soon!

  5. Beautiful, articulate and so meaningful in what you wrote Behan. If it is ok with you, I would love to share this on my family and friends facebook. We live somewhat remotely and all this ‘stay-at-home’ is not even a blip on our radar, a normal to us, as with you. We LOVE the peace, solitude and release to do undone chores waiting for us to done. Read that book or those books that are sitting on a shelf. I pray that as more people connect with each other and slow down while some learn much that is not so accesible may truly not needed and can be substituted, that this may immerse itself into a new normal of contentment and empathy for many. Thank You TOTEM for your wonderful postings. XOXOXO

    1. Big love Raven, thank you so much! Always happy to have you share. You two are better prepared for this than most, and your reflections make me smile and breathe!

  6. Although land based at the moment, we have been commenting to each other how lockdown is reminding us in some ways of being on the boat. Our 3 kids haven’t been phased by it, granted we are not in the worst position being rural with a garden, but I do wonder if our sudden and random life changes over the years, that might have been seen as unsettling for kids, have provided them with some resilience to change.

Comments are closed.