Since March 17, we have been confined to our catamaran at anchor in Marigot Bay, Saint-Martin. It is easy to establish after the fact what we could or should have done, but if we look back at the first two weeks of March, nothing was clear. We felt that something was coming, but what would be the decisions of the authorities? We were initially in Sint Maarten, the Dutch side of the island. Sunday morning March 15, we went to the immigration offices to ask them if they knew what restrictions were on the horizon. No special instruction was expected. The only difference for them is that they now had to wear gloves…
At this point, we felt that a serious reflection was required. We were originally planning to spend a few days on the French side before heading to the British and American Virgin Islands for at least a month. This famous Sunday, we decided to go immediately to Marigot on the French side of the island. Our reasoning being that if a lockdown should occur, we would probably be safer in a French overseas territory, where normally the rules are clear, and which would receive the support from the mainland if necessary. It is, I believe, the best decision we have made.
That same Sunday evening, lockdown was announced in France for Tuesday the 17th at noon. We therefore cleared in Saint-Martin and spent the days of Monday and Tuesday preparing to deal with any eventuality: full of gas for the dinghy and diesel for the catamaran, butane for cooking, articles necessary for maintenance at the ship chandler and groceries. We also discussed the different scenarios that we might have to consider if the situation developed in an optimistic, pessimistic or dramatic way, both locally and globally.
On Tuesday, the lockdown began, and on Thursday the 19th, the British Virgin Islands announced the closure of their borders. Our intuition was confirmed: It is in Saint-Martin that we would spend this period.
In the following week, all borders closed. Apart from a few islands that allow boats to enter, subject to a quarantine on board or sometimes at the hotel, there was no longer any possibility of sailing around. The planes that landed and took off from the airport suddenly fell silent. The stories of less welcoming islands multiplied … It is understandable that some islands already deprived of a lot of resources in normal times do not want to take the responsibility of boaters in addition to that of their citizens. So, in Cuba, everyone had to leave. Elsewhere, cruise permits are no longer renewed, etc. We read and heard many stories of boaters chased by the Coast Guard as they tried to enter a territory and they no longer knew where to go. We also read or heard several stories of boaters who behaved like they were fully entitled and flouted the confinement rules, which obviously did not play to our advantage. Sailboats arriving from Europe after three weeks at sea quickly saw their dream of cold beer replaced by the search for a port ready to receive them.
In Saint-Martin, each morning, we tuned in to the local VHF network at 7:30 a.m. on channel 10 to try to find some information. But we mostly heard presentations on miracle treatments against COVID 19 (hairdryer directed precisely towards the sinuses, yogic breaths or taking a drug touted by a certain president), all this strewn with perceptions on the local rules presented as truths. It was very difficult to identify what was allowed or not.
On this same VHF network, we learned that a man was evacuated from a catamaran named “Paradox” anchored less than 100 meters from ours. Confirmed COVID 19, he was transferred to Miami where he died a few days later. His wife, who reported on developments on the air every day, was also declared positive and was eventually evacuated. The boat is still anchored behind us, silent. Like us, they had recently made the decision to leave a busy life to sail on the oceans.
We are therefore aware of our luck in this difficult situation. When we are less sure, we only have to turn our heads to starboard where an Australian family with three very young children on board, one of whom is in diapers, is confined to a boat smaller than ours.
Every day, we follow what is happening at home. We listen to the news from Radio-Canada at noon and the daily press conference of our Prime Minister. We keep our ears open towards France since the rules of the mainland are those applied here … So, on the radio we also listen to speeches by President Macron.
Canada’s Honorary Consul is very accessible and the organization from the Department of External Affairs reminds us of how good it is to be Canadian. They are there to facilitate our evacuation and inform us regularly. It doesn’t change the fact that we’re on a catamaran which is sort of our home. This implies a reality very different from other travelers: 1) We are already at home so for us there is no emergency 2) It is impossible to leave the boat without first storing it in a safe place before the hurricane season.
It became clear that our original program to go north and leave the boat safe somewhere on the American east coast no longer held. We therefore immediately booked a mooring with concierge service at Le Marin in Martinique from Néo Marine. Wise decision since if we wanted to do the same today it would be impossible given the hundreds of boats which like us will have to change their plans and spend the hurricane season in the Antilles. Indeed, we are coming to the period when sailboats normally go back to the United States or return to Europe. This year is the exception rather than the rule, and as Canadians, there is no guarantee that the United States would accept us. The rules change every day … The only certainty at this point is that all the islands are closed. Americans and Europeans have welcoming lands within sailing range (American Virgin Islands, French Islands), but the many Canadians and Australians are rather far from their profit.
So, we have to be patient. Isabelle and I have established a nice routine centered around reading and exercise, which are combined with video editing and writing for Isabelle, and cooking and boat maintenance for me. We go out of the boat once a week for groceries. We must then have on hand our derogatory travel certificate duly timed and signed.
There are many rules, but they are not perfectly clear. The best reference is the Facebook page of the local prefecture. For example, we now know that we are not allowed to swim around the boat. The gendarmes “verbalized” several neighbors for this purpose (135 Euros please!). The army, the customs officers visit the boats at anchor. And the answers differ … Can we swim within 50 meters of the boat? Or not at all? Do we have the right to be two in the dinghy? Apparently not, but everyone does. So, we do our best to limit movement and we swim with caution. And of course, we cannot sail (or even move the boat).
Is it heaven on earth? Not really, but it could be worse. We are naturally positive and choose to be happy in this misfortune that surrounds us. We basically have two imperatives to consider in our game plan: The first is the loss of our health insurance coverage and the second is the hurricane season.
For travel medical insurance, we first received a notice to the effect that all coverage ends on April 30, with no possibility of extending. The insurers finally adapted, and we were able to renew our coverage a few days before this deadline, which includes COVID 19. Problem solved.
For the hurricane season… We have already chosen Le Marin in Martinique, which is about 300 nautical miles further south, so in theory less at risk, but all the same in the hurricane zone. The penalty is at the level of the insurance with a premium which promises to be quite hefty. Our goal is to get there by June. For the moment the border is closed, and the (partial) deconfinement being announced for May 11, we will see what the possibilities are from that point in time. The French “direction de la mer” has refused us travel until now, but opened the door for the period following May 11, when the decrees in place will expire. If we were under a European flag, we could go there now, France being open to EU flags. If we were to be stuck in Saint-Martin, there is always the lagoon to take refuge, but during the passage of Irma in 2017, all the boats there were damaged. Alternatively, as we see these systems coming more than a week in advance, the possibility of sailing away if a system approached going south for 4 or 5 days in order to escape it remains an option. It would then be necessary to target Grenada or even Trinidad, stay offshore, and go up north when the danger is over.
Is it perfect? No. But it’s a period of introspection which we have chosen to take advantage of. We will be happy to return home, normally in July if flights resume by then. We will certainly have a quarantine of fourteen days to do in Martinique and probably another when entering Canada. We have to learn to live with uncertainty. We are enjoying every moment but can’t wait to see our families, our friends and to be home.
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