This is the story of how I came to be living on this sailing vessel and what life is like now during the Covid-19 Pandemic. This blog post began as an email to NPR, to explain my situation, in hopes that we may get chosen to do a podcast episode in their new series “Hunker Down”, a podcast about people thrown together in unexpected circumstances by the pandemic.
Warm greetings from the Caribbean Sea!
I am currently living aboard a 42′ sailboat, with about 350 square feet of living space, that I have been crewing on this season. The captain and I have been anchored off the small island of St. Kitts, a part of the dual-island Federation of St. Kitts & Nevis for over a month. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, for 3-6 days at a time this country goes on 24-hour curfew, with 2 day breaks for essential provisioning in between. (For us this means that we can’t get off our boats and go on land without the risk of being arrested, but we can still swim in the sea.)
We are currently our 4th lock-down period. The two days for provisioning sends people donning masks flocking to the big grocery stores to stand in 3-6 hour lines, spaced 6-feet apart, in the tropical heat. There are also options to buy from produce vendors and small farms where one can avoid the craziness of such long waits.
I came aboard with Captain Ray off the island of Guadalupe in late December. I had traveled from my home in the far north of California to live and work on the sailboat of a Frenchman who had enlisted me and an Italian crewmate to create relaxation retreats and give massages to clients. We had been there for 2 weeks and had discovered that things were not as described, as we spent our time mending his sails and cooking his lunch. We had started searching for another boat to get us out of Guadalupe and were not having a lot of luck.
A year earlier, I had made an online connection with this American captain named Ray through a crew-finding website. I was boat sitting for someone in Grenada, and he was looking for crew. However, at that time I had decided that I had to go back to California to pick up the pieces of my failing Airbnb. Upon making contact with him again, I discovered he was single-handing near us and hoping to find a crewmate or two for the season.
Ray came to our rescue. He sailed down from Antigua to get us, and the three of us sailed north together. For two months we ended up sailing through the Lesser Antilles, exploring new islands, swimming coral reefs, dealing with life’s demands and challenges, and looking out for each other – growing into a little “cruising family”.
Our Italian crewmate took a flight out in the end of February from the US Virgin Islands and I stayed on board, making plans to go off on my own journey to Belize and depart from my crew position at the end of March.
When we arrived in St. Kitts and Nevis on March 15 we saw our first sign of the pandemic in the islands: we were asked to fill out a quick form asking where we came from and how long our voyage had been. We were required to confirm that no one had been sick, had symptoms, or died on the boat during our passage. When we left Sint Maarten the day before there was a small murmuring of this Covid-19 virus, but we weren’t online much and were not very well informed about things happening in the greater world.
We went on to enjoy three days of taking the dinghy to land to soak in some local hot springs on Nevis and used the free Wi-Fi to collect little bits of information from friends and family back in the US.
I was shocked at the things I was hearing, while I moved freely in a culture where it was just business as usual and there was plenty of toilet paper on the shelves. As I began seeing the speed at which this pandemic was unfolding at home in California, I asked friends to help me make a decision about trying to go forward with flying to Belize or to just continue living on the sailboat with Ray for an unknown period of time.
From their responses I understood that it was not socially responsible for me to fly, so I chose to stay put. (My flight was later cancelled anyway.) Ray and I decided we liked the country we were in and we went to Customs to get our stay extended, where we were granted another 30 days. We spent 3 days provisioning – stocking the boat with food and filling all of our water, propane, and diesel tanks. I set out to meet anyone who was also here living on a sailboat and made friends with a few locals too. If this was to become my home country for an unknown period of time, I needed a community.
I now know almost all of the sailors living in the waters of this country, as we have been here together for over a month. There are about 20 live-aboard sailboats here, we are people from the Czech Republic, Italy, USA, Sweden, Guadeloupe, Norway, Canada, England, Germany, and Switzerland brought together into a small, floating community. It is unusual for cruisers to be stationary in the same country and anchorages for so long outside of hurricane season. This is a very unique experience in the way we are all here for over a month now, but not unusual in the way of the camaraderie that often is found within the cruising culture.
When I got my first 30 day extension to stay here, I quickly created a Facebook group where the cruisers could connect and share questions, concerns, and information during these unprecedented times. Some new friends I met took their dinghy around to some of the sailboats on anchor and shared our group with them and they joined. The few sailors that have left have kept up with us to let us know how their travels are going and when they return to their home ports.
Here in the anchorage, we chat from the waters around each other’s boats when we are out on swims, over VHF radio or WhatsApp, or from our dinghies or on the dock on our days off lock-down. We help each other out in the little ways we can, like picking up items for each other at the stores or exchanging garlic for the distilled water we needed for our battery bank. The other night I had found out that the Czech woman on the boat behind us was turning 50. I contacted my friends on another boat and we organized a little surprise party. We pulled up in our dinghies to their boat and I played a Czech version of the happy birthday tune over a speaker while we shared a bottle of champagne. I even received a consultation from a husband and wife chiropractic duo yesterday. Afterwards they said, “We want to thank you for choosing us as your primary care, as I know you have a lot of choices here in the anchorage.” Ha! Humor goes a long way in these times.
The borders have locked down on island nations all around us, leaving sailors in a variety of strange predicaments and with concern about being able to eventually move to safe harbor as the hurricane season gets closer by the day. For now we hunker down with our anchor tethering us to the Earth, floating on the Caribbean Sea, doing our best to support and look out for each other in this little community, and enjoy the present moment and the blessings of each new day.