Death or severe illness. Economic meltdown. Loss of personal income. Future instability. Massive disruption to daily life. For so, so many different reasons, Covid-19 is having a drastic impact on just about everyone on the planet.
Until a vaccine is developed and distributed, shelter in place seems to be the preferred solution. If you were overseas when this all started, the instruction was to get yourself home, by whatever means possible.
And then, to a greater or lesser extent based on your country, people have been told to restrict their movement, stay at home, and limit their excursions to exercise or getting food.
But what happens if you don’t have a home, in the conventional sense? And what about if there’s no way to get to your own country without the risk of significant environmental damage and/or putting yourself in terrible personal danger?
Spare a thought for those of us whose home is floating and subject to the vagaries of storms, cyclones and worse. Who have a limited supply of food, fuel and water, no shops to visit to resupply, and limited or no access to land for exercise.
Spare a thought for those for whom each day is consumed by what happens when the country they’re currently anchored in asks them to leave, while every other country’s borders are closed and being defended by Navy gunships.
Think about how it would feel to be a stranger in a strange land, knowing that the locals are barely coping themselves with hunger, grief or economic hardship, and may be looking upon you with fear that you are carrying the virus to their homes or are consuming their scarce resources.
And all of this with the persistent dread about how you’ll cope when your engine, water maker or other critical system breaks down and you have no access to spare parts or replacements.
Like many other blue water cruisers at the moment, we are in a precarious position, and our short to medium term future is fraught with high levels of stress, anxiety and danger.
Along with everyone else, we have absolutely no sense of when things are going to get better. But unlike most, we have a visceral and almost tangible dread – a very realistic fear grounded in the bleakest of realities – that things are about to get immeasurably worse.
We, and many others like us, need help. Soon.
The current situation
We’re currently anchored in Uligan, the second-most northern island in the Maldives.
Uligan is in Haa Alifu Atoll in the far north of the Maldives – photo © Google Map
We left Sydney in July 2018 to begin a 5 year circumnavigation, and sailed through South-East Asia visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, before arriving here in the Maldives in early March this year.
Our plan for 2020 was to follow the weather systems through the Indian Ocean, travelling from North to South as the year progressed, arriving in South Africa around October. This is the traditional route for a west-about circumnavigation, and the timing of each leg is critical to ensure you are always in the safe zone avoiding cyclones and the worst of the infamous Indian Ocean seas and weather.
When we left Sri Lanka in early March, Coronavirus was on everyone’s lips, but the term Covid-19 had barely entered public consciousness, and “social distancing” was a phrase used by people who didn’t like Facebook and Instagram.
We were sufficiently aware to check with our agent in the Maldives but were reassured that all was good, and we would be welcome. It was a 6-day passage during which we had no internet, so we were shocked by how much the global situation had deteriorated by the time we arrived on 12th March.
Two days after we arrived, the Maldives shut their borders, and we were told that it might be several days, or even a week or two, until our cruising permit was issued, while the government worked out their approach to the emerging threat. By this point 12 boats were waiting in the anchorage with us.
50 days later we are still here.
We have been required to shelter in place in the current anchorage, and have not been allowed to go ashore, other than brief walks on an uninhabited island under the watch of the Maldivian coastguard.
A few boats arrived after the borders were closed, but with one exception they were all moved on by the Coastguard to destinations unknown, after being given fuel or additional food and water.
The exception was a Swedish boat that arrived after a 5 day sail from Sri Lanka just three days after us (but one day after the border was closed). We listened on the VHF radio as the skipper, in wonderfully calm and measured tones, patiently explained to the coastguard over and over that there was nowhere safe for him to sail onwards to. He sailed backwards and forwards for 12 hours, while his embassy negotiated with the Maldives government, and was eventually given permission to anchor.
Some 7 weeks later he remains here, in limbo. Neither cleared into the country, nor being moved on, he and his wife must remain on board, and are not allowed to interact with the other yachts anchored just metres away. But this version of purgatory is much, much better than the alternative, and the other sailors nearby are full of admiration for his steadfastness and refusal to put his ship and crew into danger.
The truth is that for the other yachts who did manage to get officially cleared in, life is not that much better.
We do have the ability to visit each other on our yachts (and that is significant), and where we are anchored has beautiful coral, lots of fish, and occasional visits from turtles, dolphins and manta rays.
These are wonderful privileges, especially compared to some of our fellow cruisers locked down elsewhere in the world, but the good news stops there.
Shore access is still limited to just one 200m long, uninhabited rocky island on the other side of the atoll from Uligan. To access the island we need permission from the coastguard to sail 5 miles to get there, and then permission again to disembark. We must report back to the coastguard when we are back on board.
A turn for the worse
The Maldivian authorities have been helpful, providing regular supplies of basic groceries and diesel, and so the plan has been to sit out the worst of the coronavirus in Uligan, and then resume our onwards journey when borders reopened.
We have also come to realise that Africa is not a suitable onwards destination over the next 12 months even if the borders do open up, due to the risk of civil unrest there, as well as a lack of medical facilities suited to dealing with Covid-19, so we had started to think about alternative routes when last week the situation took a turn for the worse.
After a period of stability and low infection rates, the virus has begun to spread rapidly through the Maldives, and we received initially a coastguard call, and then a written message from our agent, stating that the authorities have asked all foreign yachts in the Maldives to prepare for an emergency departure if the situation continues to deteriorate.
There is nowhere to leave the yacht (a 32 tonne, 50 foot vessel) in the Maldives, so the typical consular advice of flying home to Australia is neither viable, nor appropriate from an environmental perspective (it could not be left unattended on its own anchor for any length of time without serious risk of sinking).
Sailing directly home to Australia is also out of the question, as it is over 4,000 miles away and such a journey would also be against the prevailing winds and currents. There would be absolutely nowhere to refuel or reprovision along the way, and no “bail-out” ports if serious problems arose.
You really do not want to sail thousands of miles into the wind! – photo © Peter Bernard
In fact, the pilot books (cruising guides which outline safe passages based on hundreds of years of weather data) for this part of the world do not even include a direct route from Maldives to Australia – instead the recommendation is to sail down the east African coast, turn left at Cape Town and then sail east to Fremantle and Sydney, turning it into an 8,500 mile non stop passage in the most dangerous and treacherous waters in the world.
This is not a viable option for our vessel and crew, and as skipper, I am not prepared to put our lives in danger by trying to tackle this.
Considering our options
What about sailing elsewhere?
When we first started considering our options, we were imagining that it was just a case of waiting out a few months, and then we would be able to resume our circumnavigation. Now we’re not so sure.
Everything we read suggests that most countries are unlikely to open their borders to foreign nationals for at least 6 months, and quite likely into the new year. And that’s if the likely second and third waves of infections are able to be controlled as countries relax their movement restrictions for their citizens.
If those subsequent waves get out of control, it’s quite possible that countries will keep their borders closed for non-essential travel right up until a vaccine is manufactured and delivered, which as we all know is 12-18 months away at least.
So as we contemplate being asked to leave Maldives imminently, our criteria for finding an alternative is as follows, in priority order:
- Is the journey there viable and safe from a sailing perspective?
- Is the border open and the country itself safe to be in?
- If the border is not open, is there still some kind of medium-long term options there (either shelter in place on our boat for several months, or facilities to leave the boat and fly home)?
Currently, there is no country in the world that meets those criteria for us, and indeed for virtually every blue water cruising boat.
Every country that borders the Indian Ocean fails criteria 2, with just one exception. At the time of writing, Tanzania’s borders remains open. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the President there prefers to tackle Covid-19 through the use of onions, garlic and prayer rather than social distancing and lockdowns. Sadly, that means for us it fails the second part of test 2.
It’s also 1,700 miles away, mostly upwind, with very limited facilities for yachts of our size, making tests 1 and 3 marginal at best.
In short, it’s not a viable option for us. And that’s the best we have.
Many, if not most countries who have closed their borders will provide emergency refuelling or reprovisioning for yachts, and so we know of some cruisers who have chosen to strike out for home, no matter how long and unsafe the journey, hoping to take advantage of an assumed willingness of each country they pass to top them up as they go. While a “short hop” strategy like that might work if one was in the Mediterranean and trying to sail back to the UK (for example), it is a dangerous strategy in the Indian ocean due to the huge distances and seasonal dangers to the weather.
We are aware of one Swedish yacht (different to the one referred to above) who has decided to sail single handed from The Maldives home to Sweden via The Cape of Good Hope, a distance of some 12,000 miles sailing in the wrong season almost the entire way, an undertaking that no other skipper I’ve spoken to would be prepared to attempt.
An Australian yacht recently made it to Darwin having sailed back from Thailand through the Indonesian archipelago, and making it just in time before the seasonal weather changes would have made such a journey quite challenging. Nonetheless, they encountered a great deal of hostility along the way, including the Indonesian military firing warning shots at them while they were taking on emergency fuel.
At this time of year (between April and October), the SW monsoon in this part of the world means that to pass Test 1, the most comfortable and safe direction to head in a sailboat is NE, and so the safest option for us is to sail to Malaysia or Thailand, where we spent several months in 2019. They each have the ability to be able to store yachts like ours, meaning they could also pass test 3. Unfortunately both countries are in lockdown, and have stated that while they will refuel yachts, they will compel them to keep moving, and they will not be allowed to shelter in place.
This raises the prospect of us having to sail indefinitely, stopping only to take on fuel and emergency food in those countries that will allow us to do so.
So our best option at this stage, is to set out on the 1,700 mile passage from Uligan to Malaysia, knowing it will take 15-20 days at this time of year, We will likely arrive perilously low on fuel, unless we’re willing to drift for days on end waiting for the wind to fill in, in which case we’ll likely arrive low on food instead.
Either way, it will have been a tough journey, throughout which we will have no insight into what awaits us. Challenged by the Malaysian Navy, guns pointed at us? Refueled and moved on? And if so, to where? And in what mental state will we be as we embark on that journey, again without knowledge of what awaits us at the other end.
Right back to the start – the nightmare continues
Naturally we have reached out to our embassy, both in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. While they are trying to be helpful, they are simply not geared up to deal with our tiny niche, and so the initial advice has not been relevant to our situation.
The constant refrain is to fly home.
“But what about the yacht”, we ask? “We can’t just leave it to sink, can we?”
“Oh yeah, well you need to just stay in The Maldives then”.
“Yes, but we’re being warned by the Maldives that they may ask us to leave imminently. What then?”
“You need to have a plan in place in case you can’t stay”
“That’s why we contacted you. Can you please liaise with the authorities in Malaysia or Thailand about our situation?”
“No, their borders are closed, and we cannot challenge their laws. That’s not our role here”.
And round and round we go.
Quite apart from the physical dangers inherent in the choices ahead of us, the mental strain is considerable, and is taking its toll on our community of 12 yachts here in Uligan – initially there was a convivial and collegiate atmosphere which really did feel like we were all in this together.
After almost two months cooped up in tiny boxes, with little or no exercise, basic provisions, and a huge dose of uncertainty and fear about our future, the mood has changed in recent days.
Now factions have formed, and there’s lots of bickering, mistrust, and an “every yacht for themselves” mentality creeping in.
You really, really don’t want to know about the arguments about the fairest way to order and distribute groceries.
It would be funny if it did not highlight a serious point.
What was once an exciting and thrilling chapter in our lives has descended into a kafka-esque nightmare from which there appears to be no escape.
I wish I could end this blog with a more uplifting conclusion, but the truth is I’ll have to leave you hanging, for that is where we are at ourselves.
The blue water cruising community is such a tiny niche that it is entirely understandable that we have not been on the radar of governments, who surely have had much bigger issues affecting the vast majority of their constituents to deal with first.
But as the first wave of the virus settles down, and the pre-vaccine measures become the new norm, it’s my fervent hope that governments will start to have the bandwidth to focus in on those niche cases like ours where the standard solutions don’t fit.
The good news is that even as I wrote this today, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade actually issued a statement and memo specifically for Australian yachts overseas.
Stay where you are or fly home.
This article has been provided by the courtesy of Sailing Steel Sapphire.
by Peter Bernard