Report: Fleeing the Caribbean this Past Spring

Sail News

The island of St. John quickly became a harbor of last resort for dozens of cruisers this past spring as the coronavirus shut down the Caribbean

I was inelegantly bent over the bow pulpit, struggling to remove the lashings that secure the anchor when we’re offshore. We had just sailed 400 miles from Grenada, and my wife, Tadji, was at the helm, motoring into Christmas Cove off Great St. James Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “This looks good,” she said decisively. “OK, neutral,” I said, but our Kaufman 47, Quetzal, failed to slow down. “Reverse,” I said, with a bit more conviction. “It’s in reverse,” she said. “Something’s wrong, it’s not responding.” I dashed back to the cockpit, where, fortunately, it’s easy to reach the transmission behind the companionway and popped the engine out of gear. Rushing forward again, I dropped the chain all at once, and our reliable Spade anchor brought us to an abrupt stop. A messy arrival fit for uncertain times. We were back in U.S. territory and happy to be there. But how long would we able to stay?

Like many cruisers in the Caribbean this past spring, we were trying to plot our next move as island nations throughout the region reacted to the coronavirus by closing borders and chasing away sailors. Justifiably, they were concerned for their citizens and aware that medical resources would be easily overwhelmed if a major outbreak were to occur.

We often spend the winter months in the Eastern Caribbean conducting training passages and had recently wrapped up a cruising workshop in Grenada in mid-March. Only when flights began to be canceled, and our crew found itself struggling to get home to Europe and the United States, did we realize just how quickly things were changing.

One of the waves of cruisers that made their way north with the Salty Dawg rally

One of the waves of cruisers that made their way north with the Salty Dawg rally

We spent the following week at anchor in Prickly Bay, visiting friends and worrying and wondering what to do next. By now, Grenada was restricting shore access and requiring businesses to close. All kinds of cruising boats were also now scrambling to get in and drop the hook before the country slammed the deadbolt on its borders. Perched near the bottom of the Caribbean, Grenada is a safe haven during hurricane season. With dreams of inter-island cruising dashed, it was an obvious choice for those looking to shelter-in-place aboard for a while.

With news that the virus was beginning to spread in the United States, Tadji was also now becoming increasingly worried about our kids. She wanted access to the mainland, and since there’s no arguing with a mother’s instincts, as Grenada continued to accelerate its lockdown, we made one last visit with our friends Khiara and Adam aboard their Tayana 42, Millennial Falcon, and set sail for the USVI. It was a relief when the ROAM app on our cell phone confirmed that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol was still issuing clearances as we joined the growing flotilla of sailboats taking refuge there—and there we waited.

Eventually, after chatting between dinghies with the many friends we found there and updating plans on a seemingly daily basis, we decided we’d sail back to the United States at the first good weather window. While we were waiting, more friends stopped by and shared their experiences as well. The result quickly became a kind of narrative of the challenges faced by the cruising community as a whole.

Brian and Shelly, aboard the Hylas 49, Aria, for example, had just arrived from Dominica and were now on their way to St. John’s Maho Bay. After that, we received a visit from Nancy and Mike, aboard the Caliber 40, Lost Loon. Like Brian and Shelly, their original plan had been to sail south to Bonaire and ride out hurricane season in the windswept ABC islands off the coast of Venezuela. All plans were on hold, though, and they were now also taking refuge on the north side of St. John, amid the burgeoning neighborhood of stranded cruising boats there. We also heard from Steve and Maureen aboard the Oyster 56, Ambrosia, who were holed up in Brewer’s Bay on the west end of St. Thomas, like us waiting for a weather window to the Chesapeake. Similarly, Niamh and Gary, aboard Free’d Spirit, another Caliber 40, described how they’d been forced to make hasty arrangements to have their boat hauled in Antigua. Other friends marooned in various locales included Kelly and Chris aboard the Pretorian 35, Fayaway, in Culebra, and Steve and Karen aboard the Wauquiez 43 Amphitrite Ketch, Soulshine, in Dominica. According to Steve and Karen, despite the strict curfew being imposed there, they still felt welcome, as the local people were doing everything they could to help out.

In the USVI, as the number of Covid-19 cases began mounting, some of the local residents became increasingly wary of the growing cruising fleet. Beaches were closed and shore access limited as tensions mounted. Fortunately, local officials did a good job of defusing the situation by designating certain anchorages for visitors and encouraging everyone to do their part in terms of managing garbage and head waste.

Overall, we appreciated the welcome the local residents offered us. Foraying ashore once a week for provisions, we found the stores well-stocked. While we were a bit frustrated being boat-bound, we wanted for little. We baked bread, swam daily, read a lot and topped off our tanks every three or four days with the help of our trusty Rainman watermaker.

The author and his wife, Tadji, joined the many other crews sailing north

The author and his wife, Tadji, joined the many other crews sailing north

Meanwhile, with hurricane season fast approaching, many cruisers who had originally planned to either haul their boats in Grenada or summer aboard were now, like us, deciding to sail back to the States. However, with potential crew unable to reach the islands and dire warnings from the Bahamas and other island countries telling people to not even think about stopping in along the way, these same people were also becoming increasingly nervous at the prospect of such a long passage. Fortunately, it was at this point the Salty Dawg rally stepped in and organized a series of rallies offering logistical, meteorological and inspirational support. They even helped out with repatriation in the States. 

For our part, Tadji and I finally shoved off on April 26. Nine days later, after dodging a frontal passage off Cape Hatteras, we were safely tied up in Beaufort, North Carolina. Just like that, we were once again on U.S. soil.

Back in North America, we continued to check-in and see how things were going with our friends still in the Caribbean. Nancy and Mike eventually decided to haul Lost Loon in St. Thomas and fly back to Minnesota. Brian and Shelly made tentative plans to sail back to Florida, while also hoping one of the other islands might open up again before they felt compelled to head north. Their patience paid off when they were able to make reservations at a marina in Aruba. At press time the Aria crew was planning to sail south as well. Steve and Karen had also already cast off lines for Grenada, which was once again allowing yachts in with a14-day quarantine

As for, Khiara and Adam, who produce the YouTube Channel Sailing Millennial Falcon, they were still making the most of their time at anchor while dealing with the uncertainties of life in Grenada. (At press time, there were no longer strict shopping restrictions, and boats could move freely between anchorages.) However, their plans were also continuing to evolve, same as everyone else’s. “Fortunately we live on boats, and you can always find something that needs doing on a boat,” Adam said. 

Dispatches from the Islands

Reports from three cruising couples who managed three very different responses to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic this past spring

Where’s Home?


Niamh McAnally, Caliber 40, Free’d Spirit

Shelter in place is a familiar concept to my fiancé, Gary (American) and me (Irish). We live on the 40ft Caliber sloop, Free’d Spirit. We have no base on land. For the past four years we’ve cruised the Caribbean, seeking safe harbor whenever the weather dictates. Our fridge and cupboards are routinely fully stocked in preparation for most eventualities. Dealing with a mandate from the rest of the world to “stay home,” though, wasn’t as simple as parking the car and locking the front door.

As the crisis unfolded, we were in Antigua headed for Bonaire, the safe haven where we’d chosen to leave our boat during hurricane season. From there we had flights booked to Ireland for our wedding. I had just bought my dress. We watched in disbelief as Covid-19 blew across Europe faster than a gusting trade wind, cancelling everything in its wake. Even St. Patrick’s Day died. In the West Indies, borders started closing all around us. We were left scrambling.

Eventually, the U.S. State Department advised all Americans to come home immediately or else risk remaining overseas indefinitely. As a dual citizen, that included me. Dilemma. On the one hand, travelling on an airplane and transiting through Miami would increase our risk of exposure. On the other, our Antiguan visa would expire soon. What if it couldn’t be renewed? What if the lockdown prevented cargo ships from bringing food and supplies? We felt we had no choice but to abandon our home in the hurricane zone and just go.

We pleaded with the marina manager who somehow squeezed us onto his overbooked haulout schedule. I could have kissed him, but we didn’t even shake hands. Instead, we ran. Preparing our boat for storage on land normally takes five to six days—we had 48 hours. When we were finally done, not knowing how long we’d be gone or where we’d end up, we packed our bags, my wedding dress and matching shoes sitting hopefully on top.

Was travelling worth the risk? So far so good. On the flight to Florida we sanitized everything we could and hoped for the best. I’m happy to report we remain virus-free. Now, it’s our turn to protect everyone else—by staying home!

Ed note: Niamh McAnally, is a professional writer, see more of her work on The Writer On The Water Facebook page. She and Gary have postponed their wedding until the summer of 2021

A Lucky Haulout


Nancy Magnine, Caliber 40, Lost Loon

As cruisers who spend November to May in Caribbean waters, my husband, Mike, and I had only intended a brief stopover in the U.S. Virgin Islands before a spring passage to Bonaire and haulout in the Curacao. Our mid-March plans, however, had to be quickly doused as countries began closing borders due to the pandemic. With nowhere to go, we began prepping for a long arduous trip back to the United States before hurricane season was upon us. The plan was to wait for the weather coming off the United States to settle and leave sometime May 10-20 with the Salty Dawg Sailing Association Homeward Bound Flotilla.

Making the best of a difficult situation is a quality innate to sailors, and as such, small cruising communities started springing up in different anchorages in the USVI. A few of us in Francis and Maho bays on St. John started a morning VHF net, and a number of locals helped out by delivering groceries and collecting garbage. There was even a motoryacht in the anchorage that provided freshwater to boats without watermakers.

Good karma came through when the Independent Boatyard in Red Hook, St. Thomas, called to let us know they would have room to haul our Caliber 40, Lost Loon, for hurricane season. All that remained after that was to secure the necessary insurance coverage with a $1,800 rider. After seeing the destruction two years ago as a result of Hurricane Irma, we couldn’t help wondering, “Are we crazy leaving our boat in the hurricane box?” But options were limited.

Going forward, we hold onto the hope that when winter weather returns to where we live in the Midwest, the countries of the Caribbean will have opened their borders. Things may be quite different for a while. But we will adjust our sails and carry on.

An Odyssey Interrupted


Chris Jacques, Pretorien 35 , Fayaway

My wife, Kelly, and I had just arrived in Culebra in the Spanish Virgins after our first year of cruising, when the news and lockdowns hit. We had been anchored aboard our Pretorien 35, Fayaway, just a couple of days, when local authorities stopped by and advised us that should we attempt to move we would not be allowed to return. We then watched as other cruisers who had been en route for several days were not only abruptly turned away, but denied any rest or provisions. Strict rules prevented landing or socializing with other cruisers or locals. We were truly on our own in a paradise like never before.

Fortunately, we had each other’s company, and before eventually departing for the United States two months later, we filled our days with reading, playing cards, completing minor boat projects and swimming laps around Fayaway. Being a couple meant we could comfortably coexist in virtual isolation. We bathed daily by swimming and rinsing with a bottle of freshwater on deck. We washed what few dirty clothes we had with freshwater from our little watermaker, and I cooked with whatever limited choices were available from the local mom-and-pop grocery store. Kelly put up with my excruciating attempts at playing a recently acquired plastic ukulele, and we drilled each other as part of our Spanish lessons using Duolingo. Living together on a small boat can be stressful. Fortunately for us, while we have our tense moments like everyone else, we have been able to cope and somehow manage to still like each other. We may have even strengthened our marriage.

We could not return to the mainland United States via the Bahamas, as they were refusing to admit foreign vessels. We, therefore, studied various weather sources and contacted some other more experienced cruisers for advice on how best to proceed.

Finally, after a lengthy passage, we reached our home port of Newburyport, Massachusetts, in late June. Upon our return, a number of friends asked if we still planned on staying together on a small boat considering this experience. Our answer is a firm, yes. We sold our home and most of our possessions last year to begin a multi-year odyssey. When the world allows us to carry on with that odyssey, we will.

July/August 2020

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