LOCKDOWN IN PARADISE
A pair of long-term Pacific cruisers share their experience as the pandemic swept over the globe, altering sailing life as we know it.
Sorting facts from fake news is just one of the challenges of riding out a pandemic in French Polynesia.
COVID-19 sneaked up on us like something out of a science-fiction novel. In January 2020 my partner, Christian Feldbauer, and I were in the Tuamotus in French Polynesia, far away from civilization. In such locations we often don’t read the (usually bad) international news and focus instead on our little world aboard Pitufa, our Sparkman & Stephens 41. Occasionally we download newsfeeds via the SSB radio—just headlines though. That’s how we first learned about some strange disease in China. We asked via email for explanations and started downloading headlines daily. The speed of the escalation around the world was worrying. It felt surreal, almost like when the radio show War of the Worlds was broadcast in 1938 and people thought Earth was indeed under attack by aliens.
In February we sailed to our cyclone-season base, the Gambier Islands. Everything looked the same as always—it was impossible to imagine cities in lockdown, closed schools, and empty shops and streets around the globe. In March the virus arrived in Tahiti, and the threat suddenly became real. With the first case in Fakarava, Tuamotus, our alarm bells started ringing loudly. The only hospital in the region with an ICU is located in Tahiti, and the little islands have just a medical center with a nurse and no means of handling an epidemic. We imagined worstcase scenarios. What if there were an outbreak here with people dying in their homes? What if supply ships stopped servicing the outer islands? When panic spreads, people get irrational and outsiders get blamed—as history sadly shows. We reacted quickly, stocked up on provisions, and disinfected everything and ourselves back home on the boat. Thus prepared, we were self-sufficient for months and ready to hide.
On March 21, 2020, we wrote the following blog entry:
Measures and restrictions are changing hourly now, nobody knows what’s going on. Yesterday we heard that the island nations farther west closed their ports for sailboats [Cook Islands, Tonga]; this morning we read that new boats get quarantined for 14 days in French Polynesia. This afternoon we suddenly heard that no foreign vessels were allowed anymore. A charter catamaran brought the virus to Fakarava [Tuamotus], now people regard sailboats with fear and anger...
Polynesia went into lockdown the same day. There were no more international flights, and the last interisland flights were to take school kids home. The rules were very strict, just as they were in France: People had to stay in their homes except for urgent errands, and all water activities were banned. Authorities in Tahiti issued contradicting information about cruisers. An alarming email from an agent in Papeete advised sailors to haul out boats or leave them in an anchorage and fly out. No way we would abandon our boat, and moreover, where were we supposed to go? Pitufa is our floating home. The order was absurd anyway, with neither international flights available nor storage facilities for so many vessels.
We felt very lucky to be in the Gambier Islands, where officials showed common sense and understanding, and refrained from enforcing overly strict rules. Anchored in a pretty, protected bay, our lives continued fairly unchanged.
Soon we heard from other parts of French Polynesia that the situation had become unpleasant. Sailboats got stuck wherever they happened to be on March 21, 2020, no matter how uncomfortable or unprotected the anchorage.
In the Marquesas, the notoriously rolly bays of Taiohae (Nuku Hiva) and Atuona (Hiva Oa) became overcrowded as newly arrived boats accumulated there. The usually super-friendly Marquesans surprised everyone with measures that seemed exaggerated. In Nuku Hiva, all cruisers were to stay aboard; only once a week was one person allowed to go ashore for shopping. During a hot summer near the equator, swimming was prohibited— not even to quickly cool off. It is understandable that France banned all water activities with crowded beaches in mind, but in areas with little population and plenty of access to the water, it felt cruel to let people suffer. In Hiva Oa, the cruisers were confined to the bay of Atuona, far from the village with its supermarkets, but fortunately inventive locals delivered groceries to the dock.
New arrivals from Panama, Mexico and Chile were advised to proceed to Tahiti directly, and the anchorages there got dense. A propaganda campaign in the Tahitian media had been spreading false, negative statements about cruisers even before the onset of COVID-19, and the view of more and more masts in the lagoon aggravated those anti-sailboat feelings to open hostility. The cruiser community called their anchorage “Hotel California” (you can always anchor, but you can never leave) and kept up spirits with local VHF nets. Clumsy sailors “fell overboard” to enjoy a few refreshing minutes in the turquoise lagoon, while kayaks with dogs aboard in dire need of exercise were “lost” and had to be retrieved.
The confinement experience of boats stuck on smaller islands depended on the goodwill of the local community. Some villages adopted “their” boats and took care of them. On other islands, fear led villagers to threaten cruisers —European ships brought diseases that wiped out large parts
of the population in the 1800s, a fact that remains deeply embedded in the communal memory.
News kept trickling in. Tonga was among the first islands to close its borders, so friends who left their boat in Vavau were unable to get back to it. The same went for cruisers who left their yachts in Fiji for the cyclone season. In some parts of Vanuatu, misinformation and irrational fear led to hostilities against cruisers and their “white-tourist’s disease.” In other French territories, the confinement was imposed similarly to French Polynesia. In New Caledonia, cruisers were restricted to marinas, and those who did not get a berth inside were required to anchor just outside the harbor.
craved daily news, but on Day Three of the lockdown, our mobile-phone connection was suddenly gone. No big deal because we have an SSB radio with a Pactor modem, but when connecting to our usual Sailmail station in Manihi (Tuamotus), we received the message that the station also had no internet connection. Without flights, it was unlikely that a technician would get there to fix the problem anytime soon. It took hours to download weather forecasts, emails and newsfeeds via wobbly connections to other stations. Our neighbor in the anchorage started practicing using a sextant and learning celestial navigation in case GPS should fail.
With everybody concerned and hungry for information, interest in social media soared, and it was hard to distinguish facts from fake news. Our friend Lisa aboard Amandla wrote from Mexico: “Rumors abound here in Facebook groups and on radio nets. We’ve heard of cruisers being denied permission to exit or enter ports, prohibitions against anchoring, and hurricaneprotected marinas being fully booked. While I do think a few reports were accurate, the many that we tested were not.”
Lucky ones refrained from boasting about their situations out of consideration for fellow cruisers in truly miserable circumstances. As officials and locals tended to be more lenient in areas with only a few sailboats, those already there did not want to attract more. A crisis can bring out the best, but also the worst, in people.
Sailors such as us, who were already settled in, experienced some anxiety, but those underway were in much worse situations. Boats that had previously set out from Panama, Mexico or Chile left a “normal world” that got turned upside down while they were out. Check-in ports were closed when they made landfall. Our arrival day after crossing half the Pacific years ago remains one of the most joyous in our memories, but not so for boats who got here after March 21, 2020. Suddenly Tahiti was the only port of entry, and boats arriving elsewhere had to sail on. Some did as they were told and continued after grabbing some sleep and some food; others arrived with damaged boats and started haggling with authorities. For many Americans, this should have been the first leg of a Pacific circuit, but their dreams of the South Seas ended with a belly-flop. Many of them left for Hawaii, while some Australians and Kiwis set sail to head home nonstop.
We witnessed the odyssey of a British boat via our SSB net: After a long passage from Panama, they were given 48 hours to reprovision in Nuku Hiva (Marquesas), then they set sail toward Hawaii but soon decided that regulations were too complicated for a stopover there and proceeded straight to British Columbia.
March and April 2020, 62 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths were recorded in Tahiti and Moorea. Outer COVID-FREE islands soon were allowed to ease restrictions. By the end of May, the country settled back into normality, and sailboats could travel between islands again. The French Polynesian economy relies heavily on tourism, and with hotels going bankrupt and jobs lost everywhere, the government decided to open the country for international tourists from July 15 onward.
Just as we had feared, however, the onset of international flights resulted in COVID clusters in the Society Islands that quickly got out of control. Self-isolation and halfhearted contact tracing just wasn’t strict enough to prevent the spread of cases. Fortunately the pandemic did not reach little, remote islands without health infrastructure. In order to prevent the new, more-contagious and more-aggressive mutations from arriving in their oversea territories, the French government has, as of February 2, 2021, restricted travel to those with “compelling reasons.”
The lives of most people around the world were affected by COVID-19 in ways that were unimaginable before. “Making plans in order to change them” is a common phrase among cruisers, but not being able to plan at all due to constantly changing circumstances is stressful. Many who are currently in French Polynesia would like to sail on, but it remains unclear whether New Zealand and islands in between will open their borders for sailboats. Others had tickets to visit family back home and dare not to fly out, afraid to get stuck away from their boats. At the moment it seems uncertain whether cruising will ever be the same again.