While there is an estimated 10,000 people living on their boats globally, there is a much smaller average of about 300-500 who are actively cruising and crossing oceans in any given year. For many of those people, they commit to a two- to three-year circumnavigation, returning at the end of their trip to their home and, if not retired, to their jobs. For John and I, we defy the norm in a few significant ways: We bought a boat within six months of dating. We sailed away from our home port four months later. Two kids and ten years on and we are still going. We’ve cruised through two pregnancies, with infants who became toddlers who are now young kids. We rode through the whirlwind of medical catastrophes and learned to adjust to the demands of living with lifelong disease away from the support of a medial team. We can count up the hair-raising ordeals and the infuriating micro-annoyances with the best of them. And we still prefer it.
A life afloat has its challenges, but we prefer those difficulties to the routine of daily life ashore. Unfortunately, we don’t get to live this lifestyle without finding a way of supporting it. That means shedding our salty rags every few years to cloak ourselves in civilian clothes and hit the daily grind. The conclusion of our last cruising season saw us through to Cape Town, South Africa early-2018. We put the boat on a swing mooring in Simons Town and the kids and I remained in South Africa while John flew to England and then New Zealand in search of work, dragging out the inevitable move ashore. We ticked tourist sites and local excursions off our list, seeing and doing all that we could in the three months we had before reuniting with John. It was like a daily triple-scoop of ice-cream served with all the trimmings. Cape Town is a tourist’s paradise, a cosmopolitan city set in a basin surrounded by ocean and backed by rugged mountains, filled with world-class arts and theatre, music and fashion, cafes and restaurants, offering the busyness of a downtown hub surrounded by lazy seaside villages that roll onward into expansive farmland and upscale vineyards. We indulged in a limitless pick of activities which ended abruptly when we landed back into our New Zealand reality.
Returning to life in Auckland hit us hard. For my son, age 6½, and daughter, age 4½, this period marked their first time living a life of societal normalcy: They had a house to live in, a garden to run through, a teacher to listen to and neighbourhood kids to play with. Settling into the routine was a rocky road for all of us. My son, Braca, had the hard lesson of learning that the world didn’t revolve around him, that other kids also got to make up the rules and school wasn’t a playground on steroids. My daughter, Ayla, was used to her brother being her sole companion. Sharing him and making space for others was a hard adjustment. John re-entered the five-day, ten-hour work week and I got stuck in the role seven-day, 24-hour stay-at-home house wife with intermittent work as a freelance writer. It was a big transition for all of us, and definitely not a smooth one.
Fortunately, time is a great equalizer and pretty soon we settled into our shore life and responsibilities. In short time we were entrenched in the community and spinning around in a myriad of manic little circles. However, we were semi-inhabiting our world ashore and a half-life always has an early expiry date. I will remember the morning John and I decided enough was enough, and within twenty minutes we’d booked a flight for myself and the kids to return to South Africa. John was still tied to his commitments at work but we thought it best to take advantage of our opportunity to spend time in the Western Cape; a year in a young child’s life is a significant gap in time and I wanted to revisit some of the amazing places we’d discovered earlier, reunite with friends, and experience some of the things we never go to do while there. Little did we know these two months would be all that was afforded us.
We flew out of Auckland on the 20thof January, 2020 and filled our time at the frantic pace we had maintained on our previous visit. We re-stomped our old favourite stomps, which included the penguin colony and False Bay Marina in Simons Town, the seals and seaside cafes in Kalk Bay, beaches and restaurants in Muizenberg, theatre and boutique shops in Cape Town, and visited the wine lands, breweries and gin distilleries scattered throughout Stellenbosch. We drove tracks through all crossroads in the Western Cape, visiting lion facilities and giraffe parks, butterfly farms and monkey centres and exploring the vast network of regional parks. We spent a week on safari in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park which offered several unique highlights: We watched a cheetah kill, lionesses with their cubs, giraffes spar and wildebeest fight. We witnessed an old lioness die and male lions lick fresh blood from their paws and shared a tent with a scorpion and a cobra. We visited quaint towns that rolled from cute to odd to quirky, sighting and sampling all variety of local oddity and fitting in as much as we could in the few months we had available.
John flew into South Africa on the 2stof March, exactly two weeks before the world shut down. Our reunion with John marked an end to life as tourists and a return to our life as cruisers. The boat had been sitting on the hard in a boatyard two hours north of Cape Town and the day John flew in we drove north and moved onboard. Our plan included an intense two-week smash-out of boat jobs before shooting off into the Atlantic by mid-March. VaarwelAfrica, BonjourEuropa.
As boat jobs are always easier without little bodies underfoot and the kids needed more stimulation than running circles in a boatyard, we set a schedule that included daily adventures within the local region. We visited a dinosaur fossil park and learned that South Africa was once home to saber-tooth tigers, short-necked giraffes and large furry bears. We visited honey farms and olive farms, local vineyards and gin distilleries, sweet shops and craft markets, quiet coastal villages and quaint inland towns, explored inland rivers, regional parks and beautiful white sand beaches. The Northern Cape was a new area for us and it didn’t take long to turn a few suggestions to turn into a long list of places to explore – the vibe was markedly different this far out of the big city and every town has its own unique flare. And then, on the 17thof March, everything stopped as South Africa went into national lockdown.
Fortuitously, we’d been preparing for a lockdown of our own. An Atlantic transit to Europe was going to take us two months to complete and we had to be well prepared for our own self-imposed isolation. As part of our preparation, we needed to stock the boat with food and liquor stores to last the duration. As public announcements were being made across the country that Covid-19 was not going to impede life in South Africa and for the public to remain calm, we were piling food in our four-trolley train while onlookers shook their heads, tutted and glared at our stock-pile of goods. I hit the local wine shop days before public notification of a ban on the sale of alcohol to fill our bilges with a hundred bottles of liquid sanity. We were soon fully provisioned and ready for our coming adventure despite community disapproval.
However, indication of what was coming was becoming more concerning. Our options were disappearing the closer we got to casting off our lines: Namibia closed its borders. St. Helena closed its borders. The Caribbean closed its borders. England and Europe closed their borders. By the day, all of our intended destinations were denying entrance. For a lifestyle built around international travel, the global lockdown was a severe impediment to our plans. While most of our friends thought we were in an ideal situation and told us that heading off to sea was the best option for safety from Covid-19, few realized that we were a ship without options. We could leave, but we could not arrive. As the risk of being “stuck at sea” was too great, we decided our best option was to stay put.
Our flurry of activity ended with President Ramaphosa’s declaration of national disaster and the deployment of the national guards. Covid-19 descended upon South Africa and over night the country shut down. South Africa implemented one of the strictest lockdown measures adopted by any nation: The borders were closed and international flights were cancelled and the ports were shut down. All non-essential services were closed, social gatherings were banned, domestic travel was banned, the consumption and sale of alcohol and cigarettes was banned, public exercise was banned, a curfew was rolled out, restaurants and shops shut down, schools shut down and everyone was required to remain in their homes.
For us, this meant all maintenance, services and support stopped and we were not able to purchase the boat parts required to complete the jobs on our own. From this point forward we had to be independent in all respects – our cruising season had started without leaving the dock. Our first few weeks clipped by as boat jobs continued to dominate our days, completing the half-jobs left by contractors when the lockdown started and adding new jobs to the list now that we had the additional time.
The national lockdown also meant that all the tourist activities were no longer operational. We were now tourists in a country we were not allowed to explore. I had successfully ticked through the list of activities I wanted to share with the kids, but there was another list which I had been saving to share with John when he arrived in South Africa: Table Mountain. Robin Island. Artscape. Stellenbosch. The Baxter Theatre. Cape Point. Unfortunately, that second list was tossed into the wind before we got a chance to tick through the items, along with our excitement of exploring this beautiful part of the world together.
However, good always comes with the bad and the ugly. Saldanha Bay is an area renowned for its iron ore manufacturing, which is evidenced in the red dust that covers everything in the region. Saldahna Bay Yacht Port sits on the outskirt of this red stained town, isolated on port property just outside of the sleepy town centre. Home was a small marina tucked into the corner of this lackluster town that became an unexpected oasis when the lockdown hit. While other cruisers in more idyllic settings were confined to their cabins onboard their boats, we had a unique freedom afforded us by our location. Our marina was built on a peninsula owned by the Port that oversaw all the boat traffic this side of the bay. We had guards protecting the entrance and an observation tower ensuring our safety from the sea. While the national guards and the local police were dispatched to make sure everyone was staying home and obeying the lockdown rules, we were free to roam our secluded reserve unhindered. For a family living in tight confines, this was significant to our overall mental health. While the community around us sat tight in their own close quarters, we were able to get out and explore.
Life on lockdown immediately went from frenetic to relaxed. The flurry of sight-seeing activities slowed down to a quiet daily routine which included a walk before schoolwork followed by an afternoon of boat jobs and kid-play onto early evening beach games and sunset cocktails before settling in for the evening.
In addition to Atea, there were three other cruising boats tied fast inside our oasis with us. We began to intertwine our experience after two weeks of adhering to two-meter social distancing, and thereafter our lockdown became a much more social experience: We celebrated birthdays together, shared meals together, played games together, socialized together, walked together, talked together and created a shared Covid-driven world together. We were strangers who became neighbours who became friends who became family. Thanks to this motley collection of sailors, isolation became socialization.
The lockdown also marked another significant change to our family of four: We gained two new feline shipmates. Our sibling pair of Bengal cats provided another great source of entertainment, and settling in together included toilet-training and boundary-enforcing which initially resulted in a few wet-cat rescue missions. In short time we worked through the hiccups into a cooperative bi-species family.
Two months into our Saldahna lockdown life and we are finally getting indication that things in Europe are starting to change. As the frontline of Covid-19, EU countries have started to see a decrease in infection rate and are starting to easing restrictions. Unfortunately, Namibia and St. Helena are not on that list and South Africa projects that the spike is yet to come. Things this side of the equator will be restricted for months to come.
Rather than sit and wait for the borders to reopen, we have decided to cut our losses and move on. What this means to us is that we depart a country we haven’t finished exploring to sail past countries we must leave unexplored. By leaving now we forfeit our stops in Namibia, St. Helena and Ascension. Not only do we loose out on seeing these notable destinations, it also means a long-haul from here to the Azores. Rather than a soft launch to a bigger journey via these neighbouring countries, we will depart South Africa for the 6,000-mile direct transit to Europe. Not only is this significant in mileage, it means we will tackle our longest passage after the boat has been ashore and untested for two years.
Like many families around the world in many different situations, our plans have been interrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak. When we returned to the boat at the beginning of the year, we had a rough sketch of how we expected the next two years to unfold for us. Due to the delays brought on by the global crisis we have had to wipe our whiteboard clean. Through the past decade we have managed to continue spinning our cruising dream around us with most of our “big life moments” – the good, the bad and the ugly – happening to us through our travels. Covid-19 has certainly added to that list of challenges. Tomorrow we cast off our lines and and sail for Europe, without a timeframe and no agenda. Perhaps this time when we set sail we are truly going with the wind.