Covid Takes the World to Sea

For years the questions have come from friends and family when questioning us about extended ocean passages: How can you handle so many days confined to a small space? Don’t the kids go crazy when they can’t go outside to play? How do you and your husband handle being together 24-7 with no break? Thanks to Covid-19, everyone now has the answer. National lockdowns have given every citizen in every country across the globe a first hand experience of the intensity of this intimacy. 

Now that people have experience being locked indoors for weeks on end with their most beloved, it is understandable to all how we seek distance from those we are closest to. While we might imagine the bonding that comes with limitless time together and constant contact, in truth too much time starts to merge identities. Your other becomes your identical twin. Now that couples around the world have experienced that 24-7 partnership, outsiders can finally get a glimpse of the cruising couple: Tweedledum and Tweedledee. You spend so much time joined at the hip that you talk the same, walk the same, cough the same, curse the same, stay sane the same. Everything you do you same the same. Your days are so mutual that what one does is almost indistinguishable from the other. There are no evening meals where you share the days activity — you mimicked each step of that days activity. While a lockdown partnership may sound wonderful just ask a cruising couple and they’ll give you an honest answer, albeit the exact same one. 

Things get even more complicated if there are kids involved. Particularly school-age kids. It is one thing to cruise with an infant who gurgles and wiggles and only cries for milk. But take on a child who has learned demand and volume, and a confined space gets even more difficult to handle. I have several friends who now know what it is like to spend morning to night with kids who are cooped up at home with energy to burn. After sharing the experience of lockdown in close confines, they are no longer telling us how lucky we are to be traveling as a unit any longer. They have had a sample of the cruising experience and they are now more afraid of their kids than they are of Covid itself. I have no sympathy. Those parents have gardens with bicycles and trampolines and tree houses. And doors that lock. A cruising family has no escape. You wake with your child in your face and it remains there all day, begging to be fed and entertained and nurtured and cuddled and read to and played with and talked to. There are no neighbourhood houses to shoo them off to, classmates who invite them for an afternoon date, sports programs to entertain them or extended family to claim them. They are yours and yours alone — every minute of every hour of every day.   

Bring those children to the table for a session of homeschooling and the recipe for mental insanity is complete. Not only do children resent their parents filling the role of teacher, parents are rarely trained for it. You blunder over describing concepts you know but have little idea how you learned it, and you force your children to sit there while you try and figure it out. But the time you feel you’ve articulated your point, they are bored and distracted and you’ve lost the stage. If you have more than one child, they fight for the better pencil, the preferred seat, the newer booklet. As soon as you sit down they are immediately hungry or tired or busy. For years I’ve heard people praise my patience, my creativity, my dedication, my miracle-mom efforts. Not any more. Every parent with school-age children now understands exactly what homeschooling is like. Most parents I know who were asked to homeschool during a surge in Covid cases lasted a handful of days before the plaster on the walls started cracking from the screams of parent and child alike. Want to know what it is like to cruise with children? Reflect on school closures before you decide to take your kids out to sea. 

Now consider adding working parents into the scene. For many, this year has brought the office home. No more commuter traffic. No more burnt bread scoffed down as that first cup of coffee stains that newly laundered shirt. No more early-morning preening for a glossier version of you. Now that office and home are one people are praising the void of traffic jams, lack of early morning shuttle services and pyjama-clad conference calls. For the better part of ten years we’ve avoided what many call the “rat race,” skirting the traditional work environment for such at-home luxuries. Now governments across the globe are demanding that the majority of employees do the same. Working families have been required to find a place for home, school and office as everyone seeks to fulfil their roles in a shared space. 

For many, however, this includes multiple rooms in a multilayered house. In cruising terms a boat is not only home, school and office, it also serves as garage, service station, grocery store and storage facility. A cruiser will wake up and smell the job list before they smell the coffee. The work desk doubles as chart table, nav station, electronics and technology centre, and general dumping ground. With a miniature seat fixed to the wall and knees tucked up against a cramped belly, cruisers usually work jammed into the corner of a room that also serves as kitchen, dining table, lounge, bathroom and bedroom. They stare mindlessly at the computer screen as their partner bellows from the galley and the kids climb the walls of the saloon. To compound matters, they try to maintain focus while being surrounded by a long list of boat jobs that continue to pile up and, if neglected for too long, begins to tap relentlessly on the brain as a reminder of things left undone. You want to work in peace and quiet? Never envy the employed cruiser. One day in their shoes and you’ll be demanding the earlier version of your coffee-stained burnt toast life.

Regardless of degree, however, we all have our stresses and a number of friends who were on lockdown at home were starting to feel the pressure of proximity in close quarters. They needed to find an outlet or an escape route. A few would grab their keys, jump behind the wheel and hit the road. Confinement feels quite different when you are moving at high speed. Some quarantined themselves in “Zoom Only” rooms and would hunker down for a group chat with friends-turned-therapists. There were those who dedicated the lockdown period to self-care and spent a small fortune on stationary bicycles and home gyms, and others who dedicated their pets by default for an excuse to walk around the block. 

I had friends in each of these categories who repeatedly told me, “Ah, but you have the life! Simple. Carefree.” True, to a degree. But for those of you who think lockdown at home is similar to being confined on a boat, there are a few key differences of note. For the cruiser there is no “other space” to go to get a clear head — on a boat you have no escape and no detox outlet. There is no gym to help sweat out frustrations, no bestie to sit beside you while you rant, no dog to walk, no fast car to race, no bubblebath to soak in. Then there are the practicalities to deal with: The fridge on a boat is the size of a chilly bin and when the food runs out there is no car to zip down to the grocery store. In fact, often there is no grocery store. Tired? At home you can just excuse yourself to your nice comfy bed. On passage you tag team with your partner and set a watch schedule that allows a three-hour rest interval, often on a surface that is rolling about and repeatedly tossing you out of bed and onto the floor. You miss your friends and you can see they are online, but the bandwidth isn’t strong enough to hold a good connection. Want a dog? Buy a fish. Want a friend? Buy a book. Want a community? Go home. So, before you think that life onboard a boat is something to envy, just reflect on your lockdown experience before shopping for that boat. 

While there is nothing positive about a global pandemic and Covid is truly a savage beast, the national response to containment has given the world an insight into the experience of long-distance cruising. For my friends and family who have repeatedly asked through the years, “What is it like?” — they now know. They may not know it exactly, but they know it close enough. I have a feeling I will see a shift in commentary after 2020. Instead of the usual “I wish I could,” the standing line is going to be “there is no way I would!”

Winning the Jackpot

Winning the Jackpot

Having departed South Africa on blind faith, we look back at the last six months of travel knowing that we won the jackpot when we gambled in June. At that time, we sailed away from a strict winter lockdown in South Africa into an ocean with borders closed in every direction: Namibia, closed. Brazil, closed. The Caribbean, closed. Europe, closed.  We departed into the the Atlantic knowing we couldn’t return and aware that we wouldn’t be accepted anywhere we we heading. Our blind faith lay in the belief that Europe would open within the two months it would take us to sail the 6,000 miles from the southern Atlantic to the northern Atlantic. 

We rolled into the Azores at the end of July to a warm welcome. The chaos that resulted in the early Covid confusion had cleared into a smooth entry protocol: An email was sent to our Sat phone a week before our arrival welcoming us to the island and accepting orders for food delivery on arrival. The officials had prepared a free covid test with results given within 24-hours. We were free to travel around the archipelago unhindered. 

After spending two months under strict lockdown in South Africa and two months of total isolation at sea, being given the pass to travel freely through the archipelago was akin to winning the lottery ticket. The weather was warm, the water inviting, the islands Covid-free and we could wander around the streets freely. We slowly island-hopped our way around the country enjoying our new found freedom, we were finally doing what we’d set out to do four months earlier — cruise. 

After filling ourselves with the splendour of the volcanic isles and treating ourselves to a very relaxed atmosphere free of the usual bombardment of summer tourism, we decided to follow our what we could of our original plan of cruising the European Eastern Atlantic. We sailed across from Terceria to Porto and spent the next two months exploring Portugal from northern to southern tip. We struck it lucky again as Covid was under control and restrictions were lax: The bars and cafes were open, no reservations were required and the lines to get into the top sights were non-existent. Given the reduced tourism, we were free to experience the country void of the usual thong of summer holiday-makers and beer-binging beach-goers. Places that usually required bookings weeks in advance and would pack you in with another 200 visitors were on a walk-up basis and you shared with no one. We explored castles and cathedrals, drove inland through mountains, sipped port in the valleys and sailed around Europe’s westernmost tip down to the stunning cliffs and caves of the southern Algarve.

After the indecision and gamble of deciding to cruised in 2020, so far we have experienced hassle-free entry into Europe through the Azores and a wonderfully relaxed and comfortable cruising season; for us the decision has been the right one. As Spain and France experience their second wave of Covid infections and winter descends on Europe, we decided it was time for us to start moving on. We sailed for at the Canaries at the end of October and are currently enjoying the stark beauty of these volcanic isles. 

Looking towards 2021 we must decide if we are going to maintain our seats at the 2021 poker table. Do we fold and head home? Do we hold our cards and remain in place through uncertainty? Do we place our bet and head for the Caribbean, hoping we hold the winning hand? As a second wave of Covid strikes Europe and America and countries are looking again at closing borders, perhaps a trip up Africa’s deep Gambia river is a sensible detour. No one can guarantee the outcome and we can only hope that our luck holds as we sail forward into uncharted territory in this Covid-influenced world.