You don’t cruise as long as we do and not hit storms along the way. Everyone asks about those radical bomborgenesis and freakish sharknados, but our major events haven’t been defined by the weather, they have been defined by personal medical emergencies and global viral catastrophes.
There is nothing positive about a global pandemic and Covid is truly a savage beast, tearing apart lives and shutting down nations. There hasn’t been a country or individual around the globe who hasn’t been affected by Covid-19. For those of us in the cruising world we have the added complication of being far from home and separated from our families. Given major decisions such as where to travel, when to go, and concerns whether you will get locked in or concerns whether you will get locked out, many cruisers have abandoned their cruising plans for for the year to wait for a time of more certainty and clarity.
S.V. Atea and her crew have been cruising for almost a decade now, so this isn’t the first time we’ve been faced with calamity. Our first major crisis happened in 2013 when we had just wrapped up an extended stay in Sydney Harbour and we were heading up the coast to spend the season travelling through Indonesia. Unexpectedly, I discovered I was pregnant and an ultrasound in Cairns revealed complications. The following 24 weeks would be filled with ultrasounds to monitor the growth and health of my child. What should we do? Return to New Zealand where we had a home, support and a first-class medical team ready to support me? Carry on and find a way to get tests along the way in locations that may or may not have the facilities? On top of the deep emotional sadness that my child was struggling, it was not an easy decision to make. I did some research and found a doctor in Malaysia who was willing to assist me along the way and the decision was made: We would press on.
Our second major crisis happened in 2015 just as we’d just completed major work on Atea in a Thai boatyard, filled her with a year’s supply of food stores and cleared out of the country ready to explore the Indian Ocean. Our son had been increasingly sick and doctors in Malaysia and Thailand came up with a series of prognosis, however none of them had been able to identify the issue. As we readied ourselves for a long passage to Sri Lanka, I knew things weren’t right: My son was not fit for travel. On the verge of departure a doctor finally made the correct diagnosis: My son had acute ketoacidosis due to type 1 diabetes. After four days in intensive care and a month being stabilised in hospital, we were medically repatriated to New Zealand where we were given a month-long crash-course in diabetes care and treatment.
After receiving a thumbs up by the medical team, we were on our own. We needed to decide whether to return to our home in Auckland and remain under the support of the medical team or return to our boat that had been abandoned in Asia. What should we do? After a trial of our capabilities as medically competent diab support by way of a camper van tour around the South Island, we decided we would return to our cruising life. It was a big decision, as I couldn’t find anyone who had taken a newly diagnosed child away from medical support so soon after diagnosis and I couldn’t find anyone who was travelling with a T1. Sailing into the Indian Ocean out of season would mean we would have to be truly independent and capable of handling a medical emergency if it came up.
Our third major crisis has just unfolded on the world stage: Covid-19. We had just flown back to our boat in Cape Town from Auckland two weeks prior to South Africa’s national lockdown. Our pre-pandemic plan had been to break our journey up at the sand dunes of Namibia, the quirky isolation of Saint Helena, the remote secrecy of Ascension and the mystery of the Cape Verde islands. However, these destinations closed their borders one by one as countries around the globe responded to the pandemic. We considered our options: We could give up on cruising this season and repatriate home to New Zealand. We could stay in our current location and spend a cold winter stuck onboard our boat in South Africa, or we could keep to our original plan and head for Europe in the hopes that we would be able to reclaim some of the cruising year. If we left we would depart a country we hadn’t finished exploring to sail past countries we would be leaving unexplored — not ideal for a woman who suffers an extreme case of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Not only would we loose out on seeing these notable destinations, it also meant a long-haul from South Africa to the Azores. Rather than a soft launch to a bigger journey via these neighbouring countries, we would depart South Africa for a 6,000-mile direct transit to Europe. Not only is this significant in mileage, it means we would tackle our longest passage after the boat had been ashore and untested for over a year.
We were getting an indication that things in Europe were starting to settle with a decrease in infection rates which we hoped would lead to an easing of restrictions. We calculated a two month transit would get us there when borders were beginning to open, but it was a big risk given our destination in the Azores was not allowing entry at the time we were making our decision.
Gambling on countries with ever-changing Covid regulations means that making a choice of available options is a risky decision. The right choice one week may become the wrong choice the following week. For us, our decision was based on an eight-week window no idea what our reception would be at the other end. What should we do? We decided that we wouldn’t continue to wait for the borders to open; we would cut our losses and move on.
In a high-stakes game of international travel during a pandemic, our gamble paid off. As we sailed into the Azores we were accepted into a country that had a clear and efficient process in place. We were greeted by two men in PPE suits an hour after arrival with a bag of hamburgers in one hand and a bag of fresh vegetables in the other. We were told to stay onboard for the night but invited ashore in the morning for a free Covid test with a 24-hour turn around on the result. By the morning of our second day we were officially welcomed into the country and given permission to freely travel throughout the islands. We had placed our bet on the Azores and reaped in the sweet reward.
Like many families around the world in many different situations, our plans have been interrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak. When we looked towards plans for the cruising season we had a rough idea of how we expected the year unfold for us. Due to the delays brought on by the global crisis we have had to wipe our whiteboard clean. We have been faced with tough decisions before and this year has been no exception. As in 2013 with my pregnancy and in 2015 with my son’s diagnosis, 2020 as been a difficult year. Through the past decade, however, 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. No one person can decide what is the right course of action for another, and it is only on reflection that we can look back at the decisions we have made and know they were the right ones for us.
This year we join the rest of the cruising community in an attempt to determine the best options for the year — should we cancel, do we stay, should we continue? Once again John and I were presented with a difficult choice and we decided to jump the hurdles in front of us. Looking towards 2021 we are confronted with a second wave of national lockdowns as countries around the world begin to close down their borders against a rise in Covid infection rates and 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 and remain in place through uncertainty? Do we place our bet and head for the Caribbean, hoping we hold the winning hand? 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.