Homeward Bound

As I write this we are nearly ready to leave St Lucia and begin to head north and home to the US with Pandora.

We have spent the last week buying provisions for a month and getting Pandora ready to be sure that everything is in it’s place.  Every day I have tackled a series of projects, some big and some small.  One small thing that I have been meaning to get to for some time was to mark my anchor chain so I’d know how much was out when we put down the hook.  Yesterday I laid all 225′ of the chain out on the dock and marked it. I put these little colored plastic pieces in between the links, every 25′, a different color pattern marking each segment.  I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to keep track of which color pattern is for which length but I should be able to at least count each marked link, 25′, 50′, 75′.  Let’s hope that I can still add and that the pieces don’t fall out.  Time will tell, about those pieces and my continued ability to count. As of this afternoon, Monday, I have finished all of the chores that I can think of, including multiple visits to the market to accumulate provisions for a month and several trips to the fuel dock to be sure that all our tanks are full, not knowing when or if, we will be able to get more.  The dink is well secured on deck and things feel about right to me for us to head out.  In a normal year, Brenda and I would probably be heading to Antigua to enjoy all of the fun surrounding the Classic Yacht Regatta, a spectacular assembly of beautiful yachts from all over the world.  Following that would be the Antigua Race Week and then Brenda would fly home.  In late April crew would fly in, and I’d be heading back to CT with Pandora, non-stop, passing about 100 miles to the west of Bermuda, a fairly straight run home.

But this isn’t a “normal” year by any definition.  When we arrived here in St Lucia, two weeks ago, the plan was to stay just long enough to have our new refrigeration installed, do some work on our water-maker and then head south to Bequia, one of our favorite islands, with some cruising friends.

When we arrived, the marina was bustling with shore-side restaurants full of customers most evenings, cruisers and locals enjoying themselves.  Our most pressing goal was to find out which of these eateries were the best and enjoy eating out with friends.

Well, everything has changed since then as Covid-19 rages it’s way around the world.  For months the US administration has referred to the virus that is now killing so many as a “hoax” and “that Chinese virus”, leading many to feel like the threat was far away and no danger to them in the US leading to very risky behavior.

It did seem that things were going to be OK for a while and here in St Lucia it still looked to us that perhaps the more out-of-the-way places would be spared.  However, as cruise ships, long associated with outbreaks of disease, with thousands of passengers crowded into floating “cities”, the local governments realized that these “incubators” posed a huge risk to their islands and stopped their visits.   Given the fact that tourism makes up better than 80% of the local economy of many islands keeping tourists out was a tough call so by the time they finally canceled the visits, the proverbial “horse was likely out of the barn”.

So now, a short two weeks later, everything has changed, both here and at home.  Having said that, while infection in the US is raging, there are very few cases locally and I expect that being here will continue to be a lot safer than in the US.  To head home now to the US now, is probably like heading into the proverbial eye of the hurricane, but that’s our plan.   God help us. 

Within the last week, even though there are only a handful of cases known on the island, we have stopped going out in public spaces, began washing our hands obsessively and moved our occasional evening “sundowners” onto the dock with only a few friends, always keeping a safe distance from each other out in the wind. Most of the islands in the Caribbean have put in place increasingly tight restrictions and they are getting progressively more aggressive every day.

Yesterday, Martinique and Guadalupe announced that only EU citizens and their boats, and that everyone else, even those that had been on there for months, have to leave and go elsewhere.  And they are enforcing a “no sail zone” within 15 miles of their coastline.   And while the restrictions elsewhere may be slightly different,  most of the other islands are following suit.  I believe that between us and the American Virgin Islands, where we are headed, over 250 miles north, Antigua is the only island left where we can stop legally, even to anchor for the night.

Many cruisers were hoping to head south to Grenada and Trinidad, islands that are generally safe from summer hurricanes, but as of last week, both islands are closed to new arrivals so they will have to wait in the hope that things will open up before the storms arrive.

Even in the face of all this uncertainty, Brenda and I still plan to head home to CT.  However, the prospect of being back in the US is making us increasingly nervous given the contrast between the sort of restrictions being put in place here in the islands compared to what we are hearing about in the US, suggesting that the risk of contracting the virus is much greater at home than here.

Brenda heard from a friend in Texas yesterday and was shocked to learn that many of the people in her area of Texas still believe that the virus is a hoax being pushed by democrats to undermine the administration and that restaurants and bars were still open and busy.  Social distancing isn’t a priority and well, you get the picture.

In the Florida Keys, all non-residents are barred from entry and beaches in south Florida are closed because so many people were still having large beach parties.  In New York, the “epicenter” of the virus in the US, some religious groups are still defying safety recommendations and have continued to have large weddings and parties.   This sort of disregard to science and social decorum can only lead to bad news for us all.

It’s alarming to think that in our desire to “get home” that we may be putting ourselves in harm’s way and given our age, over 60, that we will likely be at higher risk of severe illness, or worse once home than we are here.

When the severity of what was going on in China and elsewhere began to be better understood, our cruising friends Bob and Carol picked up and took their boat to Grenada where it is to be stored so that they could return home early to be with family.

Of course, it takes time to move a boat, remove canvas and sails, dispose of any food and generally get it ready to be vacant for months in a tropical climate.  While they have done this for a number of years, proper preparation takes time.

As of yesterday they were ready to be hauled out only to learn that their flight was canceled and that there was no option to re-book for the foreseeable future.  As of now they have canceled their haul date and are in the process of re-provisioning the boat, not knowing if or when they will be able to fly home.

Bill and Maureen, long time cruising friends, summer on their boat in Trinidad and yet that island has closed to arrivals.  Will that change before hurricane season when being in St Lucia will be risky at best and their insurance likely void?  Who knows.  Their home port is New York City and to head to an area with the greatest concentration of virus in the US is a terrible idea.  So, here they sit, all the nearby islands are closed to arrivals and if they leave they can’t return.

For those who read this blog know that I am involved with the Salty Dawg Sailing Association, a group that organizes the largest rally to the Caribbean each fall with a primary landfall in Antigua.

Along with the fall rally, the group runs a smaller rally back to the US each May.  After sharing ideas with fellow board members, we began to talk about organizing a more informal rally back to the US to help cruisers who are struggling with the details of heading home in such uncertain times.

While being at sea in a small boat is very much a solo experience, there is something comforting to know that someone is watching out for you and monitoring your progress.  For those of us that have a long range SSB radio on board, it’s nice to have the ability to participate in organized talks each day, an opportunity to share news and generally know that there is someone out there with you.

Normally, in order for a skipper to join us, they have to agree to a certain level of preparedness and have certain safety equipment aboard.  However, in order to help the greatest number of cruisers head home, and in order to offer a blanket welcome to cruisers means that we will have to relax our requirements.  With this in mind, and a desire to welcome anyone and everyone that wants to head home with us we decided relax these rules.

While there is a modest recommended fee of $150 per boat, even that is being waived if anyone feels that they are unable to pay.   I expect that some, perhaps many, will opt to pay the fee and perhaps a bit more as a way to help SDSA manage the expenses associated with this effort.

A few days ago word began to get out about what we are doing and the response has been very positive.  Normally, this early in the season only a handful of cruisers would have signed up and already nearly 30 skippers have expressed interest.

Another question that had to be answered was where to leave from, and we quickly settled on the American Virgin Islands, an American territory.  Brenda and I had already decided that we would head there, bumping up the island chain so that we could clear into an island as US Citizens.   Closed or not, we expect that we will not be turned away.  Fingers crossed as the “rules” are changing every day.

With mounting restrictions in the islands along the way, we now realize that we will have to do most of the 300+ mile run in a single or perhaps two non-stop ocean runs.

So, our current plan is to leave the marina tomorrow afternoon and anchor out in the bay.  After two weeks in the marina Pandora’s bottom is pretty foul and I want to scrub off the slime before we get underway as she is much faster with a clean bottom.

The run to Dominica, our first leg, is about 1o0 miles, a longer distance than we can cover during daylight hours so we plan on leaving St Lucia before dawn on Wednesday so we can plan for a daylight arrival.

We feel that this first leg, partly in the dark, is important for Brenda who hasn’t done much nighttime sailing for some years and we want to be sure that we don’t bite off too much up front.

The weather forecast suggests that we should have a few days of favorable winds and seas, perhaps lasting until next weekend when things are expected to get a bit more “salty” but we hope to be in the American Virgins before that happens.

We are hoping that stopping in Dominica won’t be a problem in spite of the island being closed to arrivals, as we don’t plan to go ashore and will likely leave the following morning.  If we need anything we will look to members of the local PAYS (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security) guys to bring us anything that we might need.

After our arrival in the American Virgins we will decide if we are going to head north through the Bahamas, the shorter and easier option, or take the longer downwind route past the north coasts of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before heading up the FL coast with the Gulf Stream.

In any event, this should all be an adventure and we hope to hook up with other cruisers who also wish to return to the US.

As always, we will be logging our position every four hours when we are underway via our Garmin InReach unit.  If you’re interested in following our progress, check out “where in the world is Pandora” on this site.

I also plan on putting up posts every few days as I am able to keep everyone posted on our progress.  You can sign up to receive a notice when I post as well.

Here’s to smooth seas and wind behind us.   One way or the other, we are homeward bound.

Wish us luck.

8 responses to “Homeward Bound

  1. There are no plans to kick anyone out of the French Islands.

  2. Bob and Brenda, George and I are praying for smooth sailing and your safe return. God speed.

  3. Bob,
    God’s speed coming home.
    From a sailing at night standpoint I think that you’ll find little overnight traffic within the Caribbean, which should ease some of Brenda’s angst. I recall our 2 February 2017 100nm overnight run from Simpson Bay to Josh Van Dyke. The only boats on radar were two pesty cruise ships zigzagging themselves to St Thomas.
    BTW, early morning on the 3rd Unconditional buzzed by Pandora, the last time that we saw her!
    Finally, we use about 10-anchor markers every 10-meters of chain, marking on both 90-degree angles so as not to miss a mark on a freefall drop, Dropping at night is more challenging. We add 4-white markers at each 10-meter mark past 50-meters to avoid confusion, with unique markings at 95-meters to minimize chances of running the 100m of ss chain.
    Safe home!

  4. Hi Bob,
    May the wind Gods lay a fair reach on you, and bring you home.
    We’ll be following you all way.

  5. Bob & Brenda,
    I wish you all the best on your return trip. There may be more danger of contracting the virus by returning to the U.S. but if one were to get ill in one of the Caribbean islands the level of healthcare may not be as good. As you mentioned in a previous post, the number of ventilators is woefully inadequate in many countries. As I am also sure you are aware, the true danger is that because many are ignoring precautions, if enough people get severely ill even the healthcare system of the U.S. could be overwhelmed, as it has been in Italy. I am sure that would quickly become the case in the Caribbean nations. God speed and fair winds.

  6. God Speed Bob & Brenda. You’ll have a lot of remote support on your cruise back.
    Ken Gordon
    Pleasant Street Wharf
    Wickford RI

  7. Hi Bob and Brenda, so glad I have this link to your website. I flew home beginning of March for other reasons so Doug is all alone. Ended up with no communications but our VHF. He decided to leave Grenada and sail straight to the US Virgins. It’s comforting to have this connection with the sailing community through you. It’s hard being here in the dark. Hoping your journey north goes smooth.

    • Scary times for sure. We are pleased to have the support of the Salty Dawgs too. As they say, “details to come”. And it’s probably not in a good way.

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