Home, but how? When?

It’s hard to believe that it was a short five weeks ago when we arrived in St Lucia to arrange for our new refrigeration to be installed aboard Pandora.  When we arrived first tied up in the marina the virus was far away, something effecting China.  We had no idea what was coming and how fast EVERYTHING would be different.

So much has changed since then, with the world gone mad and Covid-19 invading nearly every corner of the planet.  One by one all of the Caribbean islands closed their borders, with new and more restrictions coming in a daily barrage.  A tsunami of bad news effecting cruisers with one island after another cutting themselves off from the world, trying to protect their people from an invisible invader.

Antigua, where we have been for the last two weeks, was the last island to close down and now the American Virgin Islands is the only place in the Caribbean that  a cruiser can make landfall legally.

Flights to and from Antigua have been cut off for some time now and last night I heard that there would be “one last flight” off of the island for US Nationals.  And at $550 per seat, you would only find your way to Puerto Rico. From there you’d have to catch yet another flight to get yourself to the US.

Who would have guessed, last November, when I headed south from Hampton VA with the Salty Dawg Rally, that the world would be in the grips of a once in a 100 year pandemic.  And that we would be stuck here in Antigua, unsure about when and how we would be taking Pandora home.  And, on top of all that, there is NO WAY that I would have imagined Brenda facing a 1,000+ mile ocean voyage to get back home.

In spite of being one of the most powerful nations on earth, the US seems to have met her match, at least from the standpoint of national leadership, in trying to come to grips with this threat.  The latest installment by Trump is to cut off funding from the World Health Organization, blaming them for bungling the handling of the pandemic.  What better time to lash out at the one group tasked with being the world wide disease watchdog in the middle of a once in a century pandemic?   Holy crap, you just can’t make this stuff up.

Being outside of the US for so much time during the last few years has sensitized me to how the US is perceived by other nations and lately that perception has not been good at all.  Recently I subscribed to the Times of London to get a different perspective on all this.   It has been sobering to read what’s being said about our leadership and most recently about Trump’s move against the WHO in particular.  The current view by our closest ally is not in the least bit flattering and that makes me sad.

Anyway, so much has changed and here we sit, confined aboard Pandora with only very limited rights to head ashore now and again for groceries.

Fortunately, we are at least allowed to swim around the boat as I am told that in Grenada, even that is no longer allowed.

The week long quarantine here has been extended to a second week and it seems that most everyone has gotten used to the “new normal”.   Unfortunately, there are outliers, in particular, a few cruisers that are really chafing at the restrictions and somehow find a way to have “essential reasons” to head ashore each and every morning, to go to the grocery or whatever for several hours. 

A grocery run does adhere to the law but a daily run is not what is intended and certainly not in keeping with the spirit of what is being asked of us.  Somehow  some cruisers seem to have that we are guests in this country.  From our perspective, we are being treated very well here and want to do whatever we can do to honor that.  The mere fact that Brenda and I were allowed to clear into Antigua, the last available island for hundreds of miles north or south, says a lot about how the government views our presence.

Other islands have not been so welcoming and Brenda and I will not soon forget how it felt to be shadowed by a huge French warship as we made passage along the coast of Guadalupe, on our way here.

Of course, there are always a few that find it hard to understand what’s being asked of them and I really hope that the broader cruising community, the vast majority who are following the rules, aren’t painted with the same brush.

The Antigua Coast Guard continues to patrol the harbors and anchorages daily  and if you wish to head to another harbor in Antigua you must ask them for permission.  Yesterday morning Brenda and I decided that it was time to pump out our holding tanks, brimming from use since our last trip out of the harbor,  more than a week ago. We called, as required on VHF 16 to ask permission.   It took a while to connect with them but finally we received a reply and we were granted a one hour “permit” to head out, “do our business” and return to anchor.

Later that evening I was participating in a “virtual Tot” on Zoom with the Antigua and Barbuda Royal Navy Tot Club, and some of those on the call said that they had heard our discussion with the Coast Guard and commented that we were likely the only “environmentally oriented cruisers” in the harbor.   Sad but true, as I had noticed that nobody seems to be upping anchor to head out briefly, for any reason.  It’s sad to see that cruisers seem willing to “dirty their own nest”, the water that we all swim in.

And, speaking of the Tot Club, they meet every evening, to carry on a long British Navy Tradition, at 18:00 to “toast” the end of the day and, of course, the Queen.  It’s a terrific group and I am happy to say that I joined a few years ago.  They are very supportive of each other and it’s a nice group to be involved with.   For those who may not recall my description of the club and it’s purpose, I wrote about my effort to join in this post.  

So, every night for the club, and a few nights a week for me, there is an opportunity share fellowship and a Tot on Zoom, as they are no longer able to meet in person.   On any given night, members call in from all over, some 20+ in all. I do hope that they consider meeting an evening or two a week on Zoom over the summer when most of the members have scattered to the US and the UK and  most are not on-island.  It would be a nice way to stay in touch.

Just in case, I have stocked up on the “official” rum of the club, bottled by English Harbor Distillery, here in Antigua.  I am told that the “formula” and it’s very different than what the company sells under their own name, is based on a bootleg version that was made on the island years ago, by some of the same employees of the current business. That bootleg version, at the time, was called “Post Office Rum” for reasons that I am unclear about.  All know that along with the now abolished daily issue of rum in the British navy, the group has resurrected the long gone bootleg formula as their own.  This is indeed a very special rum as it can only be purchased by card carrying members of the club.  I guess that would make it one of the most exclusive rums in the world.  I’m going with that.  One way or the other, it’s pretty good stuff and I’ll be sure to bring a few bottles home to share with some special friends.   Are you my special friend?

I have mentioned that the Salty Dawg Sailing Association, known for running the largest cruising rally from the east coast every fall, decided to organize a “flotilla” to the US to help cruisers, many stranded by the virus, here in the Caribbean,  to help them make their way home to the US.

Most boats making the run, in normal years, take on additional crew so it’s going to be quite a burden, for most that will have to make the run home short handed.    With that in mind, SDSA decided to do a series of special flotillas that would provide cruisers logistical support, tracking and weather forecasts along with help finding crew, where possible, and to do so at no or minimal cost.  And, to make sure that upon their arrival in the US that they would be welcomed home.

While or normal spring rally north attracts around 20 boats, this flotilla has attracted, at last count, nearly 160 boats, a testament to the anxiety that many  cruisers are feeling about getting home.

As an added bonus, and there are many reasons to tag along with The Dawgs for this run, the fleet will be tracked on a map provided by one of our partners, Predict Wind.  They offer, along with monitoring by Chris Parker, our weather router and the US Coast Guard, it will provide friends and family of those participating the opportunity to watch the fleet make their way home.

As the 160 boats making the trip will be leaving with staggered starts over a 5 week period, with recommended Sunday departures each week, there will be lots to watch, wind information along with a graphic display of every individual boat positions, updated several times a day.   The first group, below, left last Sunday, most making the run toward Florida, the easier down-wind run. And you can zoom in and view whichever part of the fleet you wish. Hover your mouse over any given “boat” and see the location, time of last transmission and speed for that particular vessel. I find that friends and family tend to stress a bit when I am on passage and being able to keep an eye on things is very popular.  You can click here to see the present position of each boat on passage.

In case you’ve missed it, Brenda hates overnights and has never done more than a few nights in a row at sea.  As you can imagine, her anxiety is rising with each passing week and day as we get closer to our departure.  We are hoping that crew can make it down from the US so she can make her departure via jet and not aboard Pandora.  Whatever happens, she can be plenty tough when pressed, and I am sure that she will ultimately do fine on the trip.  At the very least she will end up with quite a story to tell.

Sea voyage or not, she is also very anxious about any sort of time on a plane or in an airport.  She views the risk of infection on a jet or visiting an airport as just a bit less dangerous than a week on a cruise ship, and we all know how sketchy that has turned out to be.  Considering all of this we feel that it is increasingly unlikely that crew will be able to arrive so we will just have to see what happens between now and the middle of May when we have to start heading north.

One thing that we have been holding out hope for, is the ability to take Pandora through The Bahamas, a somewhat shorter route, as opposed to having to make a 1,100-1,200 mile non-stop run to Florida from the USVIs.  That longer route would take us south of the Bahamas, passing Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba before catching the Gulf Stream north to Florida.

If we are allowed to traverse the Bahamas that would allow us to shorten the distance to the US by hundreds of miles and give us the opportunity to stop, a number of times along the way.  In that case, our longest non-stop run would be about 500 miles, requiring only a few nights in a row at sea.  That’s a lot better than a week or more for the direct southerly run to Florida.

Even better, if also unlikely, would be an opportunity to stop in The Turks and Caicos, which would cut another 100 miles off of the longest distance between stops.   All and all, the ability to traverse the Bahamas would make the trip a lot less daunting to Brenda as well as more enjoyable for me.

And speaking of the Bahamas, I heard today the government of the Bahamas may be considering opening up to yachts transiting but not going ashore.  Unfortunately, the announcement wasn’t completely clear.  As we don’t plan on beginning our run north for a few more weeks, perhaps things there will open up a bit as we get closer.

So, here we sit in Falmouth Antigua waiting for a sign that we should begin heading north.   And speaking of “signs”, today’s sunrise might have been trying to send a signal.   What do you make of this?  To me, it looks like a rat?  Not sure that’s a good thing. Seeing a rat isn’t what we want.  What does this say to you?  I have no idea.Still no answer?  One more…I guess I will just have to continue looking for a sign, a message from someone, anyone, to let us know what’s in store.

For now, here we are in Antigua, waiting for a sign.   Such is the uncertainty of life.

One way or the other, we will make our way home.  How or when?  I have only an inkling.

For sure,  I won’t run out of rum.  Make that Tot Club rum.


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