Should you cruise the Caribbean or stay home next season? It depends…

For the last seven years, Brenda and I have spent our winters at various points south, following the sunshine, in recent years to Antigua, the southern Leewards and Windwards.

Last season we cruised the islands south of Antigua for several months, beginning after the holidays, working our way south to St Lucia where we found ourselves locked down as the pandemic hit in force.  As we sat in Rodney Bay Marina, during the early days of the pandemic, we were wondering what would happen next as restrictions there and in other islands increasingly tightened.

Less than two weeks earlier, we had been traveling with other cruisers and had been enjoying the week long fun of Carnival in Fort de France, Martinique, a must see event if you haven’t done it.

The crowds were remarkable and luckily the event was over and crowds dispersed before the virus arrived on the island.   With crowds like these, I can only imagine what would happened if infection had begun on the island even a week earlier. Day after day, marchers impossibly crushed together. Pre-pandemic, this is what we thought of when we heard the word “mask”. Brenda made me a Covid mask from some package ribbon, an old handkerchief and a piece of “bilge oil absorbent material”, all we had on hand.  Within days we went from party time aboard Pandora with our cruising friends. To socially distanced sundowners on the dock made even safer by the constant easterly breeze.
And then, after curfews were put in place, weeks of time alone, just the two of us aboard, with our only exercise, laps around Pandora.Our time aboard went from “living the dream” to “being in prison, with the possibility of drowning”.  It wasn’t great but we made the best of it, read a lot of books and consumed gigs and gigs of data on our phones, trying to keep in touch with friends and family.  Oh yeah, and an alarming amount of wine.  However, we did remain true to keeping our evening “tot” no earlier than 17:00.Zoom, something that we had never heard of before Covid-19, became our lifeline to the world. Now were’re home. back in the US, just Brenda and me, mostly alone again, after our “homeward bound” ocean voyage, a trip together that we never imagined.  Just the two of us 1,500 miles at sea, all the way to Florida.   For many cruisers, that’s just a short jaunt but to Brenda, a veteran of no more than a 350 mile passage, it was a very big deal.

We, along with nearly 200 boats and some 500 cruisers, took part in what was likely the largest flotilla from the Caribbean to the us ever held, the Salty Dawg Homeward Bound Flotilla, with staggered departures from various points in the Caribbean, departing from mid April through mid May.

As I write this, tropical storm Fay, the 6th named storm of the season, brushed us here in New England, the 6th named storm of the season, less than two months after Arthur, who we nearly tangled with as we made our way to Florida.

With fall and the time of the year when many cruisers migrate south for the winter only a few months away, many are wondering what the 2020-1021 season in the Caribbean will look like.   It is unclear at this point with regards to how many cruisers will opt to go south and I am sure that some, perhaps many, will opt to take the season off, fearful that they may find themselves locked down all over again if there is a strong second wave that finds it’s way to the Caribbean.

As those in colder northern areas are forced to move indoors, many fear that much of the US and for us, New England will not be a safe place unless you are willing to become a hermit for the winter.  Personally, that concerns me a lot and I am pretty confident that being in the Caribbean will be a lot safer than here in the us and I am not looking forward to being stuck at home, month after month, until it’s warm enough again here to enjoy my coffee on the deck come spring.

Making matters even worse are the conflicting messages between Washington and local governments about wearing masks and how significant the threat of infection actually is.  With all of this uncertainty and predictions from the medical community that the fall will bring a much worse second wave of infections, only time will tell how safe or dangerous it will be here in the north, especially for those of us that are, shall we say, “upper middle age”.

Now that we are back in the US, Brenda and I have been able to live a, sort of, normal life by staying away from crowds and being very selective about who we come in close contact with.  And, with warm summer weather, we have been able to spend a lot of time outdoors.

There is a growing body of evidence that risk of becoming ill is many times greater indoors if you are exposed to those who are not part of your family “bubble”.   I read about study done in China, where they have done an amazing job of tracing infection, that the risk of contracting the virus is 18.5x greater indoors than out.  In the UK, a similar study shows an increase in infection of ten fold.  If these findings are true, it does not bode well for the coming colder weather.

I can still remember how shocked we were when we anchored in Lake Boca, with dozens of boats with groups partying like things were normal.   While these boats look like they are staying a distance from each other, they were packed and I  would bet, not all aboard from the same family. West Palm Beach, where we stopped on our way north to Ft Pierce, offered another shocker.  When we headed ashore we were stunned by size of the crowds packed into street-side bars.   Sure, everyone was outside, but they were packed tightly, shoulder to shoulder, somehow feeling like the danger of infection was long gone.   How wrong they were now that the rate of infections has spiked to record levels.

Recently, as part of my responsibilities as port officer for the Salty Dawg Rally to Antigua, I spoke with the director of the National Parks Service in Antigua about their plans for welcoming cruisers to Antigua this fall and confirmed that they are working hard to put safeguards in place for the coming season.  By mid August they hope to announce the protocols for yachts visiting next season.

Cruisers have always been important for Antigua and while many more tourists arrive by cruise ship or visit all-inclusive resorts, they do not spend much at local businesses, unlike Cruisers that frequent local services and stay on the island for weeks or months at a time.

The NY Times reported a few days ago, that St Lucia and the Grenadines, were exploring accepting visitors, with a minimum of fuss, from other islands in what they called the “Caribbean bubble”, those visitors coming from other islands that were deemed to be “safe”.  Surely cruisers, having spent time in Antigua, would fit that description.

While the exact plans are still being formulated, the leadership in Antigua is exploring options that may include cruisers receiving “credit” toward a 14 day quarantine for their days spent at sea voyaging to Antigua.  Additionally, there is talk of skippers and crew recording the temperatures of all aboard each day and keeping the log as evidence of health when they arrive in Antigua.  I expect that getting a Covid-19 test in advance of departure may be encouraged or perhaps required.

While the details of the Salty Dawg Rally to Antigua in November remain unclear, It is possible that all heading south will be encouraged to be tested for the virus prior to departure and that they should not depart without the certainty that they are virus free.   The thought of heading out to sea and having a crew member become ill and infecting everyone else aboard, all the while 500 miles from shore, is a terrifying prospect.   It was this fear, along with our discomfort of putting Brenda on a plane last spring, that directed us to make the run home aboard Pandora together instead of my trying to find crew.

The approach of testing prior to departure for the islands is not unprecedented and has historically been the approach for bringing pets to the islands.  Rabies is not a problem in the islands and any pets coming via cruising boats must be certified by a veterinarian prior to departure and checked again upon arrival, to confirm that the pet is well.

The pandemic has changed so many things and many are wondering what the coming season will look like and when, if ever, things will be “the way they were” again.

When Brenda and I will be returning to cruise the Caribbean again is unclear but we are certain that Antigua, perhaps the best island to make landfall for a season of cruising, will be on our list.  I cannot think of any place I’d rather be, while snow and Covid-19 are swirling around up north, than enjoying a sundowner on Shirley Heights, overlooking English and Falmouth Harbors, watching the sun set.  So, what does the future bring for us cruisers this coming season?

Right now, it’s hard to say but I have a call with the National Park Service in Antigua to learn more, so stay tuned.

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