Returning to the Chesapeake Bay Area.

It was never part of the 2020 cruising plan to return to the Chesapeake Bay for the summer…it simply evolved in small increments over 8 weeks. The Covid 19 pandemic has changed so much. It does have a major impact on why we cruise and where we can go. During the past 2 months I have had the opportunity to meet many different cruisers and talk with them about their plans and where they were headed for the hurricane season. In almost every case, their plans have changed dramatically. Either by shortening a planned cruising sabbatical, or changing where they are cruising, or storing their boats…the impacts are widespread, but follow a similar thread.

The restrictions various governments have enacted, or complete closure of countries has severely curtailed the freedoms cruising yachts once enjoyed. Places that normally would openly welcome cruising yachts, have at best enacted tight restrictions that essentially make visiting them difficult – to some areas that are openly hostile to even yachts flying the flag of that country. Examples of the later are the Spanish Virgin Islands and Florida Keys that we’re turning away even US flagged non resident vessels. Internationally accepted rules of safe harbour and innocent passage have been suspended making any longer ocean passages more difficult. It has also made it more challenging to safely move out of the high risk hurricane zone for many yachts. Unfortunately, it has also brought some unwelcome and added costly burdens to cruising yachts that often have few if any alternatives. These are in the form of added fees, long delays, inability to clear in, or expensive services they are required to hire or use that in normal times would not exist. What the longer term effects and permanent changes will be are difficult to predict. What is certain is that the freedom we once enjoyed as cruising yachts will undoubtably face more costs and restrictions in the future. The only unknown is how temporary, or permanent these restrictions become.

Some examples of the impacts upon cruising yachts I have spoken with are listed below:

  • A couple on a round the world plan had spent 2 years sailing the Mediterranean and Eastern Caribbean. They were planning to go through the Southern Caribbean and Panama Canal during the hurricane season, but due to excessive restrictions in Grenada, the ABC’s and the canal area that just wasn’t practical. They are now extending their cruising plan and spending the next 6 months on the east coast of the United States. They will be waiting out the hurricane season and seeing how the pandemic evolves before hopefully returning to the Caribbean next fall. It will add a full year to their cruising plans.
  • A couple from the northern USA that has always stored their catamaran in Grenada for the summer and has spent 7 years exploring the Eastern Caribbean, has now returned to the US with their boat. They will store it for an entire year while waiting to see what happens with Covid-19. Grenada’s rules and regulations were simply too restrictive, and too slow to be defined for them to deal with. So they had no other viable choice than to return to the USA.
  • A couple on a worldwide tour have elected to haul out and store their yacht for 3-4 months to wait and see if the Covid-19 restrictions will become better defined over the next few months. They are hoping travel restrictions will be loosened before deciding where to go next. For now their cruising is on hold.
  • A young family of three children under 9 and their parents are trying to return to Europe after a winter in the Caribbean. They have decided to take the northern route – NE USA, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, Continental Europe – to return home. The cruising restrictions on the Bermuda, Azores, Portugal route mean they face much longer individual passage legs and quarantine restrictions. Quarantined for 2 weeks on a 35 foot boat with 3 active young children after each 6-20 day ocean passage – just does not work. The biggest hurdle is the simple fact countries refuse to deduct time at sea from the quarantine period. A truly ridiculous situation that does nothing to prevent the spread of coronavirus – or create any kind of welcome when arriving at a landfall.
  • Multiple Canadian boats trying to return to Ontario and Quebec are stranded in Virginia waiting for “recreational boating restrictions” imposed by several NE states in the USA to be relaxed and more important – for the canals to re-open to allow them to get back to Canada without having to go around the Maritime provinces. In the meantime they are simply killing time in Virginia where the local communities are welcoming and supportive.
  • A full time live aboard on a Canadian yacht is stuck in St. Martin until late June when his appointment is “booked” to arrive in Grenada. Really? Yes! You need an appointed day to arrive. To complicate matters the islands between St. Martin and Grenada are all closed, or at best have severe quarantine restrictions – some enforcing 14 day quarantines ashore in expensive hotels. Which means his boat would be at risk of break ins and theft while unattended, and the bill for the hotel will be very expensive. A creative way for the government to create tourist revenue despite being closed, but a horrible plan for a cruising yacht. His only alternative is to do a long solo passage to Grenada in a single hop. Unless St. Martin opens air travel between the islands before mid June, he can’t even add some crew. Even if he could add crew, once he arrives in Grenada he still faces yet another 14 day quarantine period before he can apply to finally “clear in”, and what about any temporary crew he might have? What restrictions will they face with Grenada’s airports closed? There are simply no “good” solutions.
  • A seasonal cruiser who hauled their yacht in the BVI was suddenly forced to hire an “agent” to be responsible financially for the yacht and any liabilities that may arise while his boat remains in the BVI – for a significant monthly fee of course. Apparently this applies to all foreign yachts, whether already in storage in a yard, or at a marina. There are no options to retrieve the vessel as the BVI are closed to all foreigners until at least the end of August. Therefore, he cannot get to the yacht, nor hire a crew to get it out of the BVI unless they are already presently in the BVI. Then once gone that crew would not be allowed to return for months. Another example of; what rules can be made to extract cash from foreign yachts to try and create revenue while the islands have closed borders? These are certainly not the kind of “after the fact” retroactive rules that will endear owners to leave yachts in the BVI in the future.
  • Reports of yachts in extended quarantines, well beyond 14 days and still denied clearance. In some areas they are even subject to large fines if they simply go for a quick swim off the back of their boat to cool off. A ridiculous and completely unwarranted repressive measure, and for what real purpose? At one island the no swimming rule was being enforced with added maritime police patrols. Somehow this is justified in the interests of stopping the spread of coronavirus. Really?
  • Nowhere have I heard of any country that will allow for sea time to deducted from the required quarantine time. Again, a completely unjustified restriction that is simply unwarranted in any way as a preventative measure against the coronavirus. The only justification seems to be that it has created a service industry for locals to provide delivery of supplies to quarantined yachts for extended periods. There is no way a yacht that has been at sea for 2 or more weeks on a long ocean passage is bringing covid 19 ashore. For shorter passages deducting sea time from required quarantine time just makes good sense and would be good business for the islands. However, as is often the case – the covid-19 restrictions for cruisers that were hastily imposed have more often made little, or no practical sense on a case by case basis.

Fortunately, I was in the southern Bahamas when the Coronavirus restrictions were imposed. Being in mostly isolated bays and often at completely deserted islands, the bans were very workable and the weather was beautiful. The only real challenge was managing longer term provisioning needs to be able to depart the Bahamas on a moments notice for the passage north to the USA when a weather window opened. In that respect, the Bahamian government set out a very well thought out plan. Basically, forward a cruising plan and route with any planned stops you may require to the designated government contact. If it was reasonable and respects the rules they put in place to minimize potential inter-island travel and contact with the local population it was quickly approved. Then send an email when you depart noting your intent to leave the Bahamas. A reply was received within minutes, a simple “Acknowledged”. The easiest and most efficient clearance I have ever had. That is one policy and procedure I hope the Bahamas further develop and retain once their new normal is defined.

The passage north was a bit of everything from perfect sailing conditions to dodging squalls that were often providing a daily lightning display, or a funnel cloud and waterspout – just to keep me alert. Unfortunately the weather between the Bahamas, Bermuda and the eastern coast of the USA seems to have been quite unsettled this year. It all made for spectacular pictures and memories – but also a tiring solo passage.

In the final analysis for my situation, the United States stood out as the best choice by a very wide margin in comparison to any of the other places to go. Foreign yachts were and still are, welcomed. There is reasonable restrictions and freedom of movement allowed. International travel to return to home countries is available, and that overriding principle of personal independence and liberty is forefront and fiercely defended by the American public, which is a huge benefit to cruising yachts as well. Regardless of whatever ones own personal beliefs are of American politics and the ongoing social tensions in the USA – from the perspective of, “Where can I go for safety, shelter, flexibility, and where I will be welcome for the Hurricane season?” – the USA really became the only viable option. Not even my home country of Canada would have been as welcoming to me. On an individual basis, I have consistently found the vast majority of Americans citizens I have met to be warm, welcoming and extremely supportive and helpful. Their customs and border patrol officers are professional and courteous; and entry procedures are pretty straight forward. The new ROAM app and video conferencing make arriving in the USA even more efficient. Over the past five seasons my USA arrivals have almost always been a good experience with the only exception being confusion on my part regarding some local rules. I have heard the same type of friendly greeting was received by almost every foreign cruising yacht I have spoken with. These were yachts that were registered in countries from all over the world, and their experiences upon arriving in the USA were almost always pleasant.

As the song “America” by Wilbur Smith goes in its opening verse:

“My country, tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…” it still holds true.

Oh! is now hauled out and stored for the summer. My plans to do another Atlantic circuit will have to wait until the coronavirus pandemic and resulting travel restrictions are lifted. Hopefully, before September a decision can be made as to whether Oh! can return to the southern Bahamas, or Eastern Caribbean again for the winter of 2021 – or, if like so many others, I will be forced to look at a longer term solution to the current challenges facing the cruising community.

Cheers, from Oh!

Posted in Blog.