During the first week of March, the more I read the news, the more I realised life here in the Caribbean was not in a protected bubble but would be changing very soon. With the Coronavirus spreading rapidly around the world and hundreds of people starting to die from it every day, it was only a matter of time before the effects were felt in Antigua. It began to feel like human civilisation was playing out the script of a far fetched Netflix series, completely surreal.
For what seemed like an age after many countries had started lockdowns, life in Antigua continued as normal, planes landed, charter boats still crammed the anchorages and cruise ship passengers from all over the world still walked the streets and packed out the bars and cafes. With the future becoming so uncertain I decided it was sensible to get Fathom stocked up for the Atlantic crossing when I could. I sailed a few miles down the coast from Falmouth Harbour to Jolly Harbour for a few days to visit the better supermarket and make the most of the greater selection. On the way I passed close to the beautiful J-Class yachts Velsheda and Lionheart match racing in a regatta. It would turn out to be their last race for the foreseeable future, the next day both Classic Yacht Week and Race Week were cancelled. The excitement and buzz around the harbours of Antigua dimmed instantly and there was a big sense of disbelief. Back at Falmouth I moored Fathom on the dock for a couple of days to top up the diesel tank and jerry cans and plugged into a shore power connection to give the batteries a conditioning cycle. Then back to my favourite local anchorage off Pigeon beach to see what would play out. I had everything I needed to be self sufficient except drinking water which was easy to get hold of.
By the end of March there was a lot of uncertainty and a considerable sense of fear circulating as no one quite knew how bad it would get. With less than 20 ventilators on the island and a population of over 80,000 there was a real risk of a major disaster. Flights were now being cancelled and many sailors were rushing to haul out their boats, ship them across the ocean or leave them in a marina and get back home when they still could. Hurricane season was only a couple of months away. On the 28th the authorities introduced a curfew meaning beaches, bars and restaurants would close. Furthermore, cruisers living on their boats would only be allowed ashore between 0600 and 2000 for a visit to the supermarket. Break the rules and face a $5,000 fine and or 6 months in jail. During the last afternoon of freedom a group of us enjoyed some beers on the beach and I went for a final run up in the hills. It was great to finally catch up with Barney, an old uni mate who I hadn’t seen since graduation in 2006. He is now Captain of Velsheda, one of the most beautiful yachts ever built. On the 1st April, a state of emergency was declared and a full lockdown was introduced with no one in Antigua allowed to move around unless for an essential hospital visit or food shop between the hours of 0800 and 1200. Everything fell eerily silent.
Being confined to my boat for extended periods of time is something I have become quite used to over the last few years and I never find it a problem, but being positioned a few metres off a beautiful beach and not allowed to step ashore is a very different feeling to being in the open ocean. I couldn’t complain with the situation I now found myself in; reliable internet connection with data to burn, swimming and snorkelling off the boat for exercise whenever I wanted and friends anchored next door. I was lucky. In not such a fortunate position were friends currently at sea who were struggling with the uncertainty of where they could legally make landfall. David and Amy on ‘Starry Horizons’ were sailing up the South Atlantic and with more Caribbean islands going into lockdown each day they were running out of options. I continued to email them updates and thankfully they made it to Antigua two days before the island closed it’s borders. Mike and Marie on ‘Roke’ were on passage from Panama to the Marquesas and after a month at sea were unaware of the Coronoavirus situation. It was not an easy satellite text message to write as I updated them that the authorities in French Polynesia might require them to leave their boat in Tahiti and fly out on arrival. I won’t type Mike’s reply to me! Even here in the Caribbean, the rules and regulations on other islands were far more harsh than in Antigua; swimming off your boat in Saint Maarten was illegal and risked a fine and people were only allowed to visit the grocery store in Grenada once a week at a time dictated by the first letter of their surname.
The weeks went by relatively fast and I actually started to enjoy all the time I now had for catching up on writing and for the opportunity to reflect on my voyage over the last four years. I finally managed to finish another piece for Yachting Monthly magazine that I had been struggling to write for a while, it should be published in the late summer/autumn. I even started to think about what the future might hold but didn’t get very far with that. The lack of available outdoor space on 8.5m Fathom did spur me on to being creative and I discovered that the dinghy hoisted alongside made a nice comfortable seat for a sundowner! It also provided the perfect position to watch the diving Pelicans during their feeding frenzy every evening, just after the sun had dipped below the horizon. I wasn’t alone either as Greg on ‘Nebula’ was anchored alongside as well as Denis on ‘Oriana’ and new friends Ben and Caroline on ‘Balou’. We were all planning to sail back to the UK soon and met up regularly for catchups – respecting social distancing of course! Greg’s wife Jenny had flown back to the UK at the end of February to visit her unwell Mother and her return flight to Antigua in early April had been cancelled. With no possibility of reuniting in the near future Greg would now be a reluctant solo sailor back across the Atlantic. Fresh food continued to be in good supply with the two local supermarkets nearby well stocked with fresh produce. Face protection was now mandatory and I had to make do with a thermal neck warmer which was very hot and not so ideal for the tropics. It also gave me the appearance of someone who was planning to rob a bank! I later upgraded to a rasta style mask which was much more suitable.
Finally, on the 23rd April, the outlook started to look more positive. There had been 24 confirmed cases on the island and sadly 3 deaths but thankfully no evidence of any community transmission. The curfew was relaxed and it was possible to exercise ashore again between 06:00 and 1800, some restaurants opened for takeaway which was exciting as cooking for myself night after night had become very dull. Denis was getting impatient to leave so decided to set sail for the Azores before the end of the month despite the unsettled Atlantic weather. He likes a good challenge having sailed his other boat, a 27 foot Albin Vega ‘Lizzie G’, solo from the UK to America against the prevailing winds and currents and has no satellite communications onboard or means of obtaining weather forecasts at sea. We went out in our dinghies to wave him off. My visa had been automatically extended until the end of May so there was no rush to leave and the rest of us decided to wait a little longer for better weather. One afternoon as I looked over some old photos from the confines of my locked down boat I realised it was the 3 year anniversary of my landfall in the Marquesas after 38 days at sea. I could never have imagined back then what a different place the world would become before I had sailed home. The unlimited freedom to explore is for now, at least, no longer possible.
The first days of May were busy with preparations for another long ocean crossing. It had been over 12 months since I had completed my circumnavigation in Grenada and I had not done more than a day sail since so a bit of adjustment to the mindset was needed. I began to feel that knot in my stomach I always get before heading off to sea, a combination of a little anxiety, excitement and anticipation I think. The coastguard granted me permission to move so I made one last trip down the coast to Jolly Harbour for a night which was a much needed shakedown sail. It was great to finally hoist the anchor after being in the same spot for six weeks and so nice to catch up with David and Amy on ‘Starry Horizons’ who I hadn’t seen since Australia. Amy spoiled me with some fantastic cooking and David kindly offered to get some drone footage of Fathom under sail, the first ever taken and the results are amazing. The five hour beat back to Falmouth harbour was a reminder that I much prefer the wind from astern but I am not sure how much of that there will be over the next weeks.
I type this now a couple of days before setting sail for Horta in the Azores which is currently open for yachts to stop to reprovision for a few days. I really hope that by the time I get there restrictions will have eased enough that it will be possible to step ashore, otherwise I am going to be onboard for the best part of 2 months. I have always wanted to visit those islands and it is where I was aiming for when I set off from the UK in 2016 as part of the Jester Azores challenge before diverting to Spain. Four years later I guess you could say I just took the long route! It is a very strange feeling to be starting the final leg towards home, something which always seemed so far in the future. The next chapter of my life is lingering close beyond the horizon.