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As we sailed from Recife, Brazil to the Caribbean, the world started to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’d made the decision to aim for Antigua, which ended up being absolutely perfect.
We arrived in St John’s, the only port of entry open, on March 26th and cleared into the country, aware that many borders in the Caribbean were closing. We were required to hire an agent, wear a mask, and wash our hands.
We sailed to Jolly Harbour, where we’d cleared into Antigua a little over four years prior – what would be the beginning of our world circumnavigation. Dropping our hook in Mosquito Cove, we reveled in the flat calm waters and the pleasure of dropping our anchor in a sandy patch five feet under our keels. When was the last time we anchored in less than ten feet? Years.
Thanks to our offshore medical kit, we had dozens of disposable face masks, so on March 27th – our ten-year anniversary – we went to shore and made two large shopping trips. One of the many advantages of Jolly Harbour is the Epicurian, a well-stocked supermarket just a 2-minute walk from the dinghy dock. It’s a wonderful combination of local products (produce, eggs, and meats) plus high-quality imports, usually under the Waitrose brand, a British company.
The next day, March 28th, the borders of Antigua closed, and lockdown began. Non-essential activity was only allowed from 9 am to noon. Epicurian was deemed essential, as was Budget Marine.
One of the joys of the Caribbean, and especially Jolly Harbour, is the well-established cruising community, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in years.
When was the last time we’d listened to a cruiser’s net on the VHF? Fiji, I think. Thanks to Karen and Mike from Lighthouse Yachting (and sailing vessel Mahala), we enjoyed tuning in to the morning VHF Monday through Saturday at 9 am, keeping us informed in the latest updates to the island’s COVID status, including the regularly updated regulations in place.
Starry Horizons was anchored with at least sixty other boats surrounding us. A hundred more sat in the harbor itself; on mooring balls, in the marina, or on the hard. Quickly, Merrill, from sailing vessel Ambition, proposed and hosted a sundowner cocktail net. Every night at 5:30 pm I tuned in to channel 74. Merrill formatted the net as a way for us all to check in, say hello, and answer some standard questions: what were you drinking, and what boat projects did you accomplish? Then, each night, boats volunteered to host a quiz on whatever topic they wanted. We covered regional topics, food, music, nautical trivia, etc.
Some nights I was already sitting in my hammock, so I put down my book, poured a glass of wine, and participated. This net continued for 57 nights – until Ambition was hauled out for the season.
Listening in, we began to get to know these people. While we couldn’t have the usual cruising social events – beach barbeques, cockpit happy hours, and drinks at a beach bar – names and voices became familiar, we started to know how people enjoyed spending their time, inside jokes popped up (Dildo, anyone?).
Thanks to our provisioning, we didn’t go ashore for weeks. When we did finally need to reprovision, we were well-informed about the lines at Epicurian. To avoid crowds and indoor spaces, we were able to arrange for foods to be delivered directly from farms, like Organic Herbs & Lettuce, Hall Valley Farms, and Rivi’s Fish Plus.
Boats were allowed to move around the country, and many friends did, spending time out in the islands and doing real cruising. We opted to stay in Jolly Harbour, and had plenty of ways to occupy our time.
David worked fervently on video production and I caught us up on the blog. Having reliable internet, David was able to study investment methods and implement stock trading strategies. I spent the month of April doing Camp NaNoWriMo and wrote a novel. We exercised on the boat every day, including swimming off the boat. With more free time, I pulled out my long-neglected watercolors, my hammock, and tried a plethora of new recipes in the kitchen.
Slowly, the curfew was reduced. We could be out for exercise, so two or three times a week we walked to the top of Pearn’s Point. Restaurants started offering takeaway, so I occasionally brought home meals. My favorites were the chicken curry roti from Petal’s and anything I got from Hummus Antigua.
Eventually, in small ways, we started to socialize again. Even just running errands, we would run into cruisers and finally get to put a face with a voice. Our friend Thom, who had been so helpful in relaying information to us on our sail to Antigua, came up to Jolly Harbour for a night and we got to say hello. Our new friends Peter and Simone came and went frequently, and we walked and paddled with them, and had breakfast together before they took off for the season. Arriving from the Azores, Ryan, who we’ve known for years, dropped the hook in Jolly Harbour and we got to meet his fiance and take them up the point with us and share some meals.
The whole time, we watched the weather, hoping to find a window of steady winds that could allow us to sail directly from Antigua to Norfolk. Many friends left, opting to hop up the coast instead, stopping in the USVI, Florida, and various other ports between. The Salty Dawg Homeward Bound Flotilla came and went. We still held out.
By the end of May, boats were leaving everyday. Grenada and Aruba had opened their borders for boats to spend hurricane season. In early June, the official start of hurricane season, the boats out in the anchorage were down to twenty or so, and the marina almost completely empty.
We needed to get north of the Florida-Georgia line by July 1st. We set ourselves a deadline, we needed to leave by June 14th. Grudgingly, we left the beautiful waters of Antigua behind on June 13th. We weren’t sure there would be enough wind to take us to Norfolk, so we prepared for the possibility of stopping elsewhere.
So many of our sailing friends around the world were stuck in difficult places due to the epidemic. We didn’t have to stay in an expensive marina; space in our anchorage was plentiful and the holding was good. We were well protected from winds and waves, with the tradewinds breeze blowing through. The water was clear and calm. As Americans, we would be able to get into the US easily, and the USVI was just a day sail away if we needed it. We had internet – not super fast or super cheap, but reasonable access to the outside world.
So many sailors had a harder time than we did, and are still struggling.
The Guardian: Hurricane season and COVID strand sailors
The Guardian: Stranded at Sea for 3 Months
The New York Times: Moored in a Fragile Paradise
We were, so, so thankful to make it to Antigua.