COVID 19 Castaways

The water surrounding La Vie Dansante this morning is peaceful, calm and flat – I mean like glass – in stark contrast to the societal turmoil going on ashore, even here in the Bahamas. Today is supposed to be the final day of a 3-day “total” lockdown. Before this, Bahamians with businesses reliant on cruisers were operating as liberally as possible to stay open, but others expressed fear of boaters from other countries who might bring this virus to shore with them. The Bahamian Defence Force has a patrol boat deployed and is using the term “blockade” to describe their mission and the US Embassy here just posted a warning for US citizens to return home immediately or be prepared to remain in the Bahamas indefinitely. Crazy times indeed.

This is quarantine in paradise. ‘Pretty much like anywhere else, except the scenery is better.

No, not social distancing; just staying cool while catching rays aboard La Vie Dansante

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Hosting guests seemed like a good idea when we came up with some prospective dates a couple of months ago for our friends Brant and Miquelle to visit. They arranged to fly to Georgetown, in the Bahama’s Exuma Islands, for about 8 days and we also arranged for Barbara’s daughter Brooke to fly out at about the same time for her Spring Break.

Black Point Harbor before the lockdown. Popular ports like this one, Staniel Cay and Georgetown are crowded with sheltering boats now

We’d have to get to Georgetown to pick them all up, so we decided to pull out of Big Majors Spot and reposition to Black Point, since we could use another laundry/dump run after a week an anchor. We picked a nice spot near the Exuma’s finest laundromat – there’s a sign on the wall that say so – and completed our chores while downloading updated maps and some TV shows for the evening on the facility’s free wifi.

‘Next morning we resumed our journey south, heading for Georgetown via an intermediate anchorage off Big Galliot Cay, where we planned to spend the night adjacent to the cut we’d use to transit to the Sound for the Georgetown run.

Geography Corner:

The Exuma island chain is bordered by two distinct bodies of water – “the Bank”, that portion west of the islands that is mostly VERY shallow and “the Sound”, the VERY deep water east of the chain that is basically the Atlantic Ocean. As you might expect, seas and winds are generally much calmer on the Bank, since both wind (usually out of the east/northeast) and wave are blocked somewhat by the skinny islands and shallow depths.

The run on the “outside” (the Sound) was easy enough and our guest pick ups went pretty smoothly too, except our Cruising Permit was incorrectly stamped “2019” instead of “2020”. Brant and Miquelle talked their way through the red tape and got by Customs and Immigration, but I went to the Georgetown immigration office the next morning to get the form fixed so I could zap a copy to Brooke so she’d have an easier time with her flight.

Brant & Miquelle’s travel companion Lenny. No, that’s not COVID 19, Lenny drinks.

Brooke arrived the next day and, with all the passengers aboard, we weighed anchor in Georgetown.

Since, like many folks, our guests’ bucket list included meeting the world-famous swimming pigs of the Bahamas, we planned to backtrack up the Exuma chain to the Staniel Cay area. Having been here before, Barbara and I were prepared to show our friends the sights at precisely the right time to avoid crowds and optimize our day.

After visiting the pigs and snorkeling the marvel of Thunderball Grotto all to ourselves, our first guests were off to a good start!

… then our guests return flights were cancelled as the world began to respond to COVID 19.

At the time, it looked like we were beginning a two-week self-quarantine scenario. For those of us who have lived through episodes like H1N1, SARS and Ebola, this seemed like a bold new level of response for a virus that had yet to produce widespread infection and death. Our guests asked if they could extend their stay for the two weeks we thought it would take for things to return to normal back home. “Of course” we said! and all the return flights were (re)booked accordingly.

We had no idea what was yet to come and, in this blissful state of ignorance, set out to continue hosting our private Bahamian adventure.

First, we (re)visited Cambridge Cay in the Exumas Land and Sea Park, a favorite for Brant & Miquelle who are animal lovers and conservationists.

Next we anchored off the more remote Rudder and Prime Cays, discovering the best snorkeling we’ve yet seen in the Bahamas (and there’s great snorkeling everywhere), catching six different kinds of fish and harvesting our first conch, which Brant and I sampled raw to establish “The Conch Brotherhood”! Things were going great!

After a beautiful stay in Williams Bay on Lee Stocking Island, we headed back to Georgetown for more provisions – yes, feeding, watering and providing power for 5 people is WAY different than doing the same for 2 – and to ensure we were positioned for our guests’ scheduled departures.

Then the world changed.

American Airlines cancelled Georgetown flights and rescheduled them … then cancelled those and rescheduled them … then cancelled them again. Uh oh. Our family and friends were now COVID 19 castaways in the Bahamas!

It was time to explore other options. Our guests needed to get back to the US and resume their lives – Brooke at Texas State and Brant & Miquelle in Fort Worth. The worlds of school and work had already transitioned to virtual ones back home, so there was the possibility they could continue some functions online while delayed in the Bahamas, but both parties had pets they’d left with others, and everyone felt the draw to return to their lives, just as Barbara and I were ready to resume our course south aboard La Vie Dansante.

However, freedom to come and go was tightening up severely in the Bahamas and the island nations along our intended path south were locking down their borders for an indeterminate time period.

After much deliberation, Barbara and I made a difficult decision – we would have to return to the US, providing our guests a way home and resetting our dreams of sailing the Caribbean and beyond to a more safe, sane and stable time.

The next morning, we reluctantly weighed anchor and began backtracking north through the Exumas. The winds were optimum for sailing that direction and I wanted to take advantage of them to cover as much distance as possible since forecast winds would fade soon and force us to use precious fuel resources to complete our journey to the US mainland.

It was Barbara who suggested a stop back at Staniel Cay to restock food and fuel (OK, and booze too if we could find someone willing to sell the designated non-necessity). Having spent way too much time at a destination we had originally avoided (see our earlier post “Rum is the Reason“), I wasn’t excited about the delay, but prudently entered Big Rock Cut and made the short turn south toward Staniel.

For a destination we originally avoided, we’ve spent a lot of time with the swimming pigs!

The harbor at Staniel was a little choppy and, after a not-too-restful sleep, we headed ashore to shore up our stores.

People don’t talk much during a pandemic; even when under a “regular” lockdown, which we return to tomorrow. The few you encounter on the one road to the grocery store are emerging from sheltering-in-place since, even then, it’s against the law to even be outside without an approved essential purpose. They speak in hushed tones, even to each other, staring straight ahead as if entranced and continuing methodically on their measured path toward groceries or some other “necessary” errand.

While local grocers were open, places like restaurants weren’t, so we were surprised to find the local marina bar & grill at Staniel Cay Yacht Club was doing take out only. Barbara had been working like crazy to feed 5 people all day every day, so we decided to grab takeout for that afternoon. It was here our plight took a welcome positive turn.

While we waited for our food, Brant noticed an ad for Makers Air, a local air freight company, stapled to the wall outside. I knew about Makers Air, since many sailors use them to get boat parts in from Florida, but hadn’t considered them an option for passenger travel. The ad, however, was for exactly that. Brant called them and by the next day all three of our castaways were booked on what looked to be the last possible way off the island.

Thanks to Makers Air for picking up the ball after American Airlines fumbled it four times

As I write this, all our guests are back in the US finding their new normal amidst a very dynamic pandemic response there.

As for Barbara and me, we had decided to stay here – isolated aboard La Vie Dansante at anchor off an island with no reported cases of infection, making the most of our time doing boat chores and trolling for snapper along the nearby rocks and reefs. Last night, however, the US Embassy warned US residents in the Bahamas to depart immediately or be prepared to remain in the Bahamas indefinitely. This admonition is driven home by the seemingly daily change in the island-to-island differences in how the lockdown order is interpreted – made even more confusing by well-meaning US travelers asking open-ended questions to local authorities (Can I use my dinghy? Can I use my paddleboard?) that result in even more stringent local guidelines that are the law as soon as they’re conceived. It’s crazy.

Of course, with most marinas in the US now closed or not allowing new boats in, we’re not exactly sure where we’d wind up “back home” anyway. As I type this, we’re still working through the decision of whether to stay and when to go.

The tagline for this blog reads “La Vie Dansante carries Barbara and TD Smyers wherever will and wind take them”. When we came up with it, I never dreamt the force of the wind would take a backseat to the will of governments forced into brokering liberty for safety.

Our hearts and prayers go out to you all, struggling with isolation, financial hardship and the growing risk of infection. We may be right there with you soon.

If you’re reading this the day I post it – Sunday, April 5th – tune into our Facebook LIVE session tonight at 6 pm Eastern/5 pm Central. At the rate things are changing, who knows what the plan will be by then?

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