Covid-19 has certainly touched everybody’s lives, in different ways. Some lost their lives, others their livelihood and many are suffering the hardships of lockdowns. We were certainly fortunate to have been in New Zealand during these unprecedented times, but even we have not escaped the challenges of this pandemic.
Enduring the cold NZ winter
We certainly did not expect to still be in New Zealand, in fact if it wasn’t for Covid we would have been snorkelling in warm tropical water much further north right now. Instead we have to brace ourselves against the cold, wet weather and accompanying storms.
With the northerly declination of the sun seeming not to reach higher than half way from the horizon we are just past midwinter, anchored about 250km further south than our home port of Cape Town. Morning temperatures are often below ten degrees C, rising to the late teens during the day. Fortunately there are some calm spells of warmer weather and patchy blue sky in between the passing low pressure systems which bring storms with up to 50 knots (90km/h) winds about every eight days.
We sometimes put out a stern anchor to optimally position the solar panels for maximum energy harvest to keep the batteries charged. Surprisingly, with frequent periods of cloud and rain, this is generally sufficient for our needs and to maintain the batteries in good health. We catch rainwater to augment our freshwater supply which minimises unnecessary watermaker wear and power consumption; however, the days of the geyser providing hot showers from solar power are temporarily over.
Making the best of winter is not too much of a hardship as we have to keep moving to seek shelter against the variable winds. Biding our time we occupy our days doing small boat jobs, voyage research, perhaps a walk or some fishing if conditions allow, as well as reading, playing Sudoku, visiting friends and doing household chores. Most of the time the music player rolls; an endless eclectic shuffle within our genres as diverse as classical to heavy metal. At night, after an early supper it’s again time to wrap up more warmly and watch our latest series.
The cold is a small price to pay in this beautiful cruising ground while we enjoy the natural beauty New Zealand has to offer. We also discovered belatedly that we actually do have a heater for the really cold days – our gas stove – with a ready re-supply of propane always close-by. However, it tends to make condensation even worse, so that Moondust is dripping wet inside on most mornings.
Not all cruisers are as lucky as we
Apart from the cold, we could hardly have been stuck in a better and more hospitable location. Unlike us, many other cruisers’ lives have been totally disrupted by the Covid clampdowns.
Many are stuck in less hospitable foreign islands where the language is different and where local people are petrified that yachties will import the virus. In many places they made it exceedingly clear, sometimes at gun point, that they do not want yachties arriving there. In other cases sailors have had to bypass their intended landfall after crossing vast expanses of ocean, without being able to replenish food stocks and not being sure if they will be welcome at their next port.
Those who could remain where their lockdown began were often boat bound, but for an authorised weekly trip for one crew member to go ashore to purchase food. Some of these often ageing sailors worry about questionable local healthcare but must stay put as there is nowhere for them to sail, apart perhaps from making a very long, non-stop voyage to their home country, possibly a whole ocean or two away. As the summer hurricane season occupies six months of the year, some sailors face the spectre of being unable to sail out of the danger areas. Thus they have to leave their now uninsurable yachts, which are often their only homes, at the mercy of these devastating storms.
Others have left to fly home, only to find they were unable to return. With their boat in a marina, costs mount and in other cases one partner has returned and the other was unable to follow. Pregnant women have been unable to return home and have had their babies delivered in foreign countries. Yet others have been forced to fly home and leave their boats at the mercy of its fate in an anchorage.
Our way forward
Considering all of the above we continue to count our blessings, gather information and do our best to plan ahead. The talk of a Pacific travel bubble opening up raised our hopes, but recent official comments indicate that Australia and New Zealand will do what is best for their economies; New Zealand preferring to open its borders to tourist rich Australia rather than risk it with the less well regulated Pacific islands. However, a recent Covid case upsurge in Australia gave credence to the opinion that that country is unlikely to open its borders until 2021.
So we have been considering our options: The journey back to Cape Town must be completed in the six month hurricane free period of May to October and entails sailing west, either to the north or south of Australia. The preferred route is to the north through the Torres Straights and threading ones way through the delightful Indonesian Islands and South East Asia. But will those borders re-open over the next year? The passage home could also be done non-stop as a last resort, but would amount to a distance of about 9 000 nautical miles or 16 000km and we would have to be very cautious about weather.
For us Australia is not a preferred destination as indeed many yachts come to New Zealand rather than cruise the less hospitable Australian coast, where there are larger distances between anchorages which are usually guarded by shallow, shifting sand bars. The weather there can be unpredictable and even south of Brisbane the remnants of cyclones can prove formidable. Add to that the presence of two types of lethal jelly fish and the odd shark and salt water crocodile attack which discourages snorkelling. This is unfortunate as the only other country apart from South Africa now guaranteeing us entry under present Covid 19 restrictions is Australia, thanks to my citizenship. However, once we enter there is no guarantee that we will be permitted to sail between the different states.
A temporary glimmer of hope
A few weeks ago Fiji declared its borders open to foreign yachts as long as certain conditions were met. These included the use of a Fijian agent, having a Covid test performed for each crew member not more than 48h prior to departure, ensuring a two week quarantine period whilst at sea (without contact with land or other boats) and obtaining permission from the Fijian Health Authorities prior to setting off from New Zealand. With news that Lombok in Indonesia had also opened its borders to yachts we felt that after leaving Fiji we would be able to sail west and out of the hurricane belt, with Australia as a fall back.
Sailing back to the Bay of Islands, we anchored off the beach at Paihia on a calm day and, with our new shopping trolley (the wheels having literally fallen off the last one), made three dinghy trips ashore, re-provisioning Moondust with staple foods for six months. We also filled up with gas, fuel and water, just in case circumstances forced us to sail non-stop to South Africa.
None of the new Fijian yacht entry requirements appeared too onerous until we entrained in the process. With an early Thursday departure required for weather reasons, we had our Covid tests done on the Wednesday. We submitted the required documentation to NZ customs and also the various health and pre-arrival forms to our Fijian agent. With the clock ticking on the 48h Covid test deadline, Thursday passed as we waited for the Fijian Health officials to make a decision. Meanwhile we tracked down NZ health officials and got further proof of our testing and forwarded that. However, now it appeared that only those boat crews with negative test results in hand were given permission to sail. Then, just as we received our negative test results, the favourable weather window slammed shut rather unexpectedly around Friday midday and the wind died – one yacht turned around offshore and headed back to New Zealand.
After hectic preparations and then with our adrenaline pumping during the minute by minute departure standby, the reality of how Covid had influenced Pacific Island bureaucracy gradually dawned on us. Always mindful of our ‘stepping stones’ ahead, we reviewed the visa situation in Indonesia, a country with notoriously difficult red tape. Re-reading the ‘fine print’ we discovered visa conditions which would currently make a passage through that area very unwise. In a flash it became obvious that it would be imprudent to sail.
After all the hype and excitement we both hit a low but gradually cheered up as a few days of wan sunshine warmed Moondust. We contacted three sailors with experience of the areas in which we wished to sail and also began to research the possibility of a westerly passage south of Australia in 2021.
No present day cruiser embarked on his/her adventure with the faintest notion of a global pandemic and its effect on travel. However, sailors are generally enterprising folk and with modern communications, the internet and a few options available to us we keep Moondust stocked brim full and try to make the best of this changeable situation. As it is unlikely that we would be able to re-enter New Zealand should we leave, we have decided to stay until April 2021. Karin’s visa expires at the end of September 2020 but she in any case plans on flying home for her daughter’s wedding in September, hoping to return to New Zealand early next year.