Day #356: A forced retreat during COVID-19

When we left Barcelona 355 days ago for our one-year ‚Atlantic Circle‘, our main objective was to take time. To spend ‚quality time‘ as a family together, before Ilja and Mascha will leave home on their own pursuit of happiness and personal growth.

By and large, a long-distance journey on a sailing boat is perfect for a family to spend really a lot of time really a whole lot together.

Others could suspect I just escaped my corporate job, because I was disgusted with politics and regretted my thankless position. In a word, to abandon this landbased life.

When the CORONA virus hit the world and the ‚rat race‘ came to a halt, we have been forced to stop sailing, forced on anchor. Our family together with our fellow-cruisers went into an rettest, to say the least. In the retreat our ambitions sometimes develop afresh. And when the time is ripe, we will return to our land based lifes.

Bahia Isla Mujeres

A day onboard SV ARGO during the pandemic

Mid of March 2020 we dropped anchor in the Bahia de Isla Mujeres, after sailing 10.000nm and visiting 18 countries . Since then, we paused traveling, settled here.

It is similar to a landbased life, although we are still living on our boat. In essence, our days are not arranged around watches, but around similar daily chores and routines which the family has on land.

7.30h parents and Vu (the dog) are waking up; while parents checking the boat, the weather and the news, Vu is going for a swim and ‚dog business‘; followed – at good days – with yoga of the parents and swiming with the dog

8.00h the cruisers net on VHF channel 67 brings in the latest updates to the village people

8.30h tea kettle gets going, Lena prepares the breakfast (eggs, muesli, tea, home-made bread); Steffen might start some boat or office jobs already, discussing big thoughts aloud

10.00h breakfast done with a good chat and laughter; phone calls to Europe; galley, boat and deck get cleared up and cleaned; plans for the day get settled and the ‚Green Board’ task list gets updated

11.00h home schooling (often with other boat kids, sometimes in a cafe); continue boat chores and upgrade projects for the rest of the crew; water maker is running

13.00h – 14.00h a little lunch, or continuing schooling and boat projects

15.00h kids joint afternoon activities, mostly jumping off boats into the water interrupted with playing; parents doing boat or office jobs, laundry, supermarket purchases etc. The dog joints for all land-based travels

18.00-19.00 Sun Downer time, best time for exchange of the highlights of the days, big thoughts, break-throughs, gossip or big plans

19.00h-20.00h Dinner time at ARGO, while watching a movie (in English from a hard drive, there is no Netflix or other streaming)

23.00h last check of the anchor alarm and VHF readiness; lights off (except the anchor light at the top of the mast)

Deviation from this plan is the normal.

Home schooling and project work we do almost every day. Having said that, we have plenty of ‚sun-days‘ where the sun rise and sun set are the only fix points of the day. Not only on sun-days we are free to chose to be busy or not.

Safe harbor at Isla Mujeres, Cancun (Mexico)

Three months ago, when the world went into lockdown, we have been grounded on Isla Mujeres. When Cuba went into lockdown, we left regretfully the cruising paradise of ‚Los Jardines de la Reyna‘ (‚The Gardens of the Queen‘.) But we never regretted to get stuck in Isla Mujeres.

Although this beautiful island is not large, it has its own mild micro-climate and facilitates all the conveniences of the Western world for cheap prices: groceries and laundry, WIFI, repair shops of all kinds, doctors and chiropractics, barber shops, restaurants and coffee shops, etc.

More important, Mexicans are a very easy-going, and welcoming, interested people. Mexicans are World champions in fixing stuff, which came in handy for several boat projects in the recent weeks. A perfect location for a cruiser family to wait out time.

Mexico has severe security issues. ‚Los Carteles’ are ruthlessly pursuing their business, and a life in their way is worth nothing.

In contrast, foreign tourists appear to be untouchable for the Cartels and are in fact very safe in Mexico, since those tourists spend tons of money into the local economy (of which the Cartels profit, too).

But this is not the only safety problem here currently. In fact, COVID struck Mexico hard. Isla Mujeres is not an exception here, because all Islanders travel back and forth to Cancun, and ferry boats leave by the hour.

On the other hand, the maritime climate in general is disadvantageous for viruses. Therefore, living on a boat during a pandemic is pretty safe. Only being on the ocean would be even safer.

Because of that, we are feeling very safe here.

Drop plans, slow down, be here

Since we left Barcelona for our 12-month ‚Atlantic Circle‘, we were traveling fast. We clocked 7.500nm miles and visited 14 countries, some multiple times. We almost haven’t been in any anchorage or marina longer than a week.

C-19 hit us in Cuba. In a matter of three days, we had no more places to go. But what journey is that, if there is no place is left to sail to? Everything was closed at this point and mostly still is.

A friend from Venezuela told me about a saying of the indigenes in Venezuela: „If the body travels, the soul needs four more days to arrive.“ In this regard, a slow down was required for us anyway, and the family was silently thankful for any delay of departure.

We travelled slow and slower. Only 30nm and then resting for two days. Then another 40nm and resting for five days. Another 30nm and anchoring for a week. We discovered the beauty of living self-reliant in an anchorage, learned lobster hunting, preparing and cooking. Our first little fleet came together, with three other boats, with which we sail the next four weeks together.

The adjustment to the retreat, the giving up plans, is painful. It is even more painful into a captive retreat. Each morning, when the brain starts working, and produces all-new plans, new ideas, it creates dissonance and doubt. „Why we don’t try this, why we don’t go to Jamaica, the Caymans or the United States?“ It takes time, endurance and effort to talk all the new plans through, to identify why they don’t work, abandon them, and then realize: There is nothing else to do.

Just happy…

After all, some cruisers can’t make it over this adjustment phase and drop out. But this is a whole different story…

After all, we have been lucky not to be completely locked down. Arrived in Mexico and checked-in to immigrations, we started to settle. In fact we had to realize, that we had arrived in the best place we could be for this moment of history. We have been in a much better place than many other cruisers in the Eastern Carribean for example.

When we realized how blessed we are, it was time now to dump our plans for returning to Europe. Along our route back home, Cuba, the Bahamas, Bermudas and the Azores had been closed and locked-down. In other words, all technical stop-overs, resting, restocking of food, refueling and crew changes underway on the route rendered impossible and ‚illegal‘. Sailing for Europe meant in that moment to sail non-stop, with no support along the way by crew joining us, and with an unclear situation at our destination: will we be accepted, quarantined or send away?

We as a family realized the impossibility of carrying on with the journey back to Europe. Crossing the Atlantic West to East non-stop with increased strain and risk for boat and crew was not what we had in mind by ‚traveling’. Extended non-stop passages require (for a short handed family crew) of course longer window of stable weather too. Those weather windows suiting a family like us are a pretty rare occasion, or in other words: we would need to be very lucky. Although we are an experienced sailing family, we don’t take chances.

The family decided to stay put, not to move until it becomes either possible, or necessary. Until end of August, when the hurricane seasons starts in Mexico, we have still plenty of time.

With that, we have been cleansed at least from our original plans and ambitions.

Settling, feeling at home

As normal days are filled with home schooling, boat projects and a little office work, on weekends we do different things, like snorkeling or land tours. All days we spend with our cruiser community in the anchorage.

We are about 30 to 50 boats in the anchorage of Isla Mujeres. All are vagabonding the seas, in the search of an alternative lifestyle. Most boats are from the US or Canada, accompanied by a few Europeans with the Germans as the largest group. A few Latin Americans, Russians and Turkish, and Mexicans only on weekends.

With a few exception, the North American boaters are retirees, many of them from the military or law enforcement. They started retirement pretty young. Before 55. They manage to survive off their pensions at pretty low cost on a boat for a very long time. Many of those cruisers refuse to return to a land based lifestyle, mostly until family or health conditions might force them. Some of them anchor at Isla Mujeres since years, or return to ‚la Isla’ regularly for extended periods.

The anchorage is quite large, with a lot of space between the boats. After all, everybody knows everyone in the anchorage, across language and cultural barriers. The village has sub-groups: some people that like each other and spend a lot of time together. And some people can’t get along very well.

Nothing get unnoticed in the anchorage. A boat arrived or departs. A crew bought a new dinghy. A single sailor has a new lover. Someone gets sick (thank god, it’s not the virus). A gay couple (quite a few here!) quarrels once too often. An anchor slips and a boat gets adrift (‚He got told to put a second anchor!‘). All news are picked up and distributed quickly, support is provided and the gossip is traded against attention.

Each day starts with the ‚Cruisers Net‘, a round call that follows a US-type procedure. Even the daily joke is a programmed part of the routine (laughter is triggered by absurdity). A ‚Net Controller‘ is running the protocol, assigning speaking slots and reminding every day to ‚not use the Port Captains dock for other things than Port Captains business‘. The weather forecast is followed by a discussion of boat problems: somebody is looking for a gasket for the engines water pump. Another want to sell a wind turbine. These things.

I would love to write „Families with kids are the backbone of the community, since kids connect much faster and much more intense.“ But this is simply not true. The majority of the cruisers at Isla Mujeres are empty nesters, single or gay – they have their own troubles and don’t connect with kids a lot.

However, kids can’t stay on board for a row of days and need other kids as company. Kids a very much aware about the temporariness of the community, of the floating village we are living in. They connect fast across boats and ages, pick up foreign languages very fast and integrate everyone who wants to share time and to play with them. For parents, it is so much easier to organize home schooling or leisure time activities among multiple cruisers families.

For the boat projects or any other trouble, this village community is a huge advantage too. It is much easier to jump into the dinghy and talk to the other cruisers, because they might have experience with the same trouble, have a remedy on hand, have done this job already and can help with the proper tools and material.

For every interest or need there is someone in the anchorage:

We had five boats with kids in the anchorage, Canadian and German.

We have Herman. He is a carpenter, artist and lifeguard, and does a lot of improvement projects for other cruisers.

We have Kim, who is a medical doc and fully stocked with medical supplies, isn’t shy to do little surgeries on a boat and doesn’t take anything for her service.

We have Maik, who is a great entertainer as ‚Net Controller‘. And lost his heart in Isla Mujeres.

We have Ludwig, who runs the perfect ship for extended head dives of a group of 10 kids, aged 4 to 16.

We have Rebecca and Kathy, who are the perfect host for groups of 15 persons age 8 to 63 – sundowner through 3-course-dinner into cocktail parties with song and dance. All on one boat.

We have Günther, who is the god-to-guy with boat problems. He has seen it all. He won’t tell you what to do, but give you an answer when you ask.

And so many more.

The ‚sun downers‘, the drink in the evenings, are an excellent excuse to see the neighbors and just hanging out together, exchanging the latest gossip, talking about the next sailing destinations or boat improvements. Often, this extents into joint dinners.

Life in this village is ‚life cut back to its essentials‘. The community is temporary by its nature. All of us are vagabonds, travelers. People have left home in the search of a better lifestyle, and are truly cosmopolitan and full of surprises.

And one day, we say goodbye to each other. We might meet again, or we might not. In the next anchorage village or marina. Or some where else. Or not.

This village would have existed even without COVID.

But the ARGO crew would never had discovered and adopted this lifestyle on the ‚Atlantic Circle‘ if we would not have been forced to give up our plans.

We like this lifestyle a lot: settling and feeling home at new places. The lifestyle is slow, simple, very predictable.

Soon, we will leave this anchorage. And will settle and feeling home at new places.

The SMASH flotilla sailed several months together

New ambitions and a route to normal

In times, when the world is changing rapidly, we learn to appreciate the simple things. Today, we value much more the traveling from one country to another, and to return back home. It has been no problem at all just four months ago. Now, this isn’t a matter of course anymore.

For example Spain, the final destination of our ‚Atlantic Circle‘ and our home, is just going partially in lock-down again. The school back home communicated a 50/50 blended classroom approach for the next year. The economy is shattered, the full extent of the damage will be only visible when the effect of the rescue programs settle. The best time for launching new projects is still ahead of us.

Everyone says, that the world at home will be different when we return. Isn’t this disturbing – setting sails into unknown geographies and then suddenly home is changing so much, that this might be the unknown at the end?

A couple of things have changed already and forever.

During the next months, we will find out, what the new normal on land is and how post-COVID-19 cruising will look. Remote working and online schooling will a reality for everyone and therefore we need to master this for us as a family. I guess we as family should achieve some degree of mastery in remote work and online schooling. Working diligently in remote locations will be a positive attitude and an important skill for the future.

For this, we need to leave Isla Mujeres and re-settle in a community outside the hurricane belt.

When the wind is shifting next week into the North-East, we will leave Isla Mujeres. This will be around begin of August. We will cross the Gulf Stream and sail towards the Cayman Islands in order to pass them on their South coast and turn the bow of ARGO towards the international shipping lane close to the Nicaraguan coast.

We have to use the shipping lane, since the area is known for pirate attacks. Sailing in the proximity of commercial vessels ensures the surveillance by the US and Honduran Coast Guard, which are known as a ‚pirate repellant‘.

After a stop-over in Isla Providencia, we will continue to Bocas del Toro in Panama. We will haul out ARGO here and store the boat on land.

After all, we want to spend September, October on land to focus on remote working and home schooling. To find a good setup and to master work and school remotely will be one of our new family ambitions and adventures.

The first days of 2021 we want to sail in San Blas, home of the Kuna and the indisputable nicest and remotest area of the Caribbean. From San Blas we will work in 2021 our way to the North in order to cross the Atlantic in late April / early May.

ARGO will arrive in Barcelona in June 2021.

Our friends keep telling us, that we have done well by sailing away and experience this pandemic as cruisers.

Yes – we are very lucky. We are high on ambitions. And we know what to do.

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