Back in January I wrote a blog post about the Australia bushfires to assure our friends and family we were safe and to give my perspective, as a temporary resident, on the disastrous situation. Two months later, with the entire world in turmoil from COVID-19, you surely don’t need me to report on a calamity you are experiencing firsthand. But for those concerned for our well-being, I do want to share how we are faring and perhaps provide some insights on the strange limbo in which we and other cruising sailors find ourselves. What happens when you’re trapped aboard a boat in a foreign country by a pandemic and can’t go home? What if you can’t go anywhere?
First, no worries about our health. Bundaberg, where we are based, is a city of approximately 93,000. To the best of our knowledge, there have been only two confirmed cases of the illness here, both treated in hospital, neither fatal. Moreover, the marina where we are based is ten miles outside town and very isolated. Check out this video from the marina website to see just how gloriously remote we are: https://www.bundabergportmarina.com.au/marina The wet season over and the sweltering heat of February behind us, the weather in Bundaberg is as blue and beautiful as it appears in the video. Temperatures are in the mid-80s, our portholes are open to the breeze, and though the mozzies persist, living aboard is once again quite comfortable.
Nor are we short of food and supplies. Before COVID-19 struck, our plan had been to leave Bundy in mid-March, make our way up the Queensland coast via the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns, and depart for Indonesia in July. In anticipation, we began in late February to inventory our food cupboards and provision for the months ahead. We especially wanted to stock up on staples like rice, pasta, cereal and canned goods while we still had our car Glinda to haul heavy loads. As a result, by the first week of March we had a good store of everything from tinned beans to, yes, toilet paper. Since panic shopping had not yet erupted in Oz, we can’t take credit for any foresight or blame for hoarding. That task done, we advertised Glinda for sale, knowing we could always avail ourselves of the marina courtesy bus if a last trip or two into town became necessary.
But then the virus, already on a rampage in Europe and the United States, ramped up in Australia, and each day has brought increased restrictions on public gatherings, commerce and travel. It’s eerie seeing a country shut down, sometimes in small steps, sometimes by drastic measures. It feels like you’re watching an apocalyptic movie without a script or director or even a plot line to shape the story as it unreels. Except you’re not just watching it, you’re in it, you’re one of the actors. As is everyone around you, all players in a weird cinematic production being enacted in real time around the globe. The dialogue is fraught with emotion, misinformation, accusations and contradictions, and the best you can do is to improvise as you go.
Until two weeks ago, Eric and I clung to a diminishing hope that the virus would peak, retreat, and allow our voyage to continue. We proposed and discussed various scenarios. Were we better off staying in Bundy or heading north along the Great Barrier Reef, enjoying this natural wonder at our leisure? Was there any advantage to getting to Cairns and waiting out the virus there? What if we reached Indonesia, and the borders, at that time still open, shut down after we arrived? What if we cleared out of Oz, and Indonesia shut down while we were at sea en route? We might end up drifting on the ocean for weeks or months as the crisis denied us entry to any port anywhere.
We also briefly considered leaving Corroboree in Bundaberg and flying back to the United States until the situation cleared. But even assuming we could get a flight, where we would go? We have no residence in the USA to return to, no place to self-isolate on arrival, and no guarantee when or even if we’d be able to reenter Australia. Up and down the east coast of Oz, other foreign cruisers are in a similar predicament, and we pool information in online forums. Getting extensions on our visas is a special concern, and although those cruisers who have contacted Immigration say the officials have been helpful, their replies are not consistent as to the procedure and cost. We are fairly confident, however, that none of us will be ejected from Australia. Our own visa is good until 24 May.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 is spreading in Australia. As of 26 March, we have 2,423 cases and 8 deaths. Though some are pushing for a total lockdown, that has not yet occurred. All event venues are closed, restaurants are limited to takeout, and funerals are allowed ten guests only. Weddings are down to four, the happy couple and two witnesses. Nonessential travel has been forbidden between the states (Queensland and New South Wales, for example) and is being enforced by roadblocks at the borders and by patrols at sea—no yachts can cross from one state to another. While the Australian government seems to us to be proceeding reasonably, one aspect that does disturb us is its threat to use severe fines to control behavior. Anyone who disobeys an order to self-isolate can be fined up to $13,000. And how will they know you’re not self-isolating? By random police checks on your home. In some ways, I find this scarier than the pandemic itself.
Then, a few days ago, the decision as to whether and where we and Corroboree should go was taken out of our hands altogether. Malaysia closed its borders and Indonesia soon followed. In a way, we’re relieved. Feeling pressured to make a decision in a state of uncertainty is stressful; now the ambiguity has been emphatically removed from our immediate future. We’ll be staying in Bundy where we have pleasant surroundings and activities to occupy us. I’m working on a collection of poetry about the constellations, Eric practices new songs and old favorites on his guitar. We can take walks in all that isolated territory around the marina and still have Glinda for transportation. Our advertisements to sell her were posted just before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and the initial inquiries quickly vanished. A bit of good luck, actually, since the marina had to cancel the courtesy bus to comply with social distancing regulations. Thus, Glinda gets us to the grocery store and to Lifeline for our thrice-weekly volunteer gigs, a big boost to our spirits.
Finally, we have Skype to keep in touch with our family, plus books, Netflix, and endless fodder via the news outlets for entertainment and stimulating conversations. Nevertheless, I have warned Eric that despite the benefits of humor in trying times, if he keeps interrupting me while I’m writing by relating the latest jokes on Facebook, I will social distance him from the phone by chucking it (or him) into the drink. We are cheered by recent news reports, assuming they are correct, that the relief package under consideration in the US Congress now includes help for individuals and small business owners instead of just massive payouts to corporations—bloody damn right it should. Our hearts go out to the many who have been severely impacted by COVID-19, to those whose health, jobs and financial security have taken a blow.
No worries, then, for a couple of ancient mariners on a boat. As we learned on our first voyage four decades ago, the one thing the sea teaches above all is patience. This storm weathered, we can all pull up anchor and set sail again, whatever the journey you are on.