Monday 30 March 2020

What a difference a day makes or When are we going to get there?

Sunday March 15th, we were normal tourists in the Galapagos.  We had taken a boat trip to Los Tunnelles to swim with sharks and sea turtles.  A brief look at life the day before lockdown:

Doing his duty at the breeding centre - lots of grunting.

Taking Over the Dock Now the Tourists Have Gone

Young and Mature Blue Footed Boobies

The most Northerly Penguins in the World

At Anchor in Isabella before the Lcokdown

Monday morning (March 16th) and our life was still progressing normally, the UK seemed to be taking a cautious approach to the introduction of social distancing measures and we were far from the worldwide outbreaks.  Normal that is, if living on a boat in the Galapagos could ever be described as normal.  We, along with the few people that arrived on sailing boats are the only people to arrive by sea, everyone else is dependent on the frequent flights to and from Ecuador.  Frequent until they stopped without notice that Monday leaving 2500 tourists stranded.  Most have now been airlifted out to Quito - where many will still be waiting for onward flights.

We were doing boat jobs after two days of tours around Isabella.  Mid-morning, we were told we had to move to Santa Cruz as Isabella was closing.  Later the same morning, we were told there was a lockdown in force, though it turned out that it didn’t start until Tuesday.  Tuesday did not seem abnormal to us as we motored the 45 miles to Santa Cruz to find the bay full of cruise ships that had been told to disembark passengers immediately so that they could catch the last flights out.   We had imagined that tourists would finish their holidays before returning home, we even thought the lockdown was in anticipation of problems not the discovery of cases of Covid 19 on the islands.

Acceptance of the new conditions comes slowly, the two-metre rule goes from an unknown concept to normal practice.  Things that one thought were impossible just a few days ago become the new normal.
First exposure to the two-metre rule

It took a few days for the extent of the lockdown and seriousness of the situation to sink in, and each day for the first week one or two small freedoms were removed.   The slow steps seem necessary if the human mind is to keep up with the changes.   We are now under increasingly strict curfew, starting at 14.00 and ending at 0500.  Police appear in white suits to enforce the measures.

It was not until March 24th that we discovered that there had been four cases of Covid 19 on the islands.  Although we knew of cases that had left the island we hoped the early lockdown would have left us free of further community spread.  Now we are holding out for these to be the only cases.  The authorities have been very good at protecting us by making it clear that all the cases were among permanent residents and were linked to travel to the mainland.  In other Pacific Islands tourists are taking the blame for transmission so we are very fortunate.

We are 13 days into the lockdown. In that time the UK has gone from normal life to recommended social distancing, to complete lockdown. Unlike most countries, off-licenses in the UK are open whereas here alcohol sales seem to have been banned from yesterday, (except in the smart supermarket at the dock that doesn’t yet seem to have got the message, thankfully). Like the measures taken in many other countries, some of the measures seem targeted at enjoyment, not just social distancing.  There is a huge beach here that is out of bounds.  We are forbidden to use our kayak.  We hear of people in the UK being told off for buying charcoal as if having a barbeque in one’s own garden should be a sin and I am not convinced that driving is so dangerous that it is not worth allowing people greater freedom to choose where to walk.  I feel for city dwellers told off for leaving town but facing park closures. We watch with interest how the Swedish will manage under less severe restrictions, and watch the USA with horror.   As a side note, we learned today that Ecuador has more ventilators than the USA.

Shopping Covid 19 Fashion Wear - Mandatory face masks after a week without requiring them
Now we are adjusting to the likelihood of two weeks becoming four and when the next two weeks are over, I suspect it will be extended to six, eight and then twelve weeks.  Like going on holiday or life, the second half always goes much faster.  Even this second week of lockdown has progressed much faster than the first.   I am reminded of painful swimming lessons, no matter how many lengths you had to swim it always felt better when you were past half-way.   Maybe this is how we will get through it, when we are told it will be twenty-eight days, we will already be halfway and on the home stretch, though deep down it is hard to believe that there will be any return to normality before the end of the year..

It takes longer to appreciate the world situation than one’s own, though it helps if you are already locked down.  Those that are on passage to French Polynesia, our original next port, will be living normal lives. They planned to be in isolation for up to 30 days even if all went well but they are leading their normal lives and though it seems harsh to say, we can tell from their email messages that the world they re-surface to will cause real shock and anxiety.

On a personal level, Clare’s mother had a minor stroke.  In normal times we would have tried to return home at least for a short visit. For now,  Whatsapp and Skype phone calls have had to suffice. Clare is greatly relieved that her elder sister, Jill, was able to reach Cornwall and provide fantastic support at home, which seems to be helping achieve a good recovery in the last week.

Life on a boat in Isolation

A boat is a small place to be locked down, but we do at least have a big backyard. If only we could use more than 3 metres from the perimeter of the boat and that kayak. Our closest neighbours are a family of four with two small children and additionally their grandparents on board, a total of six, it helps us to appreciate the space we have.
We have good, even excellent food supplies.  Fresh food is locally grown and good quality and being the Galapagos 100% organic. The bakeries are excellent.  Fresh fish is available in the fish market and local meat is both good and inexpensive.   A shopping trip last week was a bit of a scrum away from the smart supermarket at the dock. We think local people are beginning to tire of the lockdown.  Young lads were messing around loading their dinghies with supplies for the crew on the boats at anchor around us.  No face masks, no gloves, whilst we queued 2 metres apart waiting to enter the supermarket.  Up the road the other shops were a little chaotic, full of food and too many people.  Today the police are out in force, enforcement gets harder and the measures taken will grow tougher.  Life won’t get better soon but there is a chance that the virus can be beaten in a small island community like this.

We are also well served by the local mobile operator, providing reasonable internet connectivity and the ability to call home and stay in contact with friends. Using Zoom and other applications reduces the sense of isolation.   This has allowed us to run quiz nights using WhatsApp with the other boats in the anchorage, so far a traditional quiz night and Countdown.  Movies take us away from it all and remind us of life before Coronavirus.  Dish, the story of the Australian Space Telescope that enabled the first TV pictures to be seen live from the moon landings when the moon was particularly poignant, reminding us of Man’s greatest technological achievement and what can be achieved so quickly when people work together and take risks.  Aside from the huge and obvious risks of going to the moon, in a small way the team running the Satellite Dish also took risks with their lives and equipment on that day, it should not have operated in winds above 30 miles an hour, it was gusting up to 60 miles an hour on the day).  Risk-taking, whether it is accelerating vaccine testing, people working with the very ill or others serving in supermarkets or keeping power systems and transport networks going is what will get us collectively out of this pandemic.
We are self-sufficient in power and water.  We have enough solar energy to allow us to use an electric kettle and even cook electric, though we prefer our gas cooker.  The gas cooker, just two burners, and a tiny oven cost $1500, the electric ring cost $9.99 so cooking on gas had better be better.

Our water maker fills the tanks each day in less than an hour and uses so little power that the batteries keep charging even when it is running.  We have even had to disconnect some of our solar panels to stop cycling the batteries to full every day.  The sun is overhead now at noon as we have just passed the equinox and we are less than half a degree south of the equator, the rainy season seems to have ended early so we have blue skies every day. 
We can only hope these systems keep working as it is impossible to fly in any spares we don’t already have on board and having to carry water to the boat would be a significant issue.

The Galapagos still brings many pleasures.  For the last few evenings, the new moon and Venus have provided an awesome backdrop to the town at night.  

New Moon hanging over Santa Cruz
We had eight young blacktip sharks swimming around the boat, all trying to make a Pelican drop its fish as it recovered itself back to flight after diving in from high above us.  There are not many sea lions here but one comes to say hello most days.  It took up residence on our transom while we were watching a movie.  Flocks of small birds follow shoals of minnows, almost walking on water as they pick them out – the minnows trying to escape larger fish that have herded them to the surface, Pelicans eying the larger fish for their dinner and there are boobies occasionally flying overhead.   Sealife in the Galapagos is awesome.

Where are we going next?
Nowhere, not soon anyway.  The Pacific is closed.  Central and South America and the USA are either closed or out of reach. (edit 17/04:  With a review of expected winds and currents in June/July and August we think Ecuador is a very doable sail and Panama might be reached too).  The currents, winds and looming hurricane season in the Northern Hemisphere make going backwards seemingly impossible.  Our insurer has said “no” to any insurance on the west coast of the USA or Mexico.   We will continue to review this option but we suspect that there will be too much uncertainty to take the risk of going East before it is too late.  Australia is partially open to us we think but New Zealand would be a better destination, even though it is closed now.  It's just 7500 miles if we have to sail it non-stop.  We can provision for that long at sea if we have to but it is not what we are planning, yet. 

We can’t stay here indefinitely as the boat will need maintenance that cannot be performed without a haul-out.  We will investigate even that but even if it were technically possible it seems unlikely it would be allowed, but then everything that is happening around us seemed impossible even a week ago.

Timeline to a decision?

End of April – our official clearance to remain expires.  We hope and believe it will be extended to the end of May and maybe through June.  This is the last chance to head east before the Hurricane season.  The lack of assured entry to any country, Coronavirus, and a realistic passage plan probably elude us.

Mid-June would be a good time to leave especially if we can provision safely in Tahiti.  Safely means being allowed to stop and not being at any material risk of catching the virus before we depart. (edit 17/04 - also good for Ecuador and possibly Panama).

End of June – probably the latest we can stay in the Galapagos but who knows what the authorities will decide by then. 

End of July – the last chance to sail safely across the Pacific without stopping.  We do not want to arrive in New Zealand or Australia in their winter either so timing will be critical.   

We hope that by November things will be easing around the world.  In the meantime, we are hoping the Galapagos becomes virus free and healthcare developments in the rest of the world allow normal life to resume again.  When are we going to get there, after many false summits and half-way seems a distant memory.  Be positive, enjoy a look back..


Suzanna said...

Good to hear your update and positivity. I’m so glad to hear that your cup is half full and for the time being can be replenished at the off-licence. X Sz

Alison & Randall SV Tregoning said...

Another excellent blog-post and it is so good to hear that you are doing well in the Galapagos. Please pass along our best wishes to Clare's mother. We are very glad that Jill is able to be with her. Best wishes, Alison xx