Escape from the Bahamas

Published on April 16th, 2020

With very little in life that is normal, Seamus Hourihan, skipper of Gunboat 55 Thirst, shares what it took to escape from the Bahamas in the midst of the pandemic.

As I finish writing this, it is Easter Sunday, April 12. My 14-day quarantine on the third floor is over. My escape from COVID-19 is completely complete at least for now. No one I know has the virus yet. Others have not been so lucky. The impacts of the virus on our daily activities will not go away anytime soon.

Our usual summer boating season will be impacted—at the very least. Hundreds of cruisers around the world, maybe thousands, are essentially stranded – unable to move due to country and island lock downs and unable to access any supplies for long voyages back to their home countries. The pending arrival of the hurricane season in the Caribbean is even now causing major angst.

Looking back at what I went thorough to escape to home from the Bahamas could seem non-essential, but from the perspective of my family, it was critical. My wife Amy, 1253 nautical miles away in Marblehead, was very fearful.

Fearful of COVID-19 potentially hitting my 92 year old mother, farmer son Tim who struggles with asthma, daughter Kate living in the early hot spot of Seattle and potentially herself. I needed to eliminate the risk of contracting the virus in the Bahamas. My Dan Boater evacuation insurance policy would have been useless. And who knows if and when I could have found the help I needed to get back into the US?

A “no skip” intro
OK, I know what you are thinking. “How can a guy with a Gunboat 55 be cursed?” Our boat was named “Thirst” for the word’s many connotations – “thirst for speed”, “comfort”, “drink”, “adventure”. For our planned 2020 winter/spring cruising season, our “thirst for adventure” has been hampered by many episodes in a season long series:

• Episode 1 – Travel restrictions to Cuba imposed on Americans, one of our destinations planned for winter.
• Episode 2 – Hurricane Dorian destroys the Abacos where our daughter’s father-in-law had just purchased a bone fishing lodge on Sandy Point, another planned multi-week destination with family.
• Episode 3 – Bahamas pre-race/pre-cruise emergency haul-out at high-end boatyard in West Palm Beach for leaking shaft lubrication system.
• Episode 4 – Mediterranean cruising plans for summers 2020 and 2021 derailed by COVID-19.
• Episode 5 – COVID-19, escaping to home from the Bahamas.

And so it begins…
In February, my wife Amy and I spent 25 days cruising the Florida Keys. We visited some 15 different anchorages between Miami and Key West. We had a good time but it wasn’t great cruising. Shore access was challenging. We needed to use Google maps to find which canals had restaurants on publicly accessible dry land. Beaches were few and far between and not sandy or pristine.

Upon arriving back in Miami on February 24, we were looking forward to part 2 of our winter sailing season – cruising the Bahamas with friends in latter part or March and April. We had lined up several couples: George and Jane, Ken and Joanne, Doug and Lucy, and were trying to squeeze in a few others.

The inaugural Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC) race from Miami to Eleuthera would deliver Thirst to the Bahamas. This race was replacing the Key West to Havana race was kiboshed by the Cuba restrictions. Since this race didn’t start until March 11, Amy flew home on February 26 and would rejoin me on March 18 with George and Jane.

SORC Miami to Eleuthera race – feeder to Bahamas cruisin’

Plot of racecourse in dark red. Thirst’s track to and from Eleuthera in orange.

Thirst on the racecourse and at the dock in Eleuthera

This story is not about the race. But in retrospect, it was one of the last major sailing events to take place before our daily lives changed dramatically for the foreseeable future.

Thirst started the 295 mile race on March 11 at 10:15 off of South Beach, Miami. The course proceeded across the Gulf Stream, leaving Great Isaac, Great Stirrup and Eleuthera to starboard, rounded the southern tip of Eleuthera, and proceeded up the west side of the island to the finish near Powell Point at the Cape Eleuthera Resort and Marina.

Some 240 of the 295 miles were upwind in breezes ranging from 8-22 knots. Starting off with the small Solent jib in the heavier morning air, we quickly went to the larger J1 for the rest of the upwind work. We were finally able to set the Code 0 at the elbow of Eleuthera east of Governor’s Harbor in the early morning hours of March 13, allowing Thirst to hit her stride at 12-14 knots and a top speed of 17 knots. After jibing the Code 0 at Eleuthera Point in diminishing breeze, we ghosted across the finish line at 06:30.

Hitting the dock, we cleaned up the boat, got some sleep, swam at the beach and prepped for the post-race party on Saturday night March 14.

Saturday, March 14 – the post-race party. No social distancing here.

Oblivious to the happenings in the real world
But while we were racing the real world was in chaos:

March 11
• World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak “can be characterized as a pandemic,” which is defined as worldwide spread of a new disease for which most people do not have immunity.
• NBA suspended all basketball games after a player for the Utah Jazz preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
• Trump announced a new restriction on many foreign travelers from 26 countries in Europe, except for Ireland and the United Kingdom, for the next 30 days.

March 12
• MLB announced that it will suspend spring training and delay the start of the regular baseball season by at least two weeks.
• NHL announced that it will pause its hockey season. The league’s commissioner did not set an end date for the suspension.
• NCAA canceled both the men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments, known as March Madness, after most conferences suspended their postseason tournaments.

March 13
• Trump tweeted that some cruise lines, including Princess Cruises, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, will suspend outbound trips, at his request, for 30 days.
• Trump declared a national state of emergency that could free up $50 billion to help fight the pandemic.
• States across the U.S., including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maryland, announced plans to close schools over the coronavirus concerns.

Still hoping, prepping Thirst for cruising the Bahamas
On Sunday morning, March 15, one crew member still on Eleuthera and I moved Thirst from the marina to an anchorage about 10 miles northeast in Rock Sound. Amy, George, and Jane were scheduled to fly from Boston on Wednesday March 18 to the nearby airport where I could pick them up by dinghy.

The settlement of Rock Sound had two grocery stores, several restaurants, a few gas stations, a hardware store, a bank, and a beer depot within a 5 to 10 minute walk from a dinghy landing at Frigate’s Bar and Grille. What more could you ask for?

Shortly after Thirst dropped anchor, Amy called and described the panic buying occurring – toilet paper, sanitizer, hamburger, chicken, water, etc. She suggested that I go provision immediately for the subsequent five weeks we planned to cruise in the Bahamas. So while my crew flew home to the States, I went shopping.

There was no panic in Rock Sound. The shelves were full. I already had provisioned Thirst with loads of meats in Miami – burger, steak, chicken, ribs, pork, cold cuts. I focused on other stuff – 16 rolls of toilet paper, 8 rolls of paper towels, 10 cans of tuna, 6 boxes/bags of pasta, many jars of spaghetti sauce, several boxes of Parmalat, really big boxes of oatmeal and Cheerios, bread for freezing, cheeses, crackers, canned vegetables and cases of beer. Fresh produce seemed readily available, so I bought some for a week. Since some was locally grown, I figured we could get more along the way. Mission accomplished.

Provisioning essentials for 5 weeks of cruising in Bahamas that never happened

Reality sets in
Later that day, however, Joanne and Ken cancelled their plans to cruise with us starting April 1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released guidelines recommending that for the next eight weeks, organizers should cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.

Twenty-nine additional states, including New York, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Hawaii, had just announced school closures. Hitting closer to “home”, Sugarbush in Vermont, where Ken and Joanne ski, had also just shut down indefinitely.

On Monday, March 16 Amy called early and relayed that George and Jane had also just cancelled. George explained in an email:

“I am bummed in more ways than one by this pandemic. Jane and I had to make the decision this AM to cancel our plans to come to the Bahamas. It really stinks, as we’ve been counting the days all winter. Gov Baker basically sealed the deal yesterday by pretty much demanding that we all stay home and self-quarantine, no going to bars and restaurants, etc. My worry, even if we could get out on Wednesday, [things may be shut down] making it difficult to get back into the USA with additional travel bans. Folks returning from Europe now are suffering screening and enormous delays.”

Amy wisely thought she should stay put as well.

No big deal I thought. No panic in Rock Sound. A safe place to be. The restaurants and bars were still open. I had also made acquaintances with couples on two other catamarans in the anchorage.

But when and how to get me and Thirst back to US? Sometime later and simple! My brother John was scheduled to fly back from St. Croix to Miami on March 25. He could fly to Rock Sound sometime after and we could do a leisurely delivery back to Fort Lauderdale where I had made a reservation with deposit to haul Thirst before our now aborted plan to ship her to Palma in the Mediterranean.

Over the next two days, I had my daily walk and swim, tackled some items on the ever-present to-do list, had dinner on a neighbor’s cat, and hosted a dinner on Thirst.

But on Thursday, March 19 the U.S. State Department raised the global travel advisory to Level 4: Do Not Travel, warning Americans against traveling internationally and for those abroad to consider returning immediately.

Amy immediately called and demanded I return to the U. S. of A. asap. Among her concerns was that if I did contract the virus, I would be in trouble on Eleuthera with limited healthcare resources compared to US.

Planning the escape into the US
I immediately sent out SOS requests to friends in southern Florida. Merchant mariner and EYC member Todd stepped up and reached out to his contacts in southern Florida. By the end of the afternoon, I had secured two crew members.

Eli, the business partner of a friend, and a professional sailor based in West Palm would fly the next day from Ft Lauderdale to Eleuthera. But there were no flights into Rock Sound, only to North Eleuthera. From there they would have to take a two hour taxi ride to Rock Sound.

Kate, a recent Tufts grad and a first-year instructor at the Eleuthera Island School, wanted to get back home to Hartford, CT. She had sailed in a few Marion to Bermuda races and the deliveries back., so we all made plans to rendezvous the next day around 14:00 when Eli was expected to arrive in Rock Sound.

On Friday morning March 20, Fred on a neighboring cat stopped by in his dinghy to inform me that all restaurants and bars had to close except for take-out and that Bahamians were banned from inter-island travel. He didn’t think it applied to foreigners, but you could easily guess that might be the next edict.

Shortly before 14:00, I dinghied in. Kate, in shorts and short riding boots, arrived shortly after. Helped by Sam, another instructor at the Island School, she unloaded four large, heavy duffle bags containing all her worldly possessions that she had brought for the entire school year. A few minutes later, Eli, in jeans and flip flops, got out of his $200 taxi with just a very small backpack.

I discussed departure options: Leave right away for Miami or wait until daybreak the next day, further risking entrance into the US. We had to sail over to the eastern side of the Yellow Bank between Ship Channel Cay in the northern Exumas and Nassau, a route was infested with coral heads.

Route from Ship Channel Cay to Nassau across coral head-infested Yellow Bank

I didn’t want to sail this part of the route at night, and if we left in the morning, we would have light behind or above us the entire way. We agreed, best to leave in the morning. We then hauled all of Kate’s bags out to Thirst. Returning to Frigate’s before sunset, we ordered take-out dinners. Eating without any others around, we watched the sun set over the anchorage.

The escape into the US
On Friday, March 20 I awoke at 06:00 and started the mandatory coffee. By 07:00 we had pulled the anchor up and the main to full hoist. Since the wind was light and behind from the northeast, Thirst motored about 10 miles until we found deeper safe water off Powell Point.

Unrolling a Code 0, we started reaching toward Ship Channel Cay some 26 miles away. At some point the wind went farther behind to the east and we changed to the A2 spinnaker which we ultimately carried all the way into the Gulf Stream past Bimini. With the breeze increasing, we gybed twice to get through the Ship Channel cut, moving at 12 knots.

Now headed toward Nassau some 30 miles across the Yellow Bank, I was glad we waited until dawn to leave Rock Sound. It wasn’t too bad at first, but eventually we had to abandon the autopilot to hand steer around and between the coral heads.

Sunset under A2 as Thirst heads to Bimini.

The rest of the trip to Miami was easy. The sun set as we were northwest of Nassau. Our watch system was two hours on, four hours off. The autopilot was set to “wind” with a true wind angle at 145 degrees eliminating the need to ever trim the spinnaker. Thirst was moving between 8 and 12 knots.

And then on the horizon, the sky lit up to the north of our route. As we got closer it wasn’t just one light but the lights of nine cruise ships anchored on the Bahamas bank with nowhere to go or anything to do. Closer to Bimini were another six ships.

During the night, the wind went further south so at dawn we gybed to get around Bimini and head toward Miami. As we got into the Gulf Steam, the wind died and the motors went on. Approaching Miami, the wind increased and we started sailing without engines again.

Around noon, Amy called to inform us that Miami-Dade county Mayor Carlos Gimenez had closed all marinas and boat ramps. The previous day a large gathering of boaters could be seen gathering at the Haulover Sandbar, a blatant major violation of his social distancing orders.

Over 15 empty cruise ships anchored in a couple of places on the Bahama banks. B&G screen shot shows six AIS targets stacked bow to stern northeast of Bimini.

While we weren’t headed to a marina but an anchorage off Brickell Avenue in front of my brother’s condo building, eventually I wanted to get into a marina so I could return home.

At 13:40, I used the US Customs and Border Control ROAM app to report our entry into the US. This is a great app that allows you to create a boat profile, scan passport photos and information, format that info, and submit an arrival notice. Hoping for the best, but fearing we might have to divert to a US customs dock for inspection and possible quarantine, I hit the submit button, less than 5 minutes later came back the reply:

“Your U.S. CBP ROAM Trip ID 150573 has been approved.
You and your reporting group are now cleared to enter the U.S. “

No inspection! No quarantine! Escape into the US completed!

We sailed into Government Cut, took down the sails, motored to the anchorage and dropped anchor at 14:30. A beer or two later I took Eli and Kate into the condo’s small dock. By 16:00, Eli ubered back to West Palm while Kate lyfted to Miami’s airport and onto a $26 non-stop Jet Blue flight to Hartford.

The escape into a marina
Behind the scenes, Amy was working the web and social media for marina info and space. If Thirst couldn’t get into a marina, she would have to stay on anchor and I could not return home. Mark, the husband of Amy’s niece Carrie, had a former business partner that owned a Miami marina.

Ron, the owner, did have space for a large catamaran since the slip owner’s cat was stuck in Fort Lauderdale. I was instructed to call Ron the next morning to figure out if and when we could get Thirst into the marina which was only a half mile away.

The next morning, I called Ron. He agreed to take Thirst in but we would have to leave if the slip owner’s cat came back. I agreed to his usual rates for a week. I would have to move Thirst quickly since he wasn’t supposed to let any boats in. But he would let the Mayor’s office know.

My brother had returned from St. Croix earlier than planned the previous night and together we motored Thirst into the marina slip in challenging cross wind and current conditions. Ron and dockmaster Eddy caught our lines.

Escape into a marina completed!

The escape to Fort Lauderdale
The marina was great. Great location close to my brother’s condo. Secure with locked gates. Friendly, yet socially distant neighbors. Easy to get out for a social distance-compliant walk. I provisioned well in Eleuthera, so I didn’t need food or drink. But it was expensive, very expensive, and I could get evicted at any time.

Our original plan was to haul-out in Ft. Lauderdale at the end of April before putting Thirst on a ship in May for transport to the Mediterranean. With Europe in lock-down, the trip to the Med was now not happening. Thirst would now be headed back to Marblehead.

But it still needed bottom paint, a repair of topside damage caused by a too narrow slip in Stuart, FL and engine shaft work. Better to keep its haul out date in Ft. Lauderdale than compete for resources in busy New England boatyards in the spring. A dock in Ft. Lauderdale would also allow me to get home for about a month to be with family in case I was needed there.

Another search ensued. Marty, a college buddy, replied that his partner used to work as a marina dockmaster in Ft. Lauderdale and knew people at a couple of others. They would make some calls. I used Dock Skipper, a private dock listing web site, to reach out to five owners. Two replied right away that their docks weren’t available for some reason. John and I visited one that could work but was in a shady area. Plus, the owner of the adjacent sailboat didn’t have anything good to say about the dock owner.

Hopefully, one of the other two owners I had yet to hear from would have something and something better. Then miraculously I got a text from my co-skipper in the Eleuthera race. He had a house with a dock in Ft. Lauderdale where Thirst had stayed earlier in March before the race. The house was for sale, vacant of all furniture and not moving off the market anytime soon. At the end of the race, he thought he had the house rented. But for a variety of reasons including COVID-19, the rental fell through.

Early on Saturday, March 28, John and I moved the boat from the Miami marina to Fort Lauderdale. We had a great 20 mile sail and passed another six cruise ships anchored outside Government Cut and Port Everglades.

More cruise ships anchored off Miami as Thirst heads to Fort Lauderdale.

After sailing into the inlet and turning into the wind to lower the main, we were almost mowed down by a freighter moving very, very fast, first behind then crossing in front of us to a dock in Port Everglades. From there we turned north and waited for the 17th Street bridge to open.

Since it was Saturday, there was a lot of recreational boat traffic in both directions in the narrow channel. Approaching the canal, we had to stop for what seemed an eternity before Thirst could turn left across outgoing traffic to enter the canal. While Thirst was stopped and waiting for an opening, an impatient Regulator with four massive outboards behind tried to pass on the left. Five blasts! Yikes!

At the very end of the calm canal Thirst pulled slowly up to the dock. Christina, a 2019 Block Island Race Week crew member living in the neighborhood, caught our lines. After adjusting lines, positioning fenders and plugging into power, John and Christina left. I started to clean up Thirst and prepare her for a month-long stay. I could now head home.

Escape into Ft. Lauderdale dock completed!

Thirst at rest on dock in Ft. Lauderdale

The escape to home
At 18:30 the next day, I ubered to Ft. Lauderdale’s airport with mask, rubber gloves, and alcohol-soaked paper rags extracted from Thirst’s medical kit. The roads were empty. All airport drop-off locations were empty. Not a soul was in the security screening area except three masked TSA employees wearing gloves.

The waiting area at Gate D2 had just a few flyers widely dispersed. At 19:51, Delta 1218 took off for Boston. On board were two pilots, four attendants, and eight passengers. Seated in 26F with nearest passenger 10 rows ahead, I felt very safe, and my roundtrip ticket was only $51!

With little other airline traffic, we landed at 22:35 some 30 minutes early. I headed outside where Amy was going to pick me up. Coming from Florida where I had been for the last two and half months, the drizzle and brisk wind felt very cold. Amy pulled up about 10 minutes later.

Wearing a mask, the retired nurse practitioner and former infection control nurse pulled out one for me. She instructed me to sit in the back seat of her Subaru wagon. I dutifully complied and closed the door. I felt even colder.

Nearing our home in Marblehead, Amy told me I was going into quarantine on the third floor for 14 days. I then pulled out a package, one I had “smuggled” from Eleuthera via private boat to Miami and then Ft Lauderdale, and then hand carried via private uber car and essentially private jet to Boston. Inside were 12 rolls of the very finest 2-ply papier de toilette. Amy stopped instructing, looked in the review mirror and smiled.

Escape to home completed!

Post script
Upon returning home I discover that Amy, Annie Kaull, and Wendy Frisch were making masks for front-line healthcare workers. Their fashionable Olsen-style mask features an outside covering that is pre-washed, pre-shrunk, and 100% quilt weight cotton. Inside is a replaceable High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter made from vacuum cleaner bags. The mask filters particles as small as .3 microns. God bless them.

Over 300 masks have been distributed to North Shore Medical Center and Visiting Nurse Association workers.

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