When life comes to a screeching halt

Published on April 27th, 2020

Meg Reilly is a circumnavigator who runs an international sailing team, Ocean Racers, with her partner Morgen Watson on their Pogo 12.50 Hermes. The duo is currently quarantined on anchor in St Maarten, where the last race of their season left them.

I write this on quarantine month two, beginning lockdown week four in St Maarten; it is Friday, April 24. The date matters because the situation develops seemingly by the hour at times.

Just a month ago we were blissfully racing yachts around paradise by day and partying with 1,000s of international sailors by night — the thought of now being a nightmare or a dream? The St Maarten Heineken Regatta was just the beginning of our Caribbean racing season, we were just getting warmed up, and then… it was over.

Like the blitz of a bad rave strobe, the world changed in rapid flashes.

Immediately following the regatta, Morgen’s sister and her boyfriend were visiting us for a relaxing week off from their demanding restaurant and hospitality careers in France. The week started with us exploring picture-perfect anchorages, building bonfires and BBQs on the beach, and dancing with friends into the wee hours of the night.

The week ended in panic. We returned to Simpson Bay a couple days before their flight back to France — a flight they now weren’t even sure would take off. Morgen’s sister sat on the end of the dock, her phone held close to her ear as she listened to the French PM describe plans of total lockdown.

The normally bustling marina was already quiet and somber. The restaurant and hospitality jobs they were escaping for a week’s vacation were now dissolved. They were hurrying back to return to a France that had changed so much in just a week’s absence.

Panic in paradise
The dual-nation island of St. Martin/Maarten was too planning for shutdown. No more commercial inbound flights were allowed, locals had a week to return home, and visitors were told to leave immediately or be prepared to stay indefinitely.

At first we thought we were lucky to be on the Dutch-side of the island, as the French-side implemented strict lockdown procedures, closing all business and restricting movement to permits with 1-hour expirations. The Dutch side attempted to proceed with life as normal — or at least as normal as possible.

Restaurants were still open for takeaway, people blissfully walked the beaches, and supermarkets had a few new additions such as hand-washing stations and plexiglass between cashiers and customers. Ignorance was bliss, until it became deadly.

Currently St Maarten has one of the highest infection rates in the Caribbean compared to the population of 40,000. The death total is now 13 and infection rates are unknown as testing is difficult to conduct.

After the two week quarantine of the island, it was clear that community spread was happening, so the St Maarten PM put the island in total lockdown. Movement was completely restricted, restaurants and former essential services were closed, and for two weeks even grocery stores were shutdown. Now supermarkets are back open for 3 days a week, which feels like a gift when everything was taken away from you.

Hold your breath
The situation on the island, and abroad, has been an extending game of “wait and see.” The initial lockdown period of two weeks is constantly re-upped for another 2-week stint. Most recently, the lockdown was extended even further, projecting an indiscriminate date of May 10. But that’s just locally as it’s unlikely the island will be reopened to visitors before hurricane season officially begins June 1.

This means that a bunch of boats, including a couple of beloved VO65s, will be waiting for their rescue in a losing game against the clock. Team Austria Ocean Racing (former Vestas VO65) just managed to sneak out last week, after a nail-biting runaround between closed Caribbean islands to pick up necessary crew and supplies for their long journey back home.

We’re all being asked to hold our breaths indefinitely. Underwater we can hold our breath without panic when we know where the surface is. It lays there as a promise, a barrier we can swim to and break through to breathe again. But what about now when there is no surface in sight? What do we do? Grow gills and learn to live in this new environment?

I’m not saying this sh#t is going to turn into Waterworld… it’s just a metaphor, okay? But panic is not an option, and adaptation is the only salvation.

All you need
Not that we knew this would happen when we first commissioned our Pogo 12.50 Hermes and set her up for self-sustainability, but now more than ever I am happy we did. While her cruising side can be annoying during our racing events, this hybrid racer-cruiser has served as a loyal boat home, especially now that we are quarantined on anchor in Simpson Bay.

We have a simple solar power system, and that paired with our water maker, we have the ability to truly live off the grid. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t really off the grid, as we praise the Google Fi gods and have the ability to stay connected through isolation.

But really, we have all that we need. And we are no stranger to making do with little resources and keeping ourselves busy and entertained when the days meld together. It’s very similar to life offshore, and our days revolve around meals.

The cruising interior of the Pogo 12.50 has a simply perfect galley. Here I’ve been operating my own self-proclaimed Michelin-star restaurant complete with fresh bread and oven roasts that’ll make even you landlubbers salivate. The only thing truly missing is movement. I wrote recently in an instagram reflection post:

“Despite understanding and functioning well with the isolation and mundanity of life at sea, what’s missing now is movement. That feeling of progress while sailing, despite seeing no visual signs of change, and how slowly the invisible miles check off. You learn to find new indicators of advancement, or you learn to let go of extrinsic progress and perhaps focus on the intrinsic progress. Or you just let go of progress complete, and just be…” – @oceanracers April 10, 2020

Living on life support
Regardless of the lack of movement, the stagnation of life at the moment, life and time still go on. Sporting events and international travel, the lifelines of our business, have come to a screeching halt, and yet we still have to live.

Both these dominating factors of our business will likely be the last to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Our high season was abruptly canceled, and yet we had just invested a lot of money and time in preparing the boat for a busy high season that inevitably did not happen.

Last summer we did a major refit, taking down our carbon fiber rig, repainting it and the bottom. We had just finally commissioned our long-awaited Fractional Code 0, only to unfurl it for just two events and now shove it in the back cabin — which is now filled with all our race gear, instead of crew.

Missing the race events was certainly heartbreaking, but the worst part has been managing a slew of disappointed crew. Most have understood and accepted our offer of credit towards future events, but a select few have not be understanding or supportive at all.

We ask for patience as we wait for this crisis to pass, and local governments to give us the GO that it is safe to return to “business as usual.” But business as usual will not be possible if we do not survive these tough times in between.

If we want the sailing industry to return as we last left it, we all have to be supportive and understanding of each other. This is the only way we can recover. This is the only way to ensure the return of diversity on the race field, rather than guarantee that only the big guys will survive.

It is not an easy time to be an independent business, and we rely heavily on the patience and understanding of our crew to get through this together. For us, we anticipate a year of losses as we make up for canceled events in the late 2020 and 2021 seasons. For our crew, you will get sailing again, all you have to sacrifice now is some time.

We are grateful to all of our crew who have supported us in the past, now and in the future. If you would like to support our program or other sailing businesses that have been greatly affected by this crisis, now is the time to book future events. The returned confidence in our industry will help us survive and rebuild.

Please consider planning your next sailing vacation with one of us “little guys” instead of a cruise or large charter company. We promise we will deliver on a fun and safe experience that will be well worth the wait! Until then, stay well, and keep dreaming… We’ll all be sailing again soon.

Check out Ocean Racers annual event schedule, and take advantage of 2020 rates to book a 2021 sailing adventure. www.oceanracers.net

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