Heading back to the Islands, safely

Published on November 18th, 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. Having recently restarted their international offshore sail training for the first time since COVID-19, Meg details their experience along with the Caribbean’s plans for welcoming back sailors in 2021.

It’s time to head south for the winter. But this year, there is hesitation.

After the Spring 2020 season was cut short due to COVID-19 — canceling regattas, locking down borders, keeping owners away from their boats — there is understandable wariness around heading back to the Caribbean for the 2021 season.

The Caribbean Sailing Association (CSA), a collective of regatta organizers and stakeholders, has been collaborating with more sailors and teams this year to instill confidence, and ensure a safe return to the islands for sail racing events.

Ocean Racers and a few other charter organizers have held brainstorming meetings this summer via Zoom, and most recently, we opened these sessions to the public during the CSA Annual Conference last Saturday.

Each regatta was represented, and shared current state of affairs and plans in their respective islands. A sailors hour at 8 AM EST opened the conversation for sailors, boat owners, and teams to ask questions and share experiences. I was able to share our most recent, and positive, experience in Bermuda, as well as speak during the charter panel held at 10:30 AM EST.

Here are my takeaways from our conversations, which will hopefully help sailors envision what the 2021 season might look like:

Without a vaccine and global, public distribution plan, we rely on a comprehensive testing system to protect travelers and locals alike. Each country, especially the islands, have developed their own testing protocols. And of course, no one country is exactly alike.

Based on our recent personal experience, we believe Bermuda has set the standard for testing inbound travelers. The process is clearly communicated digitally, and executed just as seamlessly.

On October 23 we departed Annapolis with our first offshore training crew since COVID-19. All crew were required to present a negative PCR COVID-19, taken within 7 days of departure, and file a Bermuda Travel Authorization form online. We arrived October 29 at 8 PM, too late to arrange our test on arrival, so we quarantined for the night on anchor and awaited our call.

At 10:30 AM on October 30, we were called via Bermuda Radio CH16 to report to the customs dock for our testing. The whole testing process for our crew took under 20 minutes. We then returned to our boat Hermes on anchor, and awaited results. Two crew members received results via email at 5 PM, the rest of us received results at midnight that same day — all negative.

We were then permitted to enjoy the island, and if staying, report to a testing facility for re-testing on Day 4, Day 8, and Day 14. Morgen and I had a brief but enjoyable stay on the island, masks and contact-tracing abound; and completed our Day 4 test in Hamilton during our scheduled time in less than 10 minutes. Results were also received the same day; cost for the four tests was $75, which is a small price to pay for health, safety, and peace of mind.

In the rest of the islands, experiences vary. On the high end, testing can cost up to $300/test in Antigua currently, with results in the 24-48 hour range. St Maarten shares a similar turnaround time, but usually on the lower-end with cost of $114/test and decreasing. It appears the USVIs, St Thomas in particular, have the shortest test result period, available within 24 hours. St Barth also has a rapid testing machine on the island, with negative 72-hour pre-arrival tests accepted, and re-testing required on Day 8.

Quarantine & Zones
Similarly, quarantine procedures differ between islands, and can change. Just a week ago, BVI changed their quarantine rules, and currently visitors are required to quarantine for 4 days. However, there is some creativity with quarantine, with the potential of quarantine zones for vessels to enjoy and even sailing/racing while on quarantine, according to Judy Petz, Director of BVI Spring Regatta.

While it would not really affect inbound crew, there is hope that the Caribbean will set up island ‘zones’ in which travel between islands will be allowed without quarantine. This would be under the assumption that the vessel and crew onboard have been within the Caribbean zone for at least 14 days.

Currently only a few islands have zone pacts, which allow for quarantine-free travel between islands. There is the Caricom Bubble: potentially Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and Grenadines, St Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, Montserrat – however, Grenada withdrew and any other island can withdraw at any time. There is also the French-island bubble: Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Barth, French St Martin, but these islands all tend to follow laws set by France’s PM in Europe.

Managing Logistics & Expectations
The general consensus for the 2021 Caribbean season is a focus on delivering the same high-quality racing for which the region is most famous. As far as the renowned social scene paired with these events, expect it to be adapted or mostly eliminated for safety reasons in 2021.

However, there are still opportunities for “Serious Fun!” features to be implemented, something that St Maarten Heineken Regatta is committed to, according to Event Director Michele Korteweg. We have been brainstorming ideas on how to create memorable micro-social experiences, since each team can still have some serious fun within their own crew. Instead of gathering at the race village, teams will likely be socializing onboard their own vessel, at restaurants, and back at their private accommodations.

It was also suggested that yacht owners work with yacht management and logistic companies to manage all testing, quarantining, and inbound crew. CSA is working with local agents to secure and offer resources for yacht owners and crew, which will be listed along with all other COVID-19 updates on their website: https://caribbean-sailing.com/regatta-covid-updates/

Communication is key, and the Caribbean Sailing Association will continue to keep the public updated on resources and plans for 2021. The only thing really missing right now is you — the sailors. The Regattas are working hard to ensure a safe welcome back to the islands, and the community needs sailors to return in 2021.

As for us at Ocean Racers, we are more confident about the 2021 season after our positive experience in Bermuda and communications with CSA. We are waiting until January to leave mainland USA, which is a few months later than usual, just so we have flexibility for any change in event plans.

In the meantime, we are taking reservations for 2021 Regatta team charters, and have updated our cancellation policies to protect our crew from event cancellations. Learn more, and book our Pogo 12.50 Hermes for you and 6 of your crew: oceanracers.net/racing/

UPDATE: This story originally said the cost per test in Bermuda was $75, but has been revised to stated it is $75 for the complete protocol of four tests.

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