Langkawi, an archipelago of 99 islands on Malaysia’s west coast, is beautiful: white sandy beaches, turquoise sea, lush vegetation. Only four of the islands are inhabited. The largest, Pulau Langkawi, is home to almost 65,000 people and has all the tourist trappings you could want, but it’s the smaller islands that seem like the ideal place to wait out a pandemic.
At least that’s how it looks on Jarrad Laver and Bonita Herewane’s Instagram account. The Australian couple, who are sailing around the world on Nandji, their 40-foot Bruce Roberts sailboat, have been spending the global lockdown anchored at one of the archipelago’s tiny islands.
It’s easy to think Herewane and Laver, who are known for their popular YouTube channel, Sailing Nandji – Frothlyfe, are spending the pandemic in the best possible place. But the reality isn’t quite so idyllic.
“We [made] the right decision to enter Langkawi two days before the worldwide lockdown began and borders closed. We received a three-month visa and [have been] treated very well. We have the option to visit the grocery store, so long as it’s one person per household,” Laver said in an interview via e-mail. “But the borders of countries around us are closed. We are allowed to leave Malaysia, but we will not be accepted into the next country. There is nowhere to go.”
Being stuck in paradise may not sound so bad, especially since they’ve been welcomed by locals and had stocked six months of food in preparation for a voyage across the Indian Ocean. But Laver is aware that cruisers can put a strain on grocery stores and health care systems – and situations can quickly get tense.
“We know of boats in the Maldives [that have] been confined to their vessel for 32 days without being allowed to even swim off their boat. They are running out of food and currently have a food delivery once every two weeks to share amongst the boats stuck there,” he said. “Other boats in Indonesia have had warning gunshots from officials fired near them and have been escorted out of safe harbours, [even though] they only planned to rest for the night, not go to land. Many angry locals have thrown rocks at boats and chased them out of safe harbours forcing boats to be stuck at sea with nowhere to go.”
The pandemic has also disrupted Laver and Herewane’s plans. They had intended to sail from Thailand to South Africa in early March, hitting Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Chagos Archipelago, Mauritius, Réunion and Madagascar along the way – a journey of more than 7,500 nautical miles. But now they don’t know when they’ll be able to leave Malaysia.
The pandemic has also changed things for Joscha Brormann and Niklas Heinecke, two German friends who have been sailing together since April, 2019. They are currently in Martinique, midway through a sustainable sailing adventure they’re calling #SailingNaked. The goal is to circumnavigate the world via the Northwest Passage, a corridor through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago that’s regarded as the Mount Everest of sailing, on Ju Mar, Brormann’s Bavaria 42 cruiser.
But it’s only possible to traverse the Northwest Passage for a few months each year, and the global lockdown has put them well behind schedule.
They worry about their families and friends back home, but they do have it good at the moment, Heinecke said. “We can swim. We can do stuff on the boat. We have food. We have even found a friend here who helps us with grocery shopping and with laundry.”
But, like Laver and Herewane, they can’t leave. Brormann’s plan was to spend the summer sailing from the Caribbean to Newfoundland and Labrador, leave Ju Mar in Canada for the winter, then resume their journey in the spring, sailing up to Greenland and into the passage from there. They were already looking at delays because Brormann was running low on money – boat maintenance and repairs can be very expensive – but now things are even worse because he can no longer offset his costs by hosting guests who want a taste of cruising life. He’s now thinking he’ll head back to Germany when borders reopen so he can work for a while.
Not everyone wants to wait out the pandemic on a boat. Linda Kenyon and Chris Hatton, Ontarians who have been cruising for the past two decades, spend winters on their boat, most recently in Cuba. Normally, they would not return to Canada until Victoria Day, but the crisis forced them to make the journey home early. The couple, who are 63 and 67, didn’t want to risk getting sick far from home.
“We’re in that age where they were saying that we should be concerned about what this virus might do,” she says. “If we were to need medical care in Cuba, it would be a problem because the medical system there is quite strained already. And having spent the winter there, we knew it was difficult to find fresh food – there are real shortages. So we never really considered staying [on the boat].”
They made the journey from Cuba to the Cayman Islands and up to Florida in mid-March, and even after they left their boat in Titusville, Fla., they still had to drive through the United States to get home, something Kenyon says was anxiety-inducing because they suddenly had access to non-stop news about “how bad it’s getting and how bad it’s going to be.”
Regardless of where their boats are, all cruisers are experiencing uncertainty. Back in Malaysia, Laver and Herewane are trying to keep things in perspective.
“We are hopeful that ports may begin opening [soon], but this is more of a hopeful pipe dream than a reality,” Laver says. “All ports in neighbouring countries are closed and lockdowns extended until mid-May. All countries to the west are closed and showing no signs of opening up to cruising vessels. We will be keeping a keen eye on the situation and take it as it comes. Our biggest challenge is accepting the fact that we could be stuck here for the rest of the year. We are safe, we have food, we are happy, we are welcome and we are doing all right.”
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