The HelmsMistress reflects on an entire year spent hiding from Covid on a cruising sailboat and the lessons we'll never forget.

 

Like many, this past year for me unfolded in stages of fear, uncertainty, isolation, anger, frustration, gratefulness, and hope.  While I expected small amounts of all of the above due to the newness of our chosen lifestyle, I could’ve never predicted the turmoil this past year brought…no one could.  I share below the perspective of being in a foreign country and living as a transient nomad on the open ocean where stay at home orders became murky, but the surroundings were breathtaking.  Even as I wrote this my anxiety peaked just thinking about riding the Corona coaster of emotions we went through.  I share this not to peak anxiety, but as a mark of how far we’ve come one year later.  Amidst the fear and frustration, this year gave me an opportunity to reflect and reconnect with nature, my family, and myself.  I share below in hopes that you too are at a place to reflect and embrace the beauty of humanity and wonder of the natural world around us.

Exactly one year ago, we untied the docklines from La Cruz Marina and began our trek north towards La Paz, Baja California Sur on the other side of the Sea of Cortez.  We bid adieu to friends on the dock, not realizing this would be the last time we casually socialized in such close proximity and headed north on the Pacific Coast of mainland Mexico.  We were following Coronavirus news back in the U.S., but the widespread precautions and restrictions wouldn’t hit  Mexico for a bit longer.  We headed to Matanchen Bay where we were able to experience the famed Jungle Cruise to La Tovara Springs before the notorious jejenes (small biting bugs) declared victory on my body with > 100 bites and we made an early departure for Mazatlán.  Mother Ocean had other plans for us and this time she knew what she was doing.  Late afternoon, we were bucking into swell and not covering much ground with our motor revving at high RPMs when we looked on the chart at Isla Isabel only 17nm away – we could make it before sunset.  Stopping here would surely push us back on our carefully scripted weather window, but would mean visiting my most highly anticipated location in Pacific Mexico.  There wasn’t much debate to be had.  We anchored off the mesmerizing Isla Isabela and spent exactly 24 hours there – just long enough snorkel and tempt me to return someday – then proceeded on a much more comfortable overnight passage to Mazatlán.  Having been without cell service or WIFI for a few days put us way behind on the state of the emerging pandemic.  On Friday the 13th (really?) the US had declared a National Emergency, thus beginning our familiarity with the term “social distancing” and whatever constituted an “essential business”.  As we approached Mazatlán, now on the morning of March 17th, I was able to get a cell signal and within minutes my phone blew up with texts from home with news of the state of the world.  We quickly realized we were not going back to the U.S. at the beginning of April as previously anticipated and began a paradigm shift towards survival in our minds.  It was St. Patty’s Day, previously a time for celebration, but today was anything but.  Even so we raised a pint to celebrate dropping the hook in a safe harbor as always, but beyond that sense of relief was a new found anxiety over contact with people.  Never before had I felt such trepidation about pulling into a safe harbor after a long passage.  We processed the impact of this worldwide pandemic on friends and family over 1000 miles away and wondered what we would experience here.  I pulled out the N-95s I had brought along, never anticipating how valuable they would be a mere 4 months into our cruising adventures.  We began the first of many near apocalyptic provisioning sessions with our sights set on bugging out in the Sea of Cortez where we could remain isolated and (mostly) self-sufficient.  Unlike family and friends back home, we could still find toilet paper on the aisles…was this the barometer of the true state of the pandemic or just the overall state of panic?  Who knows at this point.  The girls get a serious lesson in mask wearing, physical distancing, and infection control.  Here, we wait out the first of two prolonged northerly blows on our way back to La Paz.

A crossing that took us 3 days on the way down, took us 3 weeks on the way back due to weather delays and some degree of sightseeing.  We departed from a land of carefree socialization and traveled through the COVID wormhole arriving in a new world of mask wearing and isolation.  It had nothing to do with the location, but everything to do with timing.  The world was now masked up and desperately searching for hand sanitizer and toilet paper.  We were trying to keep our kids safe without creating unnecessary fear and anxiety – hard to do in tight quarters.  We had the best bugout vessel for these times, we just needed to capitalize on all she had to offer and curtail our more luxurious indulgences.

We dampened the panic from the outside world on our little floating hovel at the end of the dock.  It was difficult (well not really) to NOT follow the constant stream of international news updates highlighting the overwhelming number of deaths, loss of jobs, isolation of those who need contact the most, and overall burnout.  Compounding the COVID news is that of a polarized nation that just doesn’t seem to make sense to us anymore.  We feel safe but fear more for friends and family back home.  We reprovision, tend to hygiene, make sure our bugout vessel is ready for the long haul, and in general avoid people (the basics) and otherwise find entertainment on the boat.  For once, WIFI works from the dock supplementing our cinematic selection. The VHF morning net seems filled with more speculation and rumors than facts, but understandably, people are hungry for information in a new uncertain world.  Furthermore, we’re guests in a foreign country and wonder about the feasibility of remaining in the country/getting back home in an emergency with international borders closing, our ability to move around amongst anchorages as cruisers, and how we will be received as foreigners during a time of worldwide travel restrictions– all the more reason to lay low and be conservative.  In Mexico, national parks and beaches are closed.  We decide to wait until the typically busy Holy Week is over before heading further north as we don’t want to appear as a recreational vessel enjoying a holiday (although if you look at our floating home I think it reflects anything but a luxury charter vessel – love her just the same).  For now it’s easier to remain hunkered down on our dock, but if isolation in the Sea of Cortez is what we hope for, we’d better get moving.

Leaving La Paz is a welcome relief – with all the planning, provisioning, and zombie apocalypse prepping behind us, we head off the grid for parts unknown.  We meet up with fellow cruisers to get the latest information, discuss plans (hunker down or head home) and support one another with exchange of provisions/small gifts in the isolation of the sea.  We skip many small fishing villages following a combination of government regulations which have closed all beaches and rumors of villages closed to outsiders by local personnel due to their remoteness and fear of virus transmission (a rumor that was later debunked).  We reach the islands of Loreto National Park and it seems perhaps the regulations passed down in La Paz may not apply here – we’re still cautious.  Anchored in beautiful Bahia Salinas, the authorities approach our boat and provide us with a letter in English clearly spelling out the present regulations:  No water activities, no beach time, Loreto has no COVID-19 and please help us keep it that way.  We’re grateful for the clear information.  We talk with friends who had hoped to be enroute to the South Pacific at this point, but turned back into the sea instead when the islands closed borders.  We empathize, but they remain optimistic about their opportunity to now enjoy the Sea of Cortez and will try again next year.  On shore, Loreto is extremely locked down as we quickly find out.  Chad has multiple checkpoints, obtaining his temperature and asking where he is going during essential errands.  Liquor sales cease (that got people’s attention) and with some research and patience, Mexico officially extends our travel visas, preventing unnecessary travel back to the U.S.  Chad runs all our errands alone to minimize exposure and will do so for the remainder of the year. 

We are blessed to be isolated amidst some of the best of the Sea of Cortez and look to the sea for enchantment.  Socialization outside our family consists of VHF radio calls which are never private, and calls/texts back home to mostly exhausted/burned out/numb friends and family. The seclusion on the boat at times has me crawling the bulkheads, but perhaps this is a gift that I cannot fully appreciate in my mental fog.  What I wanted most was more time – with my kids, with my husband, to become a better homeschool teacher, to be still in this world and now that it’s here, I’m not ready to receive this gift – how dare I.  Eventually, we all (me included) do not let this gift go to waste.  We open up cookbooks and try new recipes in the solar oven, we read, we swim laps around the boat, the girls learn to drive the dinghy and set the anchor, Chad finishes boat projects that had been pushed to the back burner, I attempt to improve my photography and writing skills, and the girls become closer than ever.  In absence of outside distractions, we grew as a family.  Power is out on your iPad? Out come the art projects.  Power is out on my computer?  Out comes a book or boardgame.  I am grateful for Chad’s industrious mentality, never getting stagnate and I leveraged that spirit.  We eventually enjoy exploring isolated coves and the small villages we skipped on the way up into the Sea of Cortez and relish every beautiful sunrise and sunset.

When we do see people boatside or at a dock, it’s as if I’m a teenager at the popular kids’ party, awkwardly trying to socialize again – am I really that out of practice?!  By August, the strict regulations on beach access and water recreation let up and it’s a whole new world again.  We freely snorkel and paddle again and challenge each other to find new fish that we later identify in our fish book.  We become comfortable in outdoor environments around other people, we just now wear masks, social distance and allow for some additional space – too easy. We reunite with fellow cruisers which instantly boosts morale and begin to crawl out of our isolated slump to see a society that is grateful for their health and their families (Mexico).

A year later, we still live with the same precautions, a more comprehensive understanding of the virus’ transmission and the hope brought about by new vaccines and continued research developments.  The U.S. remains polarized, but now there is discussion that can’t be ignored – I’m hopeful.  There remains a (mostly) comfortable degree of uncertainty about the future and we make choices to keep our family safe, while experiencing the best of the Mexican coastal communities.  Living again amongst the populace takes some navigation and risk mitigation, but it’s doable – we all make choices that suit our priorities, balancing public health and safety with our sometimes selfish desire to live life.  My eyes are again open to humanity, kindness, and the strength of the human spirit.  Family continues to be my rock: Chad for his enduring quest to never sit still – keep improving this boat, keep challenging us and keep looking at what’s on the horizon for us; the girls for their goofy humor, witty attempts to manipulate our thoughts, and unrelenting passion for understanding the world around them; my parents for their jokes about quarantine grooming standards and for providing a connection to home; and Quincy for all the amusement that goes along with having a small pony onboard. Mexico has been welcoming and kind to us and we now look forward to another season of exploring the wonder of the Sea of Cortez.


As the boat rolls:  The HelmsMistress lives on a 51-ft Aleutian Ketch with her family and Great Dane cruising Mexico until next season, when they’ll head south for Central America.  She loves your feedback and comments.  The best compliment you could give her is to FOLLOW US if you like her writing. 

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