Cruising Sabbatical Interrupted

Stranded: What Many Cruising Families Face During the Pandemic

Imagine planning for years that you’d take an entire year away from your job, or maybe even put your career on hold, to purchase a cruising sailboat for your family to sail the world. You’d probably sell your home, along with many of your possessions all for one dream. One that you may have dreamt about for your entire life. A dream many said would be close to impossible to execute.

When the day finally comes and you move on your boat with your few possessions and your family. You’re in a new country, maybe one that doesn’t speak your language and the only familiar faces you see are your family members. Figuring out how to get food and supplies, and for many, how to sail your boat. You wonder how you’ll ever adapt to such a different lifestyle.

What happens if weeks or maybe months into your one-year plan, a global pandemic strikes and your dream comes to a complete halt? You and your family get stuck in a country, without anywhere to go. Healthcare is questionable. The language different, and the locals are petrified you will be the one to bring disease to their country, and it’s exceedingly clear, they do not want you there.

This is reality for many sailing families right now. Imagine that one-week vacation you had planned, but add in leaving your career, selling your home for a floating one and selling all your things, and then the only thing you can do is stay on your boat and not leave. What about traveling to all those exotic places you had on your list? All those places you talked incessantly about to your family for years. Not happening.

Right now, there are families all over the world, ones like the ones I’ve described above, who are close to waving the white flag. They didn’t sign up for this when they were leaving their jobs and selling their possessions. Global pandemic was not on their list of “10 things you should worry about when moving your family abroad and onto a sailboat.” One may think being overtaken by a rogue wave or boarded by pirates was pretty high up there on the things people worried about when you said you were going to sail the world with your kids, but a global pandemic? No freaking way. That’s like Sci-Fi crazy!

Not only are there families out there who aren’t even through their one-year sabbatical, there are ones out there who may be years into their adventure, and even when they think they may have seen it all, they are faced with the unbelievable. The entire globe has basically come to a screeching halt due to COVID-19, and many families like us who travel by sailboat are left wondering, “what next?” or even more important “where can we go from here?”and most often, the answer is “nowhere” or “there’s no right answer.”

There are families who had multi-year plans to sail the Caribbean, then cross over to Panama and prep for a month-long passage across the Pacific Ocean to French Polynesia to eventually circumnavigate the globe over a set period of time. These plans, years in the making, and countless dollars spent prepping for a huge undertaking. Some families were able to leave their boat safely and get back to family, while others ultimately did leave Panama for French Polynesia, only to be turned away once they arrived, after traveling for weeks non-stop, even with kids on board, to be told, there was no islands accepting visitors and they must turn around.

Their only option? Sail to Hawaii, another several week passage; or if they continued on, there was no guarantee other countries wouldn’t turn them away as well. Then what? Almost months on the ocean without stepping foot on solid ground and still nowhere to go with waning food supplies.

There are those out there who left their boat in a foreign country to travel back home to visit family, maybe take care of some medical care, only to be told, they were not allowed to return to their boat, which is ultimately their home and must stay where they were. They never planned to leave their boat unattended for an unforeseeable length of time and the financial burden begins to build.

One family with the mother seven months pregnant, located in the Cayman Islands, had plans to return home to Canada to deliver their unborn child and were notified all the borders and airports were closed before they could leave. The catch? They now will be forced to deliver their new baby in the Cayman Islands. Not only does this create stress and problems for the family, but the financial impact is real due to hospital fees and lack of health insurance coverage this family now faces.

Some families face being in a foreign country and are now being asked to leave, or have no choice to leave in order to position their boat in a hurricane free zone. The real challenge comes when there is no logical place to go from their current location, or one that is thousands of miles away which entails crossing oceans in order to get home, often with small children aboard and/or inexperienced sailors aboard.

The opportunity to find crew members to assist in this potentially dangerous undertaking is close to impossible. Travel restrictions around the world make the usual easy task of finding crew almost impossible. Travel insurance companies are dropping healthcare if patrons cannot return back to their home country, all the while the country they are located in does not want them there either. Many islands harass people to leave immediately. The challenge is real, and most often cruisers are faced with the option of inaction being the best action, which is sitting tight and seeing which direction the world goes.

One family interviewed stated they had no solid plans as to how long they’d continue traveling, but now they may be forced to sell their boat due to financial insecurity. Their primary income coming from a vacation rental property, but with COVID-19, many are cancelling, leaving many families with drastically reduced income streams.

Unfortunately, situations like the ones above are just a small handful of what cruising families are currently facing. One could say “this is what people get for not going back to their home,” but the reality is, home is no longer home and is now their boat, and home is wherever that boat may be. The truth is, the changes that occurred happened so very fast that it was close to impossible to make plans to leave your home safely in a hurricane zone and go back to your country, which often meant for many that there was no actual physical address to return.

No matter where you are on the globe, one thing is for true, life is uncertain. It’s a scary new world that we are all just watching unfold before our eyes. We are all being faced with challenging choices and decisions, and many people like us are feeling exposed and not quite sure where we belong.

Those families who had one year to execute their dream are now watching it unfold in unimaginable ways. The sailing community is full of amazingly strong people who face challenges like this with grace and strength, and it’s a special feeling to be surrounded by families like these. We are all facing incredible challenges, but we’re in this together. People helping people, despite the wide range of obstacles that we each face on a daily, or even hourly basis.

We are all living the voyage.

~By Stephanie Ferrie

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