The hold of my friend Chad’s 40-foot Jeanneau monohull, the Loulou, swung open rustily to reveal 10-pound sacks of rice and beans, cases of macaroni and cheese, and enough Budweiser, Barefoot cabernet, and Mount Gay rum for a year’s worth of booze cruises. “Given all of this, I’m not sure when we’ll be allowed to come back to land,” he said.
“All of this,” was, of course, the COVID-19 virus, which, like a worm, had wriggled its way between the cracks of the borders of the British Virgin Islands, the island territory where I’ve lived and worked for two years, and where a good portion of the population either lives and works on boats—including Chad. When he’d invited me and my friend, Ayla, to stay on board, he’d described his “neighbors” moored on their own boats in a peaceful anchorage off Norman Island called The Bight—two nice charter captains, a couple of live-aboard nudists from Virginia, and Chad’s ex-wife. (Hey, it’s a small island). Many of them lived on their boats, either as cruisers (in what amounted to floating RVs) or as charter crew. They didn’t have homes on land to go to, or if they did, they could no longer get there, with the borders closed and locked down. It was like this all over the Caribbean. According to the New York Times, as many as 600 boats—some from as far away as Europe— have now congregated in neighboring St. John, USVI because it was the only territory willing to allow them in. Meanwhile, back in the BVI, we were entering one of the strictest lockdowns on the planet—no exercise, no groceries, no banks, no nothing.
As unappealing as that was, albeit for a good reason, I figured I could have a bit of fun taunting my friends on social media about where I’d be spending lockdown: “My quarantine is better than your quarantine!” Plus, with people around the world unable to travel, I was already luckier than most to live where they longed to vacation. As long as I had the opportunity, nobody could blame me for eking a little adventure out of the giant sack of crap that COVID-19 has dumped on all of us.
Of course, that was (maybe) what billionaire David Geffen was thinking, too, when he posted to Instagram a stunning sunset picture from the Grenadines from the promenade deck of his $590 million yacht, with the message “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus.”
“I know people are dying, but I’m social distancing wow chilling on my $590 million super yacht in the Grenadines”
— Bishop Talbert Swan (@TalbertSwan) March 30, 2020
But a bunch of mini-Geffens we were not. The Loulou was modest, with two cabins, refurbished after Hurricane Irma half-sunk it. The floor creaked. It appealed to me because I was obsessed with Money Bay, a deserted cove at the back of Norman Island that had everything Robert Louis Stevenson must have dreamed of in a literary backdrop (he famously set Treasure Island there). I pictured myself as a kind of picaresque castaway heroine. Maybe I’d emerge having written a roman à clef to COVID-19–The Decameron or My Journal of the Plague Year, at sea. Chad assured me we could have the run of the empty island, and he had enough food and wine to outlast the apocalypse, which meant I didn’t have to shop. I was in.
Chad assured me we could have the run of the empty island, and he had enough food and wine to outlast the apocalypse, which meant I didn’t have to shop. I was in.
Our first morning as “castaways,” it was only a dinghy ride and an easy 10-minute hike up the hill and down the other side, past the boarded-up Pirate’s Bight beach bar, manned by a sole live-in caretaker. A path led down to the beach, where a previous “castaway” had already constructed a crude shelter out of driftwood, fishing net, and grape leaves. The bottom was sandy and silky, so unlike the other side of the bay, which had rocks that cut into your feet, and was shallow and clear out almost to the reef. For a minute, I just floated and stared up at the sky and forgot that the world felt like it was ending. From shore, I vaguely heard Chad talking about coming back with a speargun to hunt for lobster and conch. I can do this, I thought. If it’s like this the whole time, I can do this. We made plans to come there every day.
However, that night, the self-appointed “lockdown police” swung into action, informing Chad that they’d spotted him onshore. It only got worse from there. “Two snorkelers at 12 o’clock,” someone squawked the next morning. That afternoon: “Paddleboard alert!” The next day: “Dinghy spotted in the channel, wonder where they’re going?” Since all boat traffic had been prohibited, even the slightest movement was screamingly obvious. For some reason, Chad’s ex-wife started flying a drone and posting pictures of whatever she saw. The next day, the Marine Police, with scarves wrapped around their faces, roared up, looking grim. Apparently, they were there to scold the caretaker for going from boat to boat demanding mooring fees during a pandemic, which seemed fair, but we didn’t want to test them further.
Now, it wasn’t quite the afternoon booze cruise I’d become accustomed to. Meanwhile, around us, other boats were starting to run low on supplies, and the government hadn’t provided for them to get water, provisions, or fuel for the generators, pump out, or dump their rapidly accumulating garbage. Chad called the marine police on behalf of our neighbors, hoping they could be escorted to shore, but it was fruitless. I knew it was to keep people safe from the virus in a tiny place with a minuscule health-care system, but it still stung. “We are the sailing capital of the world,” as a friend in the marine industry put it. “We can’t not have boats in the water.”
There was no conch, no lobster, no hikes, no barbecues. We had nightly live streams of government announcements, Netflix, and backgammon, which only Chad and Ayla seemed to understand, and spats over using too much water to wash dishes. We were making coffee on the stove because Chad had forgotten the coffeepot and we had no way to get another one. It had become just a regular, boring coronavirus lockdown, only we pumped the toilet instead of flushing it. I wondered how long it had taken David Geffen to realize the same thing.
It had become just a regular, boring coronavirus lockdown, only we pumped the toilet instead of flushing it. I wondered how long it had taken David Geffen to realize the same thing.
The highlight of our week was one of our neighbors snorkeling over like a Navy Seal. “I’ll trade you some coffee for some potatoes,” she said. I kept talking because I didn’t want her to leave. I realized I had started to lose track of time. With no traffic by your window or street noise, it was easy to do. At night, anchor lights competed with Orion’s belt for my attention alongside the slow slap of the sails against the mast.
Chad’s friend from up on the hill called and told us about the hundreds of boats in Coral Bay on St. John, part of the United States Virgin Islands just a few miles away, where the beaches and shops were still open.
Over time, they’ve worked out a better system to take care of all the boats whose cruising holidays had turned into nightmares, coordinating with the Marine Police and Virgin Islands Search and Rescue. “You don’t move until someone says you have permission to move,” as Chad put it.
One night around sunset I went for a boat shower–in other words, jumping overboard, scrubbing as best as you can, then rinsing off with a hose. A sea turtle paddled by, flapping its limbs slowly and rhythmically. The Bight was rosy as a cloud. The iPod dock was playing Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic. I thought back to some of my earliest sailing experiences, on a tall ship off Vancouver Island when everything was magic. For a second, it almost was.