Corona Lock down in the Marquesas
After we left the Netherlands with our catamaran ZwerfCat at the end of September 2018, we arrived in French Polynesia in June 2019. This is an area comparable in size to Europe and consists of thousands of islands, mostly uninhabited. We travel around with our Catamaran, sometimes stay at a village, sometimes at an uninhabited island. During the Southern summer, due to the hurricane season on the South Pacific, we stay like many other sailors in the Marquesas archipelago which is just outside the hurricane area. Ports are not here, you can only anchor here in the many beautiful bays of the Marquesas. Despite the beautiful nature and friendly people, there is hardly any tourism here, tourism mainly takes place around the island of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora-Bora, 800 nautical miles away.
At the end of February, all is sunshine and lollypops. The Corona virus seems to be primarily an Asian affair. Hurricane season is almost over, which means that we will be leaving the Marquesas soon before a new batch of boats arrives here. Slowly a new group of sailors dribbles through the Panama Canal to set course for the Marquesas in March, which is the first group of islands that you can visit after Panama and the Galapagos on the South Pacific, at 4000 nautical miles away. Most sailboats will take about four weeks to cover that distance, it is one of the longest ocean crossings in the world.
In the meantime we enjoy the peace that still prevails. We are now in Hiva Oa, the second largest of the Marquesses. Or actually it is better to say 'the less small island' because it is not very large with its 35 km long and about 10 km wide and there are only about 2000 people living on this island. Just like in the rest of the Marquesses, there is not a single tourist shop or the like. The advantage here is that we have found a place where we can access the internet from the boat with our WiFi directional antenna. At the anchorage is a mishmash of sailing boats from all parts of the world, all long-stayers who have spent the hurricane season in the Marquesas.
Meanwhile, news has trickled in that the Corona virus has also reached the Pacific. A few cases have surfaced in touristy Tahiti. We are now also aware of the situation in Italy and that lock-downs are being introduced in Europe. The news is also getting through to the island population: a sink has been installed in front of the supermarket where you must first wash your hands and on some islands the population indicates that sailing boats are no longer welcome.
We recognize the problem: The island population of the Pacific has suffered severely in the past from a variety of diseases brought by merchant ships from around the world, diseases for which the indigenous people had no immunity and which sometimes wiped out most of the population. That sentiment has not completely disappeared and is fully revived with the news that Corona has been brought to Tahiti by tourists. The isolation of the many islands is no longer as it used to be: there are planes between the main islands and a few supply ships on the way between the islands. The children go to schools on the larger islands and of course sailing boats also help to break the isolation. The main focus in all this is Tahiti, the only island with a harbor and an international airport.
On March 18, due to an accident he had two weeks earlier, Frans had to have X-rays taken for a check-up. In the Marquess, this is only possible on the main island of Nuku Hiva. It is not wise to sail before the x-rays are taken, so we choose to book a local flight. Frans leaves, Ilona continues to take care of the dogs. At the airport there is a lot of police and there are rumors that all foreigners must leave French Polynesia. A few police officers not only confirm this story but claim that this also applies to sailors. We should leave the boats and go home by plane!! Home, we don't have a home other than our boat anymore!! Where the hell should we go, when can we ever go back and how about the dogs? The only way to import dogs into French Polynesia is through a recognized rabies-free country (no country in Europe!), or by boat. But we have to leave the boat behind, the police tells us. We are seriously stressed about this news because - apart from all other problems - this means that we can never get the dogs on the boat again.
We call each other and discuss the dilemma. We are both too scared that Frans may not be able to take the plane back to Hiva Oa tomorrow and decide that it is better that Frans returns immediately. This situation is really a big problem and we are in great stress. If we need to get out of French Polynesia, we'd rather take the boat with us, but that means we may have to drift around somewhere on the Pacific for weeks or months before we can get anywhere. We immediately go to the village and do shopping so we can hold out for a long time at sea. Unfortunately, the big bags of dog food are gone. We still have 50 kg and hope we are successful in catching fish. Dogs do well on fish and rice, but there is no certainty that we will catch fish, so we prefer to have some dog food at hand for unlucky days. On the way we meet a nice policeman with whom we often have had a chat. He walks down the street with a trash bag in his hand, in shorts and bare belly, clearly a day off. No, he does not speak English, but luckily we speak some French and we have often chatted with him. He recognizes us immediately. We tell him the story Frans heard from his colleagues at the airport. His mouth falls open in amazement and he claims that nothing is wrong. According to him, it only concerns tourists, sailors are allowed to stay as usual. The police officer in casual uniform advises us to go to the mayor for confirmation. The mayor also says we can just stay. Somewhat reassured, after completing our supply mission anyway, we return to the boat.
A few hours later we hear via the VHF radio that an emergency meeting for sailors is being organized that evening. At the meeting there is a delegate from the Tahiti ministry, the mayor, police officers and maritime authorities. Despite the mayor's promises just a few hours ago, we are told that all foreigners should "go home" before Sunday. Boom. Slap in our face. From Sunday, French Polynesia will be completely closed and a lock down will apply. We protest politely but with good arguments against the situation and explain that we no longer have a "house", that the Netherlands will probably no longer allow us because we are no longer registered residents, that borders in Europe are closed, that we have dogs that cannot or will not return and that we wonder whether it is still possible to go to the Netherlands at all, because airports all over the world are closed to foreigners. Consultation in the delegation. It is said that exceptions may be made for people who no longer have a home. We will receive a form where we can fill in our objections and will probably be looked at per individual. Not exactly reassured we return to the boat.
The local authorities are in a split. The Tahiti government, 800 nautical miles away, wants certain things, (part of?) the islanders want to get rid of the "scary" sailboats, and the sailboats would like to stay because otherwise they might become refugees for months.
Consultation on the mountain the next day. The story has changed again. Now you can "leave" but you have to go within 24 hours, because after that the airspace will be closed. People who are still here will have to be quarantined for 15 days. Nobody books a flight so the next night we are all back on the mountain to learn the details of the quarantine.
At the moment there is no Corona on the Marquesas yet. Given the complex infrastructure, consisting of countless islands and only a single regional hospital (about 1 room and doctor per 1000 inhabitants!), Everything is done to prevent Corona from gaining a foothold. It has been decided that all movements should be stopped for at least 15 days. There should be no more sailing, no more airplanes flying, everyone should stay at home, and sailors should stay on the boat. Shopping lists can be submitted a few times a week and the sailors can pick up orders one by one at the tip of the harbor. If no Corona has occurred after 15 days, it means that the Marquesas are "clean". How it will continue after that is unknown. We think it is well organized and we are glad that they are taking strict, effective measures and hope that it will be over sooner. It is also good and logical that the measure is being deployed right now, since air travel from Tahiti to the Marquesas will also be stopped from that moment on. All the children who attended school in Tahiti will return home tomorrow and then quarantine will start.
At the last minute, we arrange with the owner of the WiFi shore station that we can spread the WiFi signal further. We are anchored just outside the breakwater because we do not suffer much from the sea swell with our catamaran, but most people are at the anchorage behind the breakwater and there does not seem to be any usable WiFi reception. Normally people go ashore to connect to the internet, but that is no longer possible. Because the internet is more or less a basic necessity nowadays (and because the time just goes much faster if you have internet range ...), we set up a wifi relay station: We receive wifi with a directional antenna from the shore station and with a other wifi transmitter we send it further towards the anchorage behind the breakwater.
We set up a WhatsApp group for all sailors in French Polynesia, which grows to about 130 participants within a few days and is still growing. Someone else is setting up a local group for just the sailors on Hiva Oa. A radio network is also started via the VHF radio, where we discuss the situation with all sailors once a day. It is nice to see that an organized group is establishing itself.
One of the sailing boats is home to a couple of doctors who become the point of contact for health questions from the sailors, on another boat there is a dentist who has equipment with him to be able to perform extractions. An autonomous community is slowly emerging among the sailors. Anyone who has ended up in the Marquesas has had to endure an ocean passage for several weeks and is therefore familiar with a long stay on the boat. The vast majority of boats have solar panels and many have installations to make drinking water from seawater, so the boats are quite autonomous and the sailors are used to the idea of being cut off from the rest of the world. Actually it is an ocean passage without interrupted nights and with a calm sea, quite luxurious actually.
It is nice to see how a group evolves here. One has some skills in (translating) languages, the other has good digital knowledge, there is a doctor, a dentist, etc. The dentist (from the Dutch boat, the Liberté, who just arrived a few days before all the crazy developments), already has two chores. He has placed one emergency filling and there may still be an extraction; there is someone with some vague pain in a molar. Antibiotics first, if that doesn't help, then it can be decided to pick the tooth ... and all that in quarantine. Those are the funny things. Although in terms of extraction, of course, not for the person in question, but it is great that we have a dentist and a doctor in our midst!
The whole thing just seems to come from a movie scenario. A bit of a cross between "Waterworld" (the film with Kevin Costner in which the whole earth is flooded and the community lives on the water) and the film adaptation "The Mist" by Stephen King in which a group of random people is stuck because of a sudden disaster end up in a supermarket and everyone present turns out to be different.
There is a couple who tries to stretch the rules and have to be kept in line by the others. There are people who want to try to interfere a little too much with everything. There are "boringly behaved" and there are "rioters". There is a solo sailor who got a boarding woman on board to sail to the Tuamotu, but who are now quarantined together on the small boat as strangers. Surrounding boats report that they became very "cozy" there (lucky for them!). The reverse also occurs; there is a couple where one half spends all day on the bow of the boat and the other half on the stern... A small language battle rages in the anchor bay because there are relatively many French sailors and we are in French Polynesia while the majority of sailors are not French-speaking and it is common among sailors that the English language is used as conversational language. The daily radio net becomes a bilingual compromise with every part being translated. Some see the VHF as an aid to pass the time, while others see the imposed quarantine as an opportunity to finally be able to work undisturbed, read that book or want to watch the film series, but the unrelenting chatter over the VHF is very disturbing. The authorities have asked everyone to leave the radio on for the sake of accessibility, but that is not really possible with all that babbling going on over the radio. One night the shrill, fast French chatter gets on my nerves and I ask via the VHF radio with some audible irritation if people just want to switch to another channel if they have something to discuss that is not intended for the whole group. It then remains silent on the radio for a long time and after that the call channel is fortunately no longer abused for long chats. ;-)
In the meantime, new boats are arriving that have finally reached the Marquesas after four weeks of sailing. Finally land again, smell of earth, flowers and fruit, sound of land birds, crickets, beautiful mountains to see and finally stretching your legs again! Not so! Mandatory complete confinement on the boat, no one is allowed to get off! That is sad after such a sailing trip... We feel sorry for them, what would they have imagined their arrival in paradise differently!
It gets even worse: the newcomers, who have sailed for a month to get here, are told that French Polynesia is locked and that they have to leave. They can submit a list here with groceries, indicate how much water and diesel they need and then ksssssst, away via Tahiti. There they can (with some 'luck') stay 1 or 2 days, restock again and then they have to leave again. The police asks whether they have any questions. It remains silent. The question is repeated and again it remains silent. Nobody says anything, nobody asks anything, nobody does anything. Ilona has a feeling like 'They can't do this', it is terrible when this happens to you. So Ilona calls the authorities by VHF radio and explains that although it is not her concern, she still wants to stand up for them. That these people had been at sea for a month and are therefore certainly corona free and could not have known that French Polynesia would be closed on arrival. Here in Hiva Oa there is no Corona case yet, so it is quite odd to send healthy people away to Tahiti, an area where Corona rules and then they have to move on, possibly infected... Besides, where should they go ?! At the moment there is hardly any other country where boats are welcome, everything is closed! The hurricane season is also not over yet, so many boats are not even insured for the area further south than the Marquesas. We ask the local police to present the problems to their superiors and reconsider the decision because this is just a decision that is going to get these people into a lot of trouble. There is complete radio silence for half an hour. Then suddenly there is another call from the police. They understand the problem and see that it is not reasonable to demand it. They will consult DPAM in Tahiti - the organization that decides everything - and will do their best to convince them that this is not a good approach. They can expect a response within 48 hours. Suddenly it is no longer quiet, the boats in question are audibly relieved and thank you with relieved voices. We hope that they will find a decent solution! Now that we have finished the dots for this story, we have been told that the new people can stay. Happy for them! Only this will not be the case for all new people it is said so we feel sorry for all people who are still on the way...
Update: April the first
(and no, it's no joke)
There are 37 confirmed cases of Corona in French Polynesia. In the last week there have been only 6 new cases. All the cases are in Tahiti and Moorea. There have been two confirmed cases in the Tuamotu, one tourist in Fakarava (already several weeks ago) and last week one child in Rangiroa who had returned from school in Tahiti. Both have been transported to Tahiti so there are no known cases outside of Tahiti and Moorea. Many people have been tested, especially those around confirmed cases and no additional cases were found. There have been a few suspected cases, also in the Marquesas but the tests came back negative.
Two extra weeks of Quarantine
So till today no confirmed cases in the Marquesas. That's good news! But the less good news is that our quarantine has been prolonged nevertheless. We have two extra weeks of complete confinement. So that will be another two weeks spent as if on passage... Quite comfortable passage but by far the slowest. The group here is great, we have a radionet in the morning on the VHF and we have a whatsapp group so the communication among us is great and there are good vibes. People help each other, people sing from their boats. People all sit on deck during sundowner and since yesterday we can chat with the whole group during sundowner because one of us came with the idea to have an informal net during that time.
For whom who followed us during our passage from Panama to the Marquesas and who remembers about that dismasted boat without engine for whom we had to call the police for assistance; this boat has been at anchor here since July 2019 and quite a pain in the ass for others. The boat is in a very neglected state and the owner doesn't seem to take care of her at all. A few days ago there was some swell coming in the bay, the ship broke from it's anchor and drifted through the boats at anchor. It was a pitch dark night, no moon. Many people had to leave the bay in the midst of the night because otherwise this boat would have hit them. It was very very lucky that no other boat got damaged but it was a close call. The boat ended up on the beach and the next day the police and rescue boat tied it to some trees so it wouldn't drift back and cause damage again. The owner wasn't on board, he left the boat a month before. We are curious what will happen with the wreck on the beach. It doesn't look pretty and of course it's a hazard for the environment...
Update 11th of April
Below a message from Milanto to the Hiva-Oa-WhatsApp Group. Milanto is one of the boats that was almost sent away without mercy and for whom Ilona stood up via the radio. They stayed for a while and then sailed to Tahiti where they now can stay instead of having to leave within a few days.
All our friends keep telling us: “such a shame, you all missed Hiva Oa and the Marquises islands“; but we, smiling, answer them: “no, believe us, we saw a lot of things in Marquesas”.
We saw how a close group of people working for the benefit of the community can achieve good results. We noticed how in hard conditions for everybody, the generosity of all sailing crews was organised to receive, help and assist the boats and sailors arriving after a long passage, never mind their personal details or own interest. We verified that local authorities, far from arrogant and hig-handed, treated us on a very friendly and charming way, with a smiling face, and always on very helpful way, understanding our precarious necessities.
So, yes it’s true, we never walked through the lush jungle peaks, neither swum on the pebble beach of Hanaiapa Bay surrounded by beautiful coconut trees. We never walked on the famous Atuona cemetery to see the tombs of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel; never visited the intriguing and enigmatic archeological sites of the island, the “Tikis” of Iipona, or the famous Bay of Paumau.
But be sure we are going to remember our stop in Hiva Oa as one of the best of our Round the World. We will remember for a long time the courageous voice of Ilona defending our dumb mouths of surprise when requested to move in a few days. We learned from the generosity of Marie on dealing with the local authorities for the general benefit; the unselfish patiente of those helping to translate (Alexa, Antonia, etc) in order to spread the messages to all the fleet. How ZwerfCat was able to lend the technology to share the free WiFi between all the boats (realising at the same time how small we are on this times without communication with the outside world, friends and loving ones). How people was self organising in order to distribute all duties and relay all progress to the fleet, or how Sandra was preparing the deliver of groceries with controversy about what’s fair or not.
We will keep on our memories the “chain work” and circus performance by sunset of our arrival buddies, “La Margarite”; the warm and friendly welcome to the solo sailor arriving after 72 days from Galapagos; we will dream with the girl on the window, or remind those tense five seconds after the daily question on “who is going to be net controller for tomorrow?”. We will remember all this voices without face of Liberte, Bella Vie, Nomad, Dancing Wairus, Jeronimo, Karacool, Imani, Mollymonk, Pazzo or Whisper... At the end we will keep only one doubt: Alexa is real or she is the Amazon virtual assistant?... “Alexa, please, translate this into french” :)
Yes, we will remember Hiva Oa Gracie.Danke.Gracias.Thanks. SV Milanto
In Tahiti it was announced AGAIN that a lock down applies for two weeks longer! So instead of until April 15, it is now until April 29 .... That sucks of course! But we are hoping for some good news for the local situation in Hiva Oa as NO covid-19 has been found here so far it is illogical to extend the quarantine here in Hiva Oa. The mayor has the right to deviate from the rules and there is good hope that he will do so. You can see that there is more and more movement on land. In the first two weeks it was really quiet, you hardly saw a sign of life. Now we gradually see more and more people walking and driving. Good news as far as we are concerned, because if the local population is rid of their fear, it will also be beneficial for us.
In Tahiti and Moorea, the only places in French Polynesia where there are cases of confirmed Corona, the amount of confirmed cases is currently 51. That number has stopped growing in recent days, despite much testing!
We are still not allowed to take the dogs for a walk.... That is getting really annoying for them, the poor animals do not understand why we never walk anymore. We play with them every morning and evening when it is cooler to keep them moving and happy, but I can now really notice that the enthusiasm is getting down. They refuse to swim, they are now really convinced that we will not go to the side anyway, so they now think swimming is stupid. We very much hope that from the 15th we can at least walk the dogs but we've been unofficially told we will!!
To keep moving
If you do a crossing, you are secretly quite active. The sea is bumpy, your muscles have to maintain continuous balance even when sleeping or sitting. Trimming sails, reefing, hoisting sails, walking around on a wobbly boat to see if everything is going well, cooking and walking on a sometimes wildly moving boat, all of this takes quite a bit more effort than you might think at first glance. Now we lie still and, if we are not careful, we do absolutely nothing. So pretty quick we started a program. For Frans that's also extra important to recover from the accident. Every day around four o'clock we do exercises to train legs, abdomen and back. Then we dive (Frans for the moment takes the stairs) in the water and we swim and play for a while. The line under the trampoline is also a favourite, it is several meters long and perfect for swinging and pulling yourself up. This way you train without getting hot, effective and fun! About five o'clock we get out, take a shower on the stairs outside and then we sit down with the dogs on the front deck or on the roof while enjoying a home-brewed beer. The boats that had no stock on board are jealous because there is a strict ban on the sale of alcohol here.
The situation here is good. The boats are mostly nice and there is a positive atmosphere. It was very nice that someone from the sailors of a local fisherman had received a super large comb of bananas to hand out to the cruisers. Everyone got a bunch of bananas :)
In terms of freedom, we have improved after the first strict two weeks; we can now go to the store from 1 pm to 3 pm three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It is a small gas station shop with a reasonable range. Unfortunately it is only a 50 meter walk so we do not get a lot of exercise. We are allowed to chat with others and in practice it means that people are pleasantly chatting in the store in the queue, while the queue is very moves slowly, you can grab something from a shelf on the left and right. The hallway is narrow so you cannot walk back and forth. Almost everyone buys an ice cream. Then the chat continues, now with an ice cream, in the shadow of the roof of the gas station. At three o'clock everyone reluctantly returns to the boat. Because we have a local radio every morning, it is very nice to see the faces that belong to the voices on the radio now!
Update 16th of April
Rules have been relaxed!!!! Party time! Starting from today we are finally allowed to walk ashore! Today we received badges with the boat name and crew list. We need to wear this in order to walk into town. This way the local people recognize that we have been in quarantine and that we are safe. Local population is about 2000 people so everyone knows each other thus for them it's nice to know we didn't sneak in from Tahiti (where there is Covid-19) but that we are safe and were in quarantine just like them.
When I asked the dogs 'Gaan jullie mee?' (are you coming?) They looked at me like 'Are you serious or are you joking??'. They were happy to come and jumped keen in the dinghy. It's such a relief for us to finally walk them again. They deserve it to sniff to see who was there, run around, pee on important places to mark it and not have it washed away immediately with the pressure hose ;-)
Starting from Monday the ban on sales of alcohol will be taken away. Good news for all those people who ran out of beer and wine! Strong alcohol still can't be bought yet because they are afraid of abuse. We still have our own boat brew beer so for us it doesn't make a difference.
For the whole of French Polynesia there will be the relief of rules, except for Tahiti and Moorea, there everything will stay the same because unfortunately they do still have cases of Covid-19. It's still forbidden to travel between islands by boat or airplane, also in the Corona-free islands. In Tahiti there will be a lot of tests performed. So far 55 confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been found 1163 people have been tested in total. 1 person is in the hospital, no people died.
We're very happy with the new reality! I did forget to say we are officially only allowed to go ashore for only 1 hour but they won't be very strict. We can't officially visit another boat BUT we can go with the dinghy to each other and have a chat from out of the dinghy.
New arrivals face a quarantine of 40 days... A Dutch boat arrived on the day that they came up with this rule so we feel really sorry for them. Hopefully they will change their minds about it and change it for those who left Panama before French Polynesia was closed... We did speak up for them, keep fingers crossed! Poor lads were at sea already for 5 weeks...
Update April 22
We are FREE!! We can now walk all over the country, go everywhere (now also with the dogs!), rent a car and we no longer have to fill in a form! I can say that it feels really great to have a real sense of freedom and to be able to leave all day if we wanted to! We are not allowed to sail to other bays yet, but we are completely free on the island. Except that everyone still has boat/house arrest from eight o'clock in the evening until five o'clock in the morning, but at nine o'clock it's cruiser midnight anyway ;-)
And do you know what is kind of cool? We can order PIZZA and it will be delivered to the boat. Haha there you are somewhere on a tiny spot in the South Pacific, an island with 2000 inhabitants and then you can order pizza and get it delivered on the boat! That is an advantage of the Corona-Crisis. There is a total of 1 pizzeria here on the whole island, run by locals, and here too people are not allowed to eat out in a restaurant itself. Takeaway is allowed. So they offer to deliver ;-) Every day!
The nearest (known) corona patient is still in Tahiti and that is just as far as from the Northern Netherlands to the South of France, so together with our renewed freedoms, we are actually very well here at the moment...!
A few more statistics of French Polynesia:
Not many new cases since April 16;
- 57 positively tested persons (in total)
- 1803 tests performed
- 36 people recovered (no symptoms since two weeks)
- 1 person in the hospital
The above cases are all far away, in Tahiti and Moorea.