Stuck in the Maldives… the life and times of a boat family during Covid-19.
With the crazy situation the World has found itself in, we have been getting questions about how it is affecting us and how we will manage the months to come for the yachts out here.
What does lockdown look like for us?
I mean, we are relatively locked down in general being on a boat, but this has taken it to another level!
After our short motor sail from Sri Lanka we arrived in the North of the Maldives’ Archipelago. To an island called Uligan, that has clearance facilities for yachts. Nestled into the top of the atoll, surrounded by azure blue waters and giant, alive reefs!
Anchoring in crystal clear water, only 3 m deep we marvelled at the jaw dropping scenery and thanked our lucky stars we had escaped from the concrete pen we had been held in, in Galle. It was a place of nightmares. Im being dramatic obviously, Sri Lanka was lovely, but it is not the kind of place you go on a yacht!
As the first yacht here out of the 15 that would slowly trickle in, we got the pick of the place.
Coronavirus was a thing that was happening in other places and we thought we were fine here, distanced from it all in our tropical paradise.
Over the day, 3 other yachts would be arriving and our clearance was held off until everyone was here and settled, making it one run for the authorities, rather than 4.
Being the first to arrive, we were the first cleared. Officials came on the boat. Did the usual checks and clearances and then left abruptly. An emergency meeting had been called by the government which they had to attend by video conference, so the other yachts were left to wait until after the call.
Before they headed back ashore we were provided with sim cards by our friendly agent, Asad, given stamps in the passports and officially cleared in to the Maldives.
By that evening, however, things had changed. Officials did not board boats but came alongside with masks and gloves, due to a directive that had been released by their Health Protection Authority, within the hour since we were cleared in. Coronavirus had arrived in the Maldives.
For the next week, boats arrived, relieved to be cleared in and anchored in a safe harbour after their passages from Sri Lanka. Happy to be accepted into a country, when so many were closing their borders.
We had not yet been allowed ashore on Uligan, but we were content with the ocean around us. It was providing entertainment, and exercise for us and the kids.
Maldives had still only 1 or 2 cases, and these were from tourists on resort islands that had flown in, and were being quarantined and managed accordingly. The risk seemed minimal. The people were friendly and happy to have us here.
Life passed swimmingly for a week. Really! We did swim, al lot! We explored the reefs around us, we journeyed to the uninhabited island a few miles away in the dinghy and generally relaxed into usual cruising life again.
Friends were contacted, who were still in Sri Lanka and urged to get here as soon as they could, as our agent had given word that the cases were slowly mounting. This meant that the borders could be closed, following the lead of many other countries around the world.
The ports available to sailors were becoming few and far between. Without an open and safe port to head to, many were staying where they were as borders were closing during the period of time it took to sail from one country to the next. Things were uncertain and people were concerned with taking chances on leaving and not being allowed in to their next stop.
As predicted, the border was closed. Unfortunately for 2 yachts that arrived the day after the closure the news was grim for them. They were allowed to anchor and get re supplied with diesel, water and food, but once that had been delivered they were expected to leave to their next port immediately. This could mean a new journey of up to 2000 nautical miles, or a time period of 2 weeks, depending on the weather and the speed of your yacht. Not an enticing prospect after a week or more of passage getting here in the first place.
One chose to rest for a week and then be re stocked and leave, while the other tried to get their embassy involved to help with clearance in, but the Maldives were firm. The border had closed. No more visas will be issued.
Jump ahead 14 days, and we were suddenly told we are no longer allowed to socialise with the other yachts around us and that we must be confined to our boats.
No swimming further than a few meters away from the yacht. No visiting other yachts. Still no going ashore.
What a blow. Most of us had been isolated from civilisation for 10 to 16 days, including the time taken to sail here and were well aware that we were all healthy and showing zero signs of Covid-19.
This continued for 12 days. No friends. No kids friends. No drinks with other boats.
Lots of puzzles and games and reading.
Lots of frustrations, with emotions ranging from acceptance and happiness that we were locked in such a stunning spot to irritation and exasperation for not being allowed to see anyone else or go to the nearby uninhabited island.
Discussions rose on a sailors WhatsApp chat group, emotions overflowing at times and differences raising their heads in this strange and unfamiliar situation.
The kids were irritable. The ocean was not large enough to contain our emotions on this unfounded situation. We were irritable at the kids often too.
We are in general in a semi lock down type situation, by choice, due to the lifestyle we have adopted, but this was pushing it to the next step. Usually we have a beach to go to. To run and play and remove excess energy. This was unavailable to us and so we were all feeling the pain of the bottled up energy.
All you people after your several weeks of lockdown must now know the feeling of living in close quarters with your family and having to manage the schooling, cooking and cleaning of every. single. meal. Ha ha, welcome to our dream life!!
When the strict boat restrictions were finally lifted, notified by a Yachts WhatsApp group, set up by the agents here, whoops of joy were heard around the anchorage and dinghies were suddenly buzzing back into action.
People were visiting again and laughter was heard. Kids were playing and the smiles were spread far and wide.
Life was semi back to normal.
Only to not really be….
We were still restricted to the one area around the boats.
We were not allowed to the ashore.
We were also monitored by the Coastguard now, who had installed themselves in our anchorage and were watching for any unlawful or rule breaking behaviour from the 15 boats anchored here.
Groceries, fruit and vegetables were being provided by the agent and the Coastguard, with them pulling up to deliver our orders, made up from photos of what was available any the local store on a neighbouring island. Their masks and gloves on, sweating in the 35 degree heat, while they followed the rules of their HPA and provided us with what we needed.
We were very grateful, of course. But the desire for land was strong and there were many discussions between the sailors and the agents about how to make this a reality.
Eventually, after a mere 37 days confined to the boat and the ocean immedieatly surrounding us, we were granted permission to go to one of the many uninhabited islands around us! It was across the atoll from our anchorage, so it was a thrill pulling up the pick and heading away to it. A short 6 mile journey, but it gave us a taste of freedom for the hour that it took which had, until now, been unachievable.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be possibly the least interesting island we have seen in a long time, with a ton of rubbish and only a small patch of beach at low tide!!
The disappointment was overwhelming. Yet still we went twice and made the children -and us- walk and run for exercise and sanity. Legs were sore the next day from unused muscles!
Then the wind changed again, making where we had sailed to, with our coastguard escort, untenable. Goodbye was said to the sad little island and we headed back to the original anchorage of Uligan, where were expected a long overdue delivery of LPG bottles, fruit and vegetables.
With promises on the horizon of new islands to be opened up to us and the ability to start to head South to the lowest atoll in the Maldives, things were looking up.
The winds were signalling a change coming, this area would likely be not suitable with the opposing winds and weather that will come with the swap of the monsoon seasons.
With baited breath, we waited for permission to depart. Permission to go to the uninhabited island, permission to do anything to be honest.
And then we got the worst news. Male had cases. Cases that were not linked to the resorts that had been the initial problem. Cases outside the tourist Islands. Cases in Male itself. Full lockdown.
As an island of 150,000 people, living in an area of 6.8sq km, in apartments and high rise buildings, this was devastating. There was no way this could go anyway but badly.
Cases jumped from one to 3 to 7, then as I wrote this to 9, and it’s only going to get worse. Their contact tracing is showing that 400 people may have the virus already and the tracing on those as they start showing up will be unimaginable for the Maldivian people.
While I was snorkelling yesterday afternoon, a Coastguard boat came past, with officials dressing themselves in gowns, gloves and masks as they headed to the small wharf area. This was an ominous sign.
As I expected, a message from our agent as told us that a person had travelled from Male to the island we are by, causing health officials to come and test people, while the island shut its houses.
The sandy streets will be deserted, while people are closed into their homes. I only hope they all have air-conditioning, as the heat is oppressive here at the moment.
So we wait. And we dream of the sand between our toes, looking longingly at the beaches around us. They truly are the picture of paradise, just like the magazine photos portray.
We also dream of a world without Covid-19, as I am guessing many people are doing across the globe.
For the sailors out on the oceans at present, it is a tense time. Borders are closed and boats are unwelcome.
We have seen several yachts try to enter here after the lockdown date and watched, and listened on the vhf, as they have been turned away. Not permitted to anchor and only re stocked with provisions and fuel by Coastguard, before being made to continue their unknown journey.
Where will they go?
Who will welcome them?
What will happen?
Our planned route is also now in jeopardy. With the situation developing across the Indian Ocean and Africa, countries that have been on the borderline for safety, are now being classed as unruly and potentially dangerous.
Their economies are being ruined by the lack of tourists. Most of these small island nations rely solely on tourism for their income, and with that now stopped there is no money coming in. The future is not bright for these places if things continue as they are, and with supplies becoming overpriced and restricted, sharing with foreign yachts is not something that local people are wanting to do.
The Maldives recorded 705,100 visitors to their shores last year, generating an income for the country of over $2 billion USD. Just last week there was a mass lay off of 11,000 staff from resorts across the Archipelago. The tourism industry is being hit hard here.
Yachts are being ostracised. They are the symbol of travel and potential carriers of viruses to every local person who sees us, worldwide. Even if we have not been ashore or around any other people for months, local peoples are unaware of this and see us as a threat, even though we are just as concerned with avoiding Covid-19 as they are.
In some countries yachts have been asked to leave areas where locals are not trustful of them. Local boats in some parts of Indonesia have been driving past anchored yachts shouting ‘Coronas, get out!’. People are hostile to the crews when they go ashore for provisions in various countries around the world. It is a stressful and challenging time.
We are hesitant to make forward plans. We are unsure on if we go on with our travels West or if we need to go back to where we left from, in South East Asia (if they open their borders) and wait this mess out.
I guess time can only tell us what is sensible and safe to do, but it is an emotional waiting game that is hard to play.
So we sit. And we swim and we fish and we appreciate the paradise we have found ourselves stranded in. We do realise many people would kill to be in our situation.
We accept, with smiles and gratitude, the half supplied deliveries we get. Basic staples like cabbage, carrots, potatoes and onions, as the Maldives does not grow much of its own food and mostly all is imported from India and Sri Lanka.
I make a lot of bread, we do a lot of baking, and we eat a lot of fish!
It seem idyllic, but for people who have lived a life of freedom and choice for the last 2 years, when we want it and where we want it, this is feeling very restrictive to us.
We worry that the worse it gets here the less happy the people will be to have us here, sharing their imported food. With nowhere to go, this is a real issue for the yachts, both here and stuck in other countries around the world. We talk with friends in other places and their situations are similar.
But what can we do.
For now we wait. We hope it will spare the people of the Maldives, and that life can return to some kind of normal in the not too distant future, as all of us are hoping.
Because, to be blunt, there is really only so much cabbage and potatoes one can eat….