On March 19, as Jon and I finished setting the hook in Corong Corong Bay, Palawan, we were approached by the Philippine coast guard and told to leave. The enhanced community quarantine was newly in effect, and we were unwelcome.
We pled our case and were finally granted permission to stay, as long as we stayed aboard for the first 14 days. So, with the sails stowed and the anchor set, we hunkered down under the towering limestone cliffs of El Nido. Far from being upset by this, we told ourselves it was one more adventure, and settled into a routine of, well, hanging out on the boat. I blithely began writing essays about how prepared we yachties are for this sort of thing. I figured there were 10 tools we bring to this “stay-at-home” table — tools that at-home sailors might relate to.
I didn’t know how deeply I would have to dig into that toolbox to survive in these uncharted seas we’re sailing. But I am grateful for the voyaging life that has honed these skills.
1. Flexibility: Despite the fanatic independence of most cruisers, living on the sea is humbling. There are things we can’t control — the seasons, the tides, winds and weather. The result is that we often have to change plans, even huge plans, based on those or other factors. Postpone a trip to the States? Check. Postpone a trip to Africa? Check. Postpone our son’s wedding? Ouch, but check.
I thought we were prepared, but the truth is that all those previous times of having to change plans or shelter from a storm had an end in sight. A plan to be made. Something fun to look forward to. After 50 days of lockdown, we see no end in sight; we have no chart of the months ahead. The Philippines has no plan to open ports.
2. Preparedness: As voyaging sailors, we never know when we might stay in some remote destination longer than expected, or encounter bad weather that delays our departure or return, so we prepare for the long haul. We keep cash dollars on hand for the day the ATMs are offline. We stock the boat with food and necessities to last for months. We don’t hoard, but we provision thoughtfully and then prepare food with care so that we don’t run out of essentials.
With no end in sight to our being in El Nido, I have to re-evaluate our eating habits. Usually I would “make do,” knowing we could sail to another port or a larger city for more provisions. Moving the boat, or even traveling overland, is not an option now — and it is a concern. A fun side: The total alcohol ban means we are making ginger beer and rice wine on board.
The Hackings’ 45-foot catamaran Ocelot at Corong Corong in the Philippines.
3. Mental and physical exercise: Voyaging sailors live to sail and travel, and although right now we can’t do either, we still have a life on the boat. And, of course, boats always have unfinished projects. We also have our simple pleasures like reading, photography, birdwatching, making music, working on the website and making satellite navigational charts. Normally we appreciate the value of exercise, be it swimming or hiking ashore. Engaging in these activities reduces stress and keeps us healthy.
Now, after 50 days, we are still enjoying mental exercise but the physical is tough. Recreation is prohibited, so no swimming, paddling or walking the beach. When we go snorkeling, we take a fishing line in the dinghy because fishing is permitted. As for walking (with masks on, of course), we need a goal so we can tell the quarantine pass checkers that we’re headed for the ATM or the market. The Philippine police have permission to shoot people who break quarantine or curfew. We stay vigilant.
4. Self-reliance: There are no services at sea, and being able to fix things is a requirement for all cruisers. We have to be our own plumbers, electricians, woodworkers, mechanics, sailmakers and more. With good Internet, we might even be able to expand our skills with some online tutoring!
The reality is that we rarely have all the bits and pieces we need for a project. And it’s unlikely the little hardware stores here will carry that widget or fitting that we need. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we don’t need any big engine work done in this small tourist village.
5. Caution: Voyaging at sea means we might be many months out of reach of medical facilities. We have learned how to care for ourselves as well as when to seek medical help. We use all the resources available to us — Internet, email and networking — to solve minor medical issues. In this pandemic, we have to be extra cautious to stay uninjured and healthy so we won’t need to visit the hospital.
We finally researched how many doctors and hospital beds there are on Palawan (very, very few), so we really don’t want to get sick here. We can’t even get transport to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, five hours away unless it’s a life-or-death situation. There is no transport by land or sea to Manila or Cebu.
6. Community and networking: As cruisers, we form our own large community and we frequently become part of the communities where we anchor. Most of us make friends easily and quickly learn the ways in which we can help each other. I think most voyaging sailors carry these attitudes with them, whether at sea or at home.
Jon Hacking observes an information truck used by local Philippines officials to inform residents on ways to combat the pandemic.
We feel more isolated than we expected and miss the potlucks and sundowner gatherings that define our social lives. It’s strange to pass the other cruising boats without extending an invitation to get together.
The last four tools are unchanged from how I wrote them in mid-March. So far, knock on wood, we haven’t been blindsided by unforeseen difficulties.
7. Communication skills: Because we are so alone at sea, cruisers rely on long-distance communication. While on passage, we speak to friends via the radio or satellite text messages, or via email and social media when possible. Communicating verbally and by written word helps us feel connected to a larger community. These skills should stand the at-home sailor in good stead.
If anything, the pandemic has increased our communication with family and friends via Skype, email and social media.
8. Family life skills: Cruising couples and families live in close quarters. Our boats are much smaller than the average apartment or house! The trick to surviving (and even thriving) is to give everyone their space, both emotional and physical. It means letting someone settle in behind a closed door if that’s what they want. It means respecting others’ wishes, and knowing when to be silent and when to speak up — and it means being able to forgive and be flexible. It helps to remember that harsh words once said can neither be taken back nor easily forgotten. When you’re all at sea on a small boat, it’s good to keep your eye on the big picture and, most of all, keep a sense of humor.
9. Trust: As sailors, we often venture into unknown waters where the difference between safety and disaster means evaluating our information for fact versus fiction. Is this chart accurate? Is that weather report giving me all the information I need? The more facts we have, the more we trust our sources and the safer we feel about the decisions we make. No one has sailed the seas of this pandemic before, but many are more qualified to speak about it than we are. We’ll sort fact from fiction, build trust in the sources and follow the guidelines the experts suggest.
10. Optimism: Yachties are, by and large, an optimistic bunch of folks. We tend to look for the good in other people and the good in any situation. Being used to traveling outside our own states or countries means we are generally ready to give others the benefit of the doubt, and to help and receive help from strangers. Being optimistic and open-hearted are valuable skills in these trying times. We will get through this.
—Sue and Jon have been in lockdown on their 45-foot catamaran, Ocelot, in the western Philippines since mid-March. Although they have sailed in Southeast Asia for the past 10 years, their home port is Seattle. You can follow Sue and Jon on their Facebook page and via their extensive website. Sue Muller Hacking is the author of the Seattle-area guidebook Take A Walk (Sasquatch Books).