The wheelhouse was scattered with guidebooks extolling the virtues and sites to behold in and around the Baltic — fjords in Sweden and Norway, Danish in Denmark, history-laden Poland, and enough lager to sink a barge in Germany. The chartplotters are littered with waypoints and anchorages promising long, lazy days soaking in the vistas of the Swedish archipelago. Yet days from departure, the course line from Portugal was 090° — rather than 350°. Another casualty of the COVID-19 debacle, our summer plans were completely upended, and a new plan emerged.
V1 is the speed at which a pilot must make the decision, during the take-off roll, to continue the take-off or abort and stop on the remaining runway. Similarly, when making a long passage aboard Gratitude, we have to decide at which point we will reverse course or continue to the destination if an emergency develops. Having these points in mind prevents languishing for too long or holding too tightly to any one plan. In this case, seconds won’t change the outcome, but days spent waiting for the original plan to pan out can subvert the potential opportunities right in front of you.
Never has it been more important for cruisers to be flexible. This was an opportunity to re-arrange the plan, and in doing so, we would likely be the only Americans in Italy this summer.
With openings happening slowly across Europe, the first country to open their doors was Italy. Thus, when we reached our own “V1” on Gratitude, we decided to head to the Mediterranean. We left Portugal on June 15th, the first day that Portugal opened their borders to departures. The first stop was Gibraltar where we got some fuel, provisions and a bit of time outside of the Schengen area. Due to COVID, we had overstayed our legal welcome in the Schengen zone. While the Schengen website suggests that individual countries offer leniency, how lenient any one place will be is still to be determined.
No tourist crush
The next stop was Cartagena, Spain, where our research indicated that early morning forays into the town were advised in order to avoid the cruise ship passenger crush later in the day. We were there for one week and experienced no lines in tourist sites and cafés within that time. So far so good — on to the Balearic Islands. If you haven’t been there, you likely have heard the moans of those who have dealt with the swarms of summer tourists overrunning anchorages and towns alike. Forewarned and armed with a strategy, we were surprised when we arrived at the first then the second anchorage with room to spare. Trips to town revealed the same — COVID had stopped the migration of thousands of travelers to these Mediterranean hotspots. The cruising guides counsel readers to make reservations early during the summer months, but as this was a largely unplanned “seat-of-the-pants” summer, we decided to make it up as we went. Despite the warnings to the contrary, we found last-minute reservations in all marinas for either the day requested or within a day or two after — even in Palma, Mallorca where we were berthed steps from the Cathedral right in the town center.
According to Travelpulse.com, up to eight large cruise ships a day typically arrive in the town center — although they were non-existent during our time in Palma. From the Segway tour to the Bellver Castle, everything we did in Palma that week was absent the throngs of summer vacationers.
I have heard of similar tales from the States of tour operators hungry for business and dying on the vine due to the lack of tourists. But among those with whom we spoke, there is no desperation to be found. In fact, every person from wait staff to taxi driver seemed positively delighted to have their islands and homes to themselves. According to shop and restaurant owners who spoke to us, the loss of roughly 70 percent of the usual tourist traffic has been an acceptable trade-off to the peace of their communities. According to the World Tourism Barometer, the lockdown imposed in response to the pandemic resulted in a loss of 98 percent of international tourists. “This translates into a fall of 300 million tourists and US$320 billion lost in international tourism receipts — more than three times the loss during the Global Economic Crisis of 2009,” the press release points out.
Arriving in Sardinia
Though Italy was the first European nation to open its borders, it remains open only to persons arriving from elsewhere in the European zone, which is why Gratitude and her family will likely be three of few other U.S. citizens in Italy this summer. We just arrived in Sardinia, Italy where new regulations for persons entering from Spain require a negative COVID test.
When we asked friends and family about traveling to Italy in the summer, the responses were enthusiastic across the board, although the attendant, “But the crowds!” caveat always had us a little worried. While I don’t imagine we are going to be the only tourists visiting Vatican City in September, we did have a surreal experience visiting one of the most sacred and busy pilgrimage sites in Portugal at the beginning of the COVID outbreak. We were three of perhaps 30 or fewer visitors at the Cathedral at Fatima, usually overrun with the faithful during Lent. While our hearts go out to those suffering from the effects of this horrific virus, our experiences — thus far — have luckily been good ones with the ability to see these magnificent Mediterranean gems without the attendant masses.
As boaters, we are accustomed to “going with the flow” — this attitude is a necessary part of any venture involving the uncertainties of weather, machine and health and governmental regulation. Never more than now has a healthy appreciation for flexibility been such a boon! Take a look around and see where you can find a similar pot of gold.
Laurie Thyrre is a retired airline pilot who voyages with her husband Alec, also a retired pilot, and son Jack.