Life is a bowl of… Berry Islands-population about 400. During such an unnerving time, we’re certainly trying to make the best of it and the beauty of this island chain is a balm to our nerves. Quite simply, it’s not a bad place to be quarantined…
After island hopping from Trinidad to Martha’s Vinyard, it is the Berry Islands that redefine ISLAND TIME. If we’re walking or biking the island, we might see 5 cars over the course of 4 or so miles and no others walking or biking, here on Great Harbour Cay. And usually it’s the same car about 2X. It’s remote and thinly populated any given day; it’s also very sleepy, even though it has quite the sorted history and cast of characters that have graced its secluded shores over the years including: the rich and famous, former mafia influences, and drug traffickers – which is the only reason it seems to have somewhat paved roads. It was initially settled by about 2000 freed slaves but most left after discovering the rocky, sandy land was not easy to farm. About 200 of those 2000 stayed and then in the 1960’s the others began coming. What was most striking for us upon first arriving here was that looking around, you could tell there certainly was at one time, state of the art infrastructure… but clearly a time long since past. It creates a certain nostalgic yet poignant air with a plaintive longing for what may have been in that bygone era.
They call this particular area, the “fish bowl” of the Bahamas since it’s teaming with… you guessed it, fish. As I type, Daniel and Paul fish off the side of the boat and have caught 5 mutton snapper in two days and they are very tasty. Guess what’s for dinner…
We’ve dinghied over to a sunken drug-runner’s plane crash from the 1980s. It was a bit rough for snorkeling over it once we got there so we went not far over to a blue hole that was in the “flats” and more protected from the wind and waves. Surrounded by shallow sand banks, tiny cays and rocks, emerged this deep blue circle in the water that went 100 feet deep. The fish were curious and came over to investigate Daniel and me, but kept on swimming in circles, staying in the blue hole, as if they were enclosed in an imaginary aquarium. Though many blue holes have steep walls, this did not, it was just “walls” of water. There are blue holes throughout the Bahamas and mostly unexplored. Some are in the middle of a forest on land and others, in the middle of a bay. They are connected to underwater cave systems and were formed during the Ice Age. The Bohemian Islands deliver the most amazing waters and these blue holes are quite unique.
So far the only inhabited island we’ve been to is Great Harbour Cay. The “village” roughly consists of one grocery store (3 on the entire island), a liquor store, a pub/restaurant, a police station, some other government buildings, a credit union, a hardware store and a school. That’s about it. The largest grocery store is the size of the average bodega in NYC. Most of the tiny islands in this chain are uninhabited, which makes landing on them easy. We’ve been able to explore: Hoffman Cay, Soldier Cay, Fanny Cay, and Ambergris Cay and found the waters gin clear with sand thick and fluffy like snow in some places and like packed powdered sugar in other places. Our dinghy gets us into most of these “skinnier” (shallow) waters since the RK drafts nearly 7 feet and the waters in this area are shallow! We even have to row the dinghy through many spots and not use the outboard motor. The other day, Daniel even got out and dragged us along when we found ourselves hitting bottom during our daily adventure.
We arrived in the Bahamas in February, landing in the Abacos and it was terribly heartbreaking to see the destruction from Hurricane Dorian first hand. We stayed a bit to make our contributions to the economy and speak to many who lived through what they described as “hell on earth”. The super market and liquor store were open, but essentially that was it. We then made our way south-west to this tiny island chain, with no whisper of COVID-19… yet.
Seeing as we’re currently experiencing a pandemic and countries around the world are shutting down, I’m going to share a bit of our personal experience thus far. Most other sailors we’ve spoken to are in a variety of dilemmas, but that is mostly due to the fact that they’re not American and have a whole other set of challenges, mainly distance. But our perspective is both distinctive and yet common to this lifestyle. And though we may only be a roughly 24-hour sail away from the U.S., we are WORLDS AWAY in terms of our day-to-day. One of my Sea Sisters on s/v Reach recently wrote a very thorough blog on how sailors are well prepared for this type of quarantine situation. She’s a sailor and a scientist and her post is very well-done using Maslow’s pyramid of basic human needs. I myself was not going to blog about our current situation because relatively speaking, we are so fortunate (thus far!), until my dear friend (social media queen and loyal blog fan) encouraged me to share our unique perspective. So here-goes…
Thus far, we’ve experienced this life-changing crisis mildly compared to most of our friends and family home due to this lifestyle and we do feel blessed, but of course it’s still unnerving. We have many dear friends who are doctors or in the medical field and I’ve been trying to FaceTime and email with them whenever possible. One, will no longer return to his home since he’ll be so exposed and his wife is ‘at risk’ and primary caretaker of their one year old. Another friend told me the conditions of supermarkets in her Boston suburb and confirmed what I’m reading is not at all an exaggeration. Another NYC doctor friend said “crazy” is an understatement to describe what he’s experiencing. In Connecticut, my friend an, ED doctor, said when it comes to PPE, she’s not sure what the standards are… it’s like the “Wild West” right now. We are so isolated during this very strange time and to hear about the lives of people so deeply entrenched in it is just heartbreakingly surreal. And then there’s my family in Italy who have not left their homes in nearly a month.
The sailing life can easily turn into self-quarantine since we’re self-sufficient and only need to go in to get fresh veggies and eggs as needed and that’s only to avoid living off the pantry supplies. I have sailing friends that even grow their own sprouts and veggies aboard. I may try that next season. In general, on any given major provision we could potentially live on the boat with enough stores to last about six months to a year, maybe more if we really stretched it out. And with fresh fish and coconuts, it really could be indefinite. Plus, we have a water maker. I don’t think I’d enjoy this life without one. I’m much too nervous of a person. You can take the girl out of NY, but…
Daniel is on board and one very hungry 20-year-old does make quite a dent in the pantry stores made for two but he’s also very handy at fishing and shimmying up palm trees for coconuts. His extended stay is not one we planned on and are grateful he’s with us during this scary time. Also we’re grateful there is no panic shopping here in Great Harbour Cay. People here do not live with “plenty” of much other than fish, conch and coconut normally. Most everything else is brought in by boat. Panic and stress is not a way of life at all, even at this time. Although, the shelves are stocked in relatively the same way they were previously, which by American standards is quite limited. Shelves are full of fresh supplies immediately after the supply boat arrives and then dwindle. Today there was a box of avocados rotting… at $3.55 a piece, we walked away understanding why. Mind you, those are normal Bahamian prices.
Otherwise we’re keeping busy as we always do, hiking, snorkeling, beach walks, fishing, exploring, mandatory sunset views (two green flashes this week), reading, creative meals, and lots of cards. Even the extra tiny little super market we have is always a little limited, but they have toilet paper and boxes of boxes of eggs. Our first-hand creepiest observation so far has been the seven or so gargantuan cruise ships we see anchored about 6 miles away, that are not allowed into port or don’t have one to go to. They don’t have passengers and since they are usually always in motion, they now have no place to go. So they just sit there anchored indefinitely, lighting up the distant horizon. Also, water taxis and inter-island ferry traffic has been suspended. These quiet little islands have been made that much more quiet, which I wouldn’t have believed possible prior. We’ve also noticed a lot more people outside their homes busying themselves or along the shores fishing. We imagine it’s because they’re not working and that’s why we’ve made this observation. The tourist industry provides the Bahamas with over 80% of their GDP. Just today everyone is being asked to stay home and travel only for necessity. The beaches are closed as well, except for your daily exercise, so we have a small group of us that go for a 7:30 a.m. stroll to the beach and back.
We’ve heard rumors from other sailors that there are restrictions for boats coming from effected areas in other island chains, but we’re doing fine. We also heard that some islands (not in the Berrys) are restricting non-Bahamians from grocery shopping. Honestly, I find it hard to believe and have no evidence of it. Here, they have imposed new shorter hours in the grocery store and limit the amount of people coming in, but the people here are kind, gentle and generous. No one is turning us away, unless the number limit of persons indoors has been reached and then you just wait outside for someone to leave. There are many that are very cautious, like our taxi driver that passed out hand wipes to the five-passengers he had in his van on the day we picked Daniel up from the airport… two weeks ago, when plane traffic was still in motion. They’ve since suspended flights. The liquor store has closed and the pub closed. Signs say there’s only take out available and to order through the window, but we were invited in after being told the indoor limit of persons had not been reached. Then the Prime Minister announced a 24 hour curfew, as I mentioned and even the beaches are closed. The beaches here would be considered crowded if you saw ten people over the length of 3 miles. I’m not exaggerating. Most mornings when walking, 2-4 people are the only ones on the beach. The PM is enforcing laws that effect many more islands in this country and some so much more populated than here, mainly Nassau and Freeport. Airports and seaports are closed to international travelers, but we checked in months ago. Tensions do seem to be changing a bit here too, though just about 10 days ago, we took a very off the beaten path while adventuring and a man stopped, let us three get into his car and gave us a ride! I whispered to all not to touch their faces while in the car and immediately whipped out the hand wipes for everyone afterwards. Like I said, I have a lot of friends in the medical field. And yes, Paul and I do fall into the ‘at risk’ category. But essentially the government is imposing the strictest rules as there are multiple confirmed cases (I believe mostly in Nassau). They’re trying to keep it at bay since the Bahamian hospitals could never handle the urgency of this virus. Would we take that car ride if offered today? Probably not.
At this point we’ve decided to go into the marina at the end of the week. Daniel will have to start his remote classes and we want to help him establish a routine. We’ve all agreed at how to take extra precaution since we will be in potential situations of greater exposure. Though, besides about two to three marina employees, we’re three of about 14 people staying here.
So why would two people at risk stay far from a hospital and in a remote area where there’s a clinic with some band-aids and aspirin…? Need be, we can sail home for medical care… for now. That may change. Hopefully we will not need it and we feel this is as quarantined as we can get. When faced with the choice, which alone makes us privileged, I’m aware, we chose to stay here indefinitely. We’ve got lots of disinfectant wipes, toilet paper and pantry stores, thanks to provisioning at a Costco in Florida before leaving. I laugh to myself when I think back to the day we were provisioning and feeling resentful for having to buy an extra-large bulk pack of disinfectant wipes since that’s the only way they came. But I am grateful now. I guess living on a boat by default has prepared us for this troubling time in history.
I’m afraid there is nothing that can prepare you for what life may be like after as we’re now forever changed.