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Setting Sail from pandemic prisons

Living

Interview
Áine Ryan

Co Mayo sailors Daria and Alex Blackwell have plenty of yarns about shipping waves on the high seas. Daria is Vice Commodore of the global Ocean Cruising Club (OCC) and Alex is OCC Regional Rear Commodore for Ireland, and both were named Sailors of the Month (International) in May by Irish sailing, boating and maritime magazine Afloat.
Here they talk to Áine Ryan about helping seafarers who became landlocked or boat-bound far from their homes because of covid-19 restrictions imposed by various countries.  

AR When we look out towards the ocean here in the wild west of Ireland, it is hard to imagine it as a prison, but that is what it became when the covid-19 pandemic struck. How did you and Alex become involved in helping people?
DB It wasn’t so much a prison for most people living on their boats, who were unable to sail on to another port. In places like Antigua these cruisers were able to go ashore and shop for food just as the locals did. It did turn into prison for those who were not permitted to go ashore at all and, in some places, were even barred from swimming near their boats in sweltering heat.
Some left from one place to sail to another only to learn that the borders had closed ahead of them and behind them while they were at sea. Where could they sail that would let them enter, resupply food, and take on fresh water and fuel? It soon became clear that in most cases the only place left open to them was their home country.
AB Distances between places in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are vast, with few places to stop in between. Yet all the borders were closed. Some of our members undertook lobbying the governments of New Zealand, Australia, and others to open their borders to cruisers who need to get out of the way of cyclones before the season starts. After weeks at sea, they would have in essence self-isolated so there was little risk. But many places have vulnerable populations and limited medical services and acted to protect their residents first and foremost.
We got involved very early when we saw that serious misinformation on social media was clouding people’s judgement. It was creating escalating levels of anxiety among the cruisers who were stuck in places they didn’t expect to be, with hurricane and cyclone seasons approaching. Distance cruisers must sail with the seasons and are constantly underway to stay within the zones insurance permits them to sail in at various times of the year. To help cruisers reach their own informed decisions, we opened up the Ocean Cruising Club Facebook pages to non-members around the world. We also asked our Port Officers to feed reliable and verifiable information to a website called Noonsite as a central repository of good information.

AR Remind us of your story of sailing home to the west coast in 2008?
DB We sold everything in the US and set sail in June of 2008, heading north to Maine and Nova Scotia first. We then crossed from Nova Scotia to Westport across the northern North Atlantic. It was a tough year for weather. We sailed through six gales and avoided one strong storm that might have been life threatening.

AR Did your experience of crossing the Atlantic help in the support you have given and continue to give to stranded sailors in recent months?
AB  The experience was essential in providing effective support, but having many exceptional volunteers jump in to assist was instrumental. We realised very quickly that we had to provide 24-hour oversight. So we had people in Europe, in the Caribbean and in America, in overlapping time zones, to monitor the situation in the Atlantic. We had other volunteers assisting those crossing the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
PredictWind, a New Zealand company, offered to create a tracker and almost 200 boats signed up just in the Atlantic. We think there are about 500 stuck in the Atlantic and another 500 in the IndoPacific regions.
DB As members of the OCC are among the most experienced sailors in the world, they could often answer questions that less-experienced crews were asking. And because crew who were scheduled to fly in could not get there, many yachts were going to be sailing shorthanded when they had expected to take on experienced crew. We basically armed them with information with which to reach their own decisions.

AR Can you tell us about some of the people you helped, particularly from Ireland?
DB Our friends Vera Quinlan and Peter Owens from Galway were on a sabbatical year in the Caribbean with their two young children, Ruarí and Lillian. After stops in Spain, Portugal, Africa, the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands and French Guyana, they made their way up the Caribbean chain. When borders started closing, they called us in Ireland to talk through their options. We realised their only option was to sail home early, when the weather became favourable for an Atlantic crossing.
AB  They spent lockdown at anchor in Barbuda with five other boats. They weren’t allowed in town but could visit the beach and snorkel on the extensive reefs. Two of the boats had water makers and were resupplying the other boats in the anchorage. Before heading home, they sailed to Antigua to re-provision, take on fuel and check out of the country.
They have been underway now for more than two weeks and have just arrived in Horta in the Azores, where they will be permitted to anchor for 48 hours, re-provision, and take on fresh water and fuel. They will not be allowed ashore. From there, they will have another ten days’ sail to Ireland. I post their position on the PredictWind tracker daily, which they send via SMS.

AR You were both named Sailors of the Month (International) during May, how did that feel?
DB It could not have more of a surprise. We have been humbled by the entire experience, but to have our efforts recognised in that way was inspirational, especially in a year when we couldn’t do any sailing!

AR As lockdown is lifted on land, what are your sailing plans for this summer? Are they somewhat restricted still because of the pandemic regulations?
AB  I will be racing with my regular crew at Mayo Sailing Club when that starts up. But sadly, our boat is on land in Kilrush on the Shannon and the distance restrictions mean we probably will not be able to launch her this year.
DB I am happy paddling out on the bay in my kayak. And we can potter around the bay, fishing among the islands in our little motor punt.

AR I bet you have a favourite spot that you like to anchor off along the Mayo coastline?
DB Our absolute favourite anchorage is at the Inishkeas. It’s haunting to walk amongst abandoned villages, early Christian ruins, Viking strongholds and whaling remains. And to see the wildlife resurging is extraordinary, especially when the Barnacle geese return in the autumn.
We’ve had the good fortune to walk the islands when thousands of the geese flew in from their summer homes. We lay low as the percussion from their wings buffeted us when they flew low overhead. That doesn’t happen every day, nor just anywhere.

AR You are members of Mayo Sailing Club: that must be an interesting marine tribe?
AB  The members are a really interesting group and have no idea how good they are at sailing compared to many places.
Learning in these waters teaches you how to deal with extremes in weather, tides and navigation, and it teaches the need to get along well under pressure in small spaces.
The people of Mayo are a congenial and highly experienced lot who love a bit of craic and a good sea story to tell. What’s not to like.