Voyaging under COVID
The bottom line: it’s complicated
When Jon and I dropped the hook in El Nido, Palawan, in March 2020 under the new pandemic lockdown rules of the Philippines, we took a deep breath. We’d been voyagers for more than 25 years. Voyaging, to us, has always meant freedom, adventure, the call of the open sea, and the allure of new lands and new cultures. It meant being part of a community of like-minded sailors. We had no goal to circumnavigate, no itinerary other than what our hearts sought and the weather permitted.
And then the pandemic hit. Our voyaging ended. Or did it?
Locked down in the Philippines, we assessed our situation and decided that, as decades-long voyagers, we could deal with this new normal. We learned the local rules for how to go ashore safely and legally, and what we could and could not do as far as walking the beach (not), swimming (not), snorkeling (not). So we turned inward to the boat and our projects and hobbies and reached outward to family and friends via high tech communications like social media, email, Skype and Zoom. But we missed the casual interactions and potlucks with friends.
The months passed. We heard with envy of other voyaging friends locked down in idyllic cruising grounds like Raja Ampat, Indonesia or Baja California, Mexico. We followed with great concern the saga of our friends sailing up the Red Sea, unwelcome to countries with closed borders and allowed only emergency stops where corrupt agents charged outrageous prices for a jug of fuel or a bag of vegetables. These friends had the usual concerns about safety and health, now sent into overdrive as they wondered what country at the far side of the Suez Canal would let them enter and stay.
Meanwhile, here in the Philippines, immigration charged no overstay fees while their offices remained closed. But when they opened in late June, we had to present our passports in Puerto Princesa, 150nm south of El Nido. We could travel by land, but under COVID conditions we didn’t want to risk six hours in public transport each way, plus nights in a hotel, and meals out while we waited for our visas. Taking our boat south made sense, but would it be allowed?
The Coast Guard in El Nido had strict protocols for where we anchored and what we did. We presented our case for sailing south, and after consideration from the “barangay” (local municipality), we were granted permission to sail to Puerto Princesa. Together with another boat, we daysailed along the west coast of Palawan, on the edge of the South China Sea, under karst cliffs, past towering green mountains. We found protected anchorages each night for two weeks. It felt, almost, like freedom.
Often scared, sometimes hostile
Voyaging under COVID is complicated, however. The normally friendly, curious, welcoming villagers along our route were often scared of us, and sometimes hostile. They wore masks as they paddled towards us, never approaching closer than 50 feet, shooing us away. If no English was spoken, we had to pantomime sleep and then leaving. We had to promise not to go ashore, not to go to their village.
Even at our destination of Ulugan, the closest village to Puerto Princesa on the west coast, we were greeted with suspicion. When we showed our village COVID passes from El Nido and a homemade spreadsheet showing daily temperature checks and no COVID symptoms, the local officials relaxed a bit. Only when we agreed to rent a van for a day, paying the exorbitant fee of $60, and bought the Coast Guard men a round of beers, were we allowed to tie up the dinghy and head for Puerto Princesa. We took two trips to the city for immigration and for Jon to get his eyes checked.
That’s when we faced the tricky part of “routine” medical care under COVID. The Palawan Eye Clinic was open for business. Patients had to pass a brief physical checkup before being allowed inside. Non-patients had to wait under a tent in the parking lot. Social distancing was strict. Masks and shields were required of all patients. Jon got his exam, a diagnosis, and the option to wait for treatment. We chose to wait.
We sailed back north to El Nido with a two-month visa extension and the reassurance that tourists were allowed to renew visas for up to three years, two months at a time. It wasn’t ideal, but better than being in Indonesia or Malaysia, where the strict 90-day limits on tourist visas meant that sailors faced being forced out of the host country with nowhere to go. We had never planned to spend a year, or longer, in the Philippines, but at least it was an option.
After a two-week sail back north to El Nido and a few weeks catching up with friends, we checked in with the Coast Guard and got permission to sail back to Puerto Princesa, this time along the east side of Palawan. Again we were happy to choose sailing over a six-hour bus ride. We had to phone the Coast Guard daily to apprise them of our location. It was mid-August when we grabbed a mooring at the Abanico Yacht Club, just outside Puerto Princesa in a large, protected bay. Then began the “long wait” and a new kind of voyaging.
We are surrounded by mangroves, so there are no beaches to walk. No clear water to swim in. We exercise by walking every few days to the city proper, wearing our masks in the 85° F heat. There is a lot of traffic, a bustle of activity and commerce. The local small busses, called Jeepneys (derived from their WWII origins of Jeep transports), run at half capacity, with clear plastic dividers between each of the four or five passengers on each inward-facing bench seat. We don’t use them, preferring to walk. Motorcycles with sidecars ply the main streets and the back roads, driven by masked drivers and limited to one, sometimes two passengers. We use them only when our grocery purchases are too heavy or bulky to backpack home to the yacht club.
Getting into the mall
A large supermarket and the immigration office are only a 20-minute walk. The other mall, with good espresso coffee shops and more upscale tech stores is a 45-minute walk. Before being allowed in, we must don full face shields over our masks, have our temperatures taken, fill out a tracking form, and sanitize our hands. Only then can we enter the air-conditioned cool of the mall. “COVID police,” with signs about social distancing, masks and face shields, roam the aisles. Despite the higher prices in the supermarkets, we choose to shop there rather than at the fresh market which is a warren of tiny stalls and crowds of people. In those crowded walkways, we don’t feel safe, even in masks.
Our voyaging is slower than it used to be. We think back, searching for parallels. A year in Simpson Lagoon, St. Maarten? Our boat was just our home while we ran a day charter boat. Two years in a marina in Richards Bay, South Africa? Not the same. We were more often off the boat than on it, driving throughout southern Africa. Two years on the hard in Phuket, Thailand? That was a boat refit. So no, there is nothing to compare this time to. We’ve never been so physically restricted, so forbidden to move our boat. Even sailors in different regions of the Philippines are experiencing different rules and restrictions. Friends in Davao, Mindanao are locked into the Holiday Oceanview Marina. There are no day sails for them. No coastal hopping. Others in Busuanga, Coron, could not step ashore for three months and had to order food sight unseen.
To keep busy, we’re attacking our never-ending list of boat projects, which means ordering parts from the US or sourcing materials locally. The pandemic has disrupted both production and shipping. Projects remain half-finished as we wait months for parts to arrive.
Healthcare has become more challenging. As voyagers, we’ve always found ways to schedule routine exams and dental cleaning. With COVID, we’ve postponed these procedures, not wanting to burden the medical system and not wanting to put ourselves at risk. But with Sue’s tooth abscess and Jon’s deteriorating night vision, we had to seek help in Puerto Princesa. Triage assessment outside a medical facility and strict social distancing in waiting rooms is the norm. Our dentist appeared one day in a “moon suit,” which allowed us to feel safer in her office.
While we and the Filipinos seem to have settled into this new normal, we search the internet for news of countries opening borders to foreigners. Most require negative tests within days of arrival, impossible to do while on passage. Most require COVID medical insurance. Long quarantines, maybe not allowed on board, are the norm. We study the vaccine situation and wonder when a vaccine, and which one, will be available to us. Will being vaccinated allow us to cross borders again in 2021? Will there be some internationally accepted documentation that shows we’ve been vaccinated? And if we can cross borders, how long can we stay, and will we be able to travel?
Even if we knew the answers, we’re still at the mercy of the weather, the seasons, and the ever-changing face of the pandemic. A voyaging family who has spent the past year in Galle, Sri Lanka, recently sailed to the Maldives, newly opened to tourism. From there, they plan to sail to Chagos, then to the Seychelles, and on to East Africa. With so many countries to transit, they have to trust they’ll be able to cross borders or lock down again if necessary.
For those of us in SE Asia, the choices are not so clear. Australian sailors here in Puerto Princesa wish to return home to work. Sailing to Australia means passing through Indonesia, which, due to COVID, is not open to foreigners and has even suspended the right to innocent passage. Unable to stop en route, they would have to sail 1,000 nm through an archipelago of unmarked reefs, unlit fishing platforms and treacherous currents. It is not a passage they would undertake lightly.
As for Jon and myself, though we miss our family in the U.S., we have no desire to sail there (even if we could enter Japan as a staging point for a North Pacific crossing) and no desire to fly back. We have no home in the U.S., so we would be couch surfing in the time of COVID, and that sounds like a bad idea. In addition, here in Palawan there is no place to haul the boat, and leaving it unattended on anchor in this typhoon-prone country is not an option. The Philippines is not allowing non-residents to enter, and there are many boats here with owners unable to return. If we left by air, we would have no idea when we could return.
So, for now the Philippines, or possibly only Palawan, is our cruising ground. We have hundreds of islands to explore. We’ve logged 400nm since the pandemic began. In retrospect, we have it pretty good here in the Philippines.
No one has sailed this sea of pandemic before, and while our freedom to sail has been curtailed, we can still bring a sense of adventure and an attitude of gratefulness to our situation. We can accept the complications and do what we love, which is voyaging, no matter what shape it takes. n
Sue and her husband, Jon, sail on Ocelot, a Wauquiez Kronos 45 catamaran. Since 2009 they have looped Indonesia three times, explored Borneo, New Guinea and the Solomons. They arrived in the Philippines in Nov. 2019.