The Pacific in the time of the virus

When we sailed from the island of St. Lucia on January 11th, I believed in the extraordinary opportunity that life was offering me. An opportunity that Valerio (for him Milanto is home and work), and I had long planned – to make a dream we had since we were children, come true. Go around the world on a sailing boat, what a wonderful adventure! I expected to get to know the world by circumnavigating the globe at equatorial latitudes, then somehow embracing it in its entirety, understanding physically and ideally its dimensions. But that world has changed radically today, and what it will become in the near future is not easy to comprehend.

We sailed on March 4th from the Galapagos to cross the Pacific Ocean to the Marquesas Islands. It took 19 days to complete, 3,000 miles of an ocean that showed itself just as Antonio Pigafetta – the man from Vicenza who accompanied the Magellan fleet, the first to ‘discover el paso for the Mare del Sur’ – during his Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo wrote: ‘We proceed in a smooth sea, without the slightest ripple, so much so that Magellan wanted to call it the Pacific Ocean’.

For us too, the Pacific immediately showed its character. In the early days we had a hard time sailing south to catch the trade winds, which were not constant, but rather weak and variable with breezes from the south, then south east to full east. For about two weeks we changed tacks and tactics trying to exploit every gust of wind with all the sails we had available. Life on board, marked by the shifts of the night watch and daily activities, began to slow down with us eventually moving in synch to the breath of the sea. In addition to Valerio and I, our crew for this route was made up of Amancio, a Spanish skipper and kitchen magician, and Baldem, a nice German with a smile always at the ready. We often found ourselves together to contemplate spectacular sunsets, each time different, with our bow cutting the waves whilst raising whiskers of white foam in front of the horizon that was inflamed with colours better than any film in the cinema or series of Netflix. The nights full of stars accompanied our slow progress towards the west, Orion in front of us indicating the route, the Southern Cross on the left side and the Big Dipper on the starboard horizon. At dawn the sun illuminated the transom giving light to all the creatures of the sea and to us, so small in the midst of this imposing expanse of water. We perceived such a great force that we could not understand it, but we still felt part of this great miracle that repeats itself every day. ‘Radiant and beautiful’, said Francis in his Canticle; ‘and we also call him brother when we see him popping up on the horizon’.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest on the planet. More than twice the size of the Atlantic, it covers almost a third of the Earth’s surface. The crossing never seems to end, the dimension of time is lost. How many days have we been sailing, two weeks, one month, one year? The clouds high in the sky move slowly like wagons of a freight train and then suddenly hundreds of flying fish jump out of the waves like sparkling silver arrows, as if performing an enchanting dance. The days follow the nights and we are carried by the waves in a rhythm that seems infinite as in a circular song, an Indian raga, an eternal breath.

By the third week of sailing we begin to be surprised by large and often violent groupings of clouds: they announce their arrival with sudden gusts of wind that discharge huge quantities of water. Better to prepare before their arrival – reduce the sail and put the boat in a safe position. During the day I often take this opportunity to take a shower offered for free from heaven. But the night is scary: the sky turns black and when it swallows you the sea seems to swell and in a flash violently vomits wind and rain on you. It feels like entering the mouth of an ogre! But all storms have an end and this violence does not last, in less than an hour we go back to seeing the stars again, at least until the next group. Some nights they follow one after the other. After two or three days we get used to it and in the morning we ask ourselves how many reefs did we put in the sails and how much have we got drenched during the night.

Getting to the Marquesas after three weeks of sailing across the Pacific is like reaching a destination imagined by reading Melville’s or Stevenson’s books, or by looking at Gauguin’s paintings. Hiva Oa emerges before dawn, dark in the night, only the contours of the mountain reliefs can be distinguished. Then as the sun rises on the horizon the coast appears as a long uninhabited plateau, overlooking the sea, where submerged rocks lift the waves as if they were columns of water emerging from the depths of the earth. We arrive at the bay of Atuona in the morning. Two imposing mountains dominate the access, their peaks are enveloped by clouds, with forest ridges descending to the dark stone cliffs that jut out where the ocean waves break.

As soon as we hit the bottom of the bay we immediately realise that the world has changed. The local authorities warn us via VHF not to come close to the land and to stop at anchor outside the breakwater pending further instructions. Like us, other sailboats and some catamarans are at anchor with the yellow flag hoisted on the starboard shrouds, the quarantine signal. The gendarmerie informs us that due to recent provisions for the containment of the Covid-19 epidemic, we are not allowed to go ashore. It is now five days later, at the time of writing, that we are in quarantine in this bay together with twenty other boats. Yet paradoxically, we are the people who least exposed themselves to the infection: arriving in excellent health after three weeks on the ocean – we have by far exceeded the required quarantine of fifteen days. But we also understand the position of the island’s authorities who find themselves having to implement restrictions that come directly from the government of Tahiti. The government finds itself in a difficult situation trying to manage a global contagion that has already reached French Polynesia with confirmed cases present in some islands.

The population of Hiva Oa (3,000 people), is also subject to business closure and house confinement. As the days go by, however, some services are re-open and the competent authorities prove to be kind and welcoming towards boats like us who anchor in the middle of the bay facing the island: we are supplied with fresh bread, eggs and vegetables; next Monday they have said that we will be able to restock our diesel, which is essential for us to recharge the batteries that power Milanto’s navigation instruments and electrical equipment. Day after day we get used to this unreal quarantine reality in front of an island with such lush nature and where there is no noise, except for that of the cockerels that crow all day. Perhaps they too do not understand why life has stopped and try to wake the island from this long sleep. We have no internet connection, we can only occasionally pick up a wifi on the land that allows us to send or receive messages in our brief window of opportunity. But even from the little news that we get we understand the dramatic situation that the world is experiencing: the difficulties that everyone is facing in their country, in their city, isolation at home, the closure of work, the world economy on its knees, the conditions of abandonment that put at risk the weakest people and the poorest countries. Even from this unreal isolation one perceives the fear that has descended on the whole world: all the ports of the Pacific are closed, movement between the islands is forbidden, all flights have been grounded. In front of me, as I write at the bow of Milanto, the other bows of the boats at my side peck in the undertow. A solidarity is emerging between us, given that we are all in the same boat, it is appropriate to say it, there are no differences and we are all ready to help each other. Every morning we talk in rotation on the VHF to exchange information following what is provided to us on a daily basis by the gendarmerie on the land. Sandra, a tourist operator on the island has made herself available to coordinate assistance to boats in quarantine and keeps us updated by translating the news of the crisis management by the French Polynesian government into English.

In the evening at sunset I play the guitar and sing songs across the bay, Milanto is now famous for these events. The French from Marguerite, a boat that arrived from Patagonia a few hours after us, also play a song and dedicate it to us. This has already become a small community that helps each other and patiently awaits the development of events. A community that tries to share its desire to live and embody the spirit of freedom that animates every sailor in the need to be together, clenching our teeth and waiting to get out of the storm. Because each storm has its end and what awaits us later depends on how we live now, through the moments of greatest difficulty. If we have overcome them together, without closing the borders and going against each other, then the future will be better and this crisis will become an opportunity for all mankind to discover new priorities in living with a global solidarity, starting with small communities, like the one we have here.

After the quarantine we will try to reach Tahiti, we will stay at sea as long as possible waiting to find a safe place where we can dock Milanto. We will then probably go west to Fiji or Australia. But it is premature to say so. We will take one step at a time, evaluating the development of events in complete safety. For now, this little microcosm in which we live gives us hope. Solidarity; the desire to overcome this moment together; and the beauty of nature around us make us continue to hope and dream.