The long way home

This morning we watched a pair of mergansers trace a line across the perfectly still water of McCormick Lake. Chris was thinking—well, who ever knows what Chris is thinking. He may have been calculating the square root of a snowsuit. But as the morning sun warmed my face, I was thinking how good it was to be home, flooded with gratitude and relief that we were finally here.

Just over a month ago, we were in the Cayman Islands, planning to spend a few weeks there before starting the long journey home. Chris had gone into the customs office to clear us in and I was waiting for him on the front steps.

He came out of the office looking concerned.

“What’s wrong?”

“We’re in, no problem. But I heard from the customs officer that they just turned away a cruise ship because there was Covoid-19 on board.”

The busy main street of Georgetown in Grand Cayman.

We eyed the tourists crowding the narrow, crumbling sidewalks of Georgetown, dodging chickens and men selling coconuts from shopping carts as they elbowed each other out of the way to get to the diamond stores. Everything looked normal. But with access to news of the world we didn’t have in Cuba, it didn’t take us long to realize that nothing was normal any more. We’d better get home, and fast.

Now fast in a sailboat, at least in Monark, isn’t very fast at all. We set off for the western tip of Cuba, with the wind on our stern, not our most comfortable point of sail. We wallowed along, rolling from gunwale to gunwale. By our third day at sea, I was covered with bruises from being flung against things, and Chris was a little worse for the wear—he’d had to change the fuel filter while we were underway. We were both relieved when we rounded Cabo de San Vincent and tucked into a mangrove swamp to wait out what promised to be the worst norther of the season.

Our anchorage in the mangroves in the calm before the storm.

And it was. Our anchor was firmly buried in mud, but the boat danced around as the wind clocked. We could see waves breaking across the mouth of the entrance of the little channel we were in. It took five days for things to settle down enough for us to resume our journey—straight into the wind, of course. Remember the augmented diurnal trade winds?? We had to move east right into them to get a good angle to cross the Gulf Stream to the United States. Remember the Gulf Stream? That big river out in the ocean? We didn’t want to mess with it.

But we had little choice. Rumours had reached us that the U.S. would be closing its borders, and if we couldn’t clear in there, we’d be in trouble. Hurricane season was coming, we needed to get the boat safely to the boatyard in Titusville. So we set out across the Gulf Stream, even though the wind was against the current. It was light enough, we thought, that it wouldn’t be too bad.

The dreaded Gulf Stream. There’s no avoiding it on the passage between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

Boy, were we wrong. Chris doesn’t agree with me, but I think these were the worst seas we’ve ever seen, even in the gales on our North Atlantic crossing. The current was pushing the water relentlessly east, the wind was blowing relentlessly toward the west The result was big, steep waves. Three to six feet, with the occasional nine-foot wave thrown in just to keep us awake.

We’ve never taken so much sea over the bow, never had so much water in the cockpit. We found ourselves in the strongest current in the middle of the night. I was standing the first night watch—sitting, actually, on one of the side benches in the cockpit, with my harness on, clipped in—when suddenly I was drenched with water. It was like a scene from a low-budget movie, like someone had thrown a bucket of water into the cockpit. I actually laughed as it dribbled off my hat. (Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.)

Tacking all the way. The zig-zag line is our track.

But we were just out for one night. You can stand anything for one night. The next morning we were out of the worst of the current—but 50 miles west of where we wanted to be. We tacked all day against the wind and current along the south shore of the Keys, made it into Key West just before dark, dropped the anchor, and fell into bed completely exhausted.

We woke up in the morning ready for the next challenge. Would the U.S. actually let us in? As it turned out, we were able to clear in using their online app (this should worry all of us.) All that remained was to go to shore and try to get a cruising license which would allow us to travel in the States.

By this time, going to shore was more frightening than crossing the Gulf Stream. Helpful friends and family were telling us that the virus was out of control in Florida, we were on a suicide mission, trying to drive home. Gas stations in the U.S. were going to shut down any day, the Canada-U.S. border was about to be closed. We weren’t sure what kind of chaos we’d find in Key West. But we had no choice.We needed that license. And we needed groceries—we were running out of food.

I was the only one in the grocery store in Key West wearing gloves.

As it turned out, the streets were pretty much empty first thing in the morning. Getting a cruising license was no problem, though the customs officer did ask us if we were feeling okay. Next stop: the grocery store. They were disinfecting cart handles at the front entrance, but not much else. We wore gloves. We stayed away from people as much as possible. We grabbed what we could from the almost-empty shelves and scurried back to the boat, disinfected everything before bringing it aboard, hoped for the best.

For the first time in as long as we could remember, the winds were in our favour when we set out from Key West—gentle south winds for our sail east along the Keys, a gentle west wind for our sail north. We sailed on the Gulf side of the Keys as far as we could, over calm blue waters, then punched out into the ocean at Marathon and began the big push. We would sail day and night until we got to Titusville.

The next day, Miami appeared in the distance—an unmistakable cluster of highrise buildings. We were ready to run the gauntlet of boats that normally stream in and out of the harbour … but there were none. Not a single boat. Not a freighter, not a cruise ship, nothing. We did see a tugboat pulling a barge full of garbage, but he was way off on the horizon, certainly not coming into Miami. There were four cruise ships at anchor outside the harbour, ships in quarantine perhaps? More likely just empty ships that had come to their home port to find no room for them. As we sailed past Miami, I was astonished to see that the long beach was completely empty. Clearly it had been closed. And people were actually complying.

The skyline north of Miami.

Moving day and night in the ocean, motoring from before dawn to after dark in the intracoastal waterway (we were forced to go inside at Fort Pierce because the Canaveral barge canal was closed), we finally made it to Titusville in time for our scheduled lift. Within 24 hours, the boat was on the hard, closed up tight and covered, the car was packed, and we were on the road.

I felt safe in our familiar little bubble—yes, driving with the car packed to the roof is normal for us. We had food, we had water, we had a bucket… (don’t think about that too much.) We were good. My shoulders lifted a little as we crossed the border from Florida to Georgia.

But we now had easy access to the CBC and BBC, sources we trust, and what we were hearing wasn’t good. We decided not to listen, but dire warnings kept coming in from concerned friends and family. Trump is closing the State of New York. He’s calling out the army.

Honestly, the hardest part of this journey wasn’t the physical exertion, it was trying to manage the fear. Until now, we’d done a pretty good job of staying calm, feeling positive—okay fine: Chris is always calm and positive. I guess I’m talking about me. I couldn’t help but feel that everything was working against us.

The further north we travelled, the emptier the roads.

We had planned to drive all night, sleep beside the road if we got too tired, but then, as we were driving through the mountains of some state—they all run together in my mind—stormclouds began to form in the distance, then quickly grew into a frightening thunderstorm, bolts of lightning streaking straight down, heavy rain. This was too much. We made the difficult decision to stop at a hotel, and it’s a good thing we did. Next up—flash flood warnings. It’s hard to take action to get out of the way of a flash flood when you have no idea where the creeks and rivers are.

We checked into a hotel—there were maybe three cars in the parking lot, and one nervous young woman at the front desk, keeping her distance. We let ourselves into our ground floor room (no elevators to negotiate) and began wiping down all the surfaces.

“Just like Jason Bourne,” Chris said with a grin.

I wasn’t grinning. Too tired. Too freaked out. Chris stood in the middle of the room eating some pasta-tuna salad right out of the container while I re-wiped all surfaces, just to be sure. We fell into bed exhausted.

The next day, one last push. The Canadian border was eight hours away. We were crossing at Buffalo so the last part of our journey would be through the State of New York. No army at the border. Hardly any other traffic, in fact. The roads were empty. We pulled up to a toll booth and found it closed. Puzzled, we just drove through. When we reached the toll booth at the other end of the road, a gloved woman in a mask asked us to pull ahead so she could record our license plate then waved us on. No contact. Perhaps no toll?

It was Sunday morning, so as we drove, we listened to The Sunday Edition on the CBC. There was a conversation with an expert on Covoid-19’s possible impact on geopolitical hotspots, we found that interesting. But the next guest was a conflict doctor predicting terrifying times due to lack of resources to fight Covoid-19. We decided not to listen, but just as we were switching the radio off, we heard him give an example that struck too close to home. Doctors were going to have to make some hard decisions in the days ahead. People over 60 or with chronic conditions such as diabetes might not be given ventilators.

But what if you’re both? It was too much for me. I lost it. I was driving and we had to pull into a deserted rest centre because I was crying so hard. Don’t I matter? I got out of the car and walked into a grove of trees behind the parking lot, looked up at the bare branches. Then I heard a robin singing. I haven’t heard a robin in a long time. The birds will be back when we get home, I thought. Just think about that.

There was no traffic on the Peace Bridge.

I will admit that when we crossed the border into Canada I wept openly, tears of relief this time, not despair. And now we’re at Meadowlark, and the bluebirds were here to greet us, they’re fighting with a pair of grackles for the best bird box right now. And the sandhill cranes are back, three of them, flying awkwardly overhead, calling loudly to each other. I guess one of the two young ones who hatched last year made it through the winter.

May we all of us make it through this time. Let’s be kind to each other—from a safe distance—take care of each other as best we can, and try to just watch the beauty of spring as it unfolds around us.

Surely spring is just around the corner.

14 thoughts on “The long way home

  1. So glad you’re back safely at Meadowlark! Looking forward to actually seeing you two again…some day.

    A always, your writing made us feel we were with you every wave of the way.

    Enjoy the birds and please keep well and writing well.

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  2. Hi Linda & Chris;

    Happy to hear that you are safely back home.

    Also happy to report that all of us are fine here in Florida and life goes on. No panic, no troops on the street, no drastic measures and Florida is not any more of a hot spot then any other area. Whomever your news sources were, they got it completely wrong and caused you to needlessly panic.

    Of course that does not mean that we are not careful, keep our distances, do school and work from home (when possible), but otherwise life goes on. Even as our governments (globally) are unprepared and are still making half-hearted decisions on how to control this virus, most people have common sense, stay calm and behave accordingly. If anything, everybody is more courteous.

    I am always amused how residents of other countries, including their news media, who should at least do some research, have such a distorted view. No gun-totting hillbillies and rampant violence here!!! I think the media is trying to make a story more news-worthy by exaggerating at will, which creates even more anxiety, not exactly what is need in this situation.

    Stay safe everybody and keep the travel updates coming. (Well, once we all can travel again!)

    Sven & Nina
    Cape Coral, FL

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    1. Yes there has been a huge overreaction to the situation in the States. No gun-toting hillbillies or armies in sight on the whole trip home! I’m glad to hear all is well with you. We were disappointed to have to rush home–we were planning a surprise visit to Cape Coral on MonArk! Maybe next time.

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      1. Hopefully everything will normalize again with time.

        We had originally planned to go for my annual sailing trip with my brothers and German school friends in the Baltic Sea at the end of April, that is obviously not happening.

        So instead Nina and I will go sailing along the SW coast of Florida for 9 days. Looks like 2 friends with their respective boats will join us. Anchoring out is a great way to socially distancing ourselves. However, still got to replace the floor boards, replace the dining table and install solar panels before that. Thanks for working from home, LOL.

        If everything goes as planned otherwise, Nina and I are planning to come up to Canada for Canadian Thanksgiving. Hopefully we can catch up in person then. Otherwise, of course, hope to see you when you come down to see Monarch in the late fall.

        Let me know if anything at the boat needs to be looked after. Stay safe and talk to you soon.

        Sven & Nina

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  3. I am so glad to see this blog, Linda — I’ve been thinking and wondering about where you were and how you were doing. Amazing that you can take the raw material of this experience and write it out so eloquently, helping all of us to connect with our own versions of this drama. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks, Jeanne. It’s been quite a journey–but we’re all charting new territory these days. Hope you and yours are well.

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