October the 12th finally brought a COVID update from the president of Panama.
Land and air borders are now open, meaning that air travel into Panama is now possible though military and police enforced curfews are still in place. Security forces ensure that government imposed restrictions are strictly adhered to with the curfew hours of 11pm to 5am Monday to Saturday maintained. From 11pm on Saturday to 5am on Monday a full lockdown is in place, meaning that no one is allowed from their home for any purpose or travel. In Panama City, the volatile eastern provinces bordering Columbia, the Caribbean-side provinces of Colon, Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro are each under stricter curfews – from 11pm Friday until 5am Monday it is almost a total weekend lockdown. The president fears lack of social distancing and increasing civil unrest will spread the virus in these higher risk locations.
Of course, this differs greatly from the new virus restrictions in the United Kingdom. So how does this leave us with Sänna still tied up in Vista Mar?
With the British Embassy in Panama confirming the COVID curfew changes, it is now technically possible to return to Vista Mar from the UK – but the world of long-distance sail is not the world we left behind back in March.
The virus has changed everything, possibly forever. We chose an unconventional lifestyle onboard Sänna because it gave us a good measure of freedom, especially after my years of running a high pressure business: it’s never a salubrious way of living onboard a sailboat but the basic day-to-day foraging existence, with the ability to move on and cross oceans, provides a welcome release from the normality of dealing with every day living – particularly when trying to survive in a competitive cut-throat business environment. In no way would I want to be attempting to manage an independent business during these extremely difficult times. Both in the UK and Panama, and probably worldwide, the politicians, presidents and expert scientists who make these COVID rules have little or no concept of the risks in running a commercial enterprise, the heartbreak of employing staff or the mental health anguish of curfew isolation and financial ruin that is going to be prevalent for many years. The president of Panama fears civil unrest for good reason.
Our ability to sail Sänna from port to port, anchorage to anchorage and from country to country has now gone, we like to think that it is a matter of time before things return to normal but the reality is that it will not, not in the foreseeable future, probably not in our lifetime, not in the same way that creates the lure of the simplistic lifestyle that attracts the more adventurous or the hardcore die-hards who frequent remote anchorages and wild oceans. Perhaps something like will return in two, three, five or ten years or so, but by then the concept of long-distance freedom sailing will have changed. It has changed beyond measure even in the last ten years, with the advent of easy GPS positioning and navigation – and the ever increasing scourge of the mass rally fleets that flood out marinas and anchorages in many locations. These big fleets cause untold problems for non-rally participants and independent vessels – many seafaring sailors take a dim view of these large rallies for justifiable reasons (see comments below).
So what of Sänna sitting alone and moored in Vista Mar? Since our emergency evacuation from Panama by the British Embassy back in March, the virus has marched on decimating day-to-day living pretty much everywhere. Here in the UK our borders are open, they were never closed, we now have a new three-tiered system of COVID control and a scared-rabbit government trying desperately to find a way out. The Scots have now gone quiet over their independence – perhaps realising how much they have been saved by the financial intervention of chancellor Sunak and the Bank of England – and the northern Irish and Welsh assemblies too are scrambling in outright panic to protect their people. Worryingly, Britain as a whole is now out of Europe – and the final explosion of Brexit looms with the EU demanding continued access for the French and Spanish to our lucrative coastal fishing grounds or no Brexit deal. I say all of this to you because there are huge implications in where we sail Sänna if we ever get eastwards through the Panama Canal.
Our original intention was to complete our circumnavigation by crossing the Atlantic through the Caribbean islands to England, to Europe and back to the Mediterranean. When we left Greece through the Suez Canal all those years ago, it was a vastly different world than we have today, the UK was an integral part of Europe, we could travel anywhere in the EU then stay as long as we wished. Not now. Now we are technically under the same immigration restrictions that we find sailing into other none-European countries, with custom’s time limitations for Sänna’s temporary importation before we must leave – usually around three to six months. Given that the safe harbour locations in the Mediterranean are almost all within European shorelines, Sänna leaving the EU zone for the required thirty or ninety days before returning will be no easy matter. Other than Turkey, which we already know well, where would we go? North Africa? Algeria, Tunisia, Libya or Egypt? Or Syria? Israel or Lebanon perhaps? From a personal point of view, I don’t know what drove the Brexit vote, to me it was bizarre thinking based upon homophobic fears about migration and immigration – mainly by our older generation remembering the good old days of empire domination. Do you understand what I say? Especially you old sea dogs out there, you appreciate the attraction of a safe harbour and a calm anchorage.
So, crossing the Atlantic back to Europe is not a good option for us right now. Of course, we could return to our home country England – but then we have an impossible VAT tax problem. Sänna has been out of the UK and Europe for over ten years, under EU tax laws she is formally listed as a luxury asset, not an ocean-going vessel able to make her way through remote seas and wide oceans to a foreign port like a cargo ship, or a military naval vessel for example, or even a Viking longboat crewed by hormonal-driven Danes seeking to woo the local girls with their witty talk and manly pillaging prowess. Under EU law we exported luxury goods when we sailed south from Cyprus to Port Said at the entrance to the Suez Canal in Egypt, when we transited the canal into the Red Sea. When we did not return to Europe within five years, we in some way changed the tax-paid status of Sänna meaning that if we do return now, we are re-importing those luxury goods back into the EU – and VAT tax must be paid once again for a second time on the full vessel value. Notwithstanding that England is now out of the EU, the UK’s customs officers are still making this tax law stand. No measure is given to Sänna being no different to a cargo vessel or naval ship, tax revenues are important now that the Bank of England is likely bankrupt through COVID furlough and business support (again, please see comments below). The vikings were cute, they came and stayed, not for these guys import tax on their plunder when they returned to their homeland (viking kings levied a form of capital-gains tax whenever triumphant crews arrived back in their lands of pillaged plenty). Perhaps for forward tax-planning reasons, the rampaging vikings largely stayed in England and married – many English girls these days are flaxen haired and blue-eyed, and they’re the only ones who understand and laugh at Danish jokes. Given these unreasonable EU vessel importation tax laws then maybe Brexit was a good idea after all – which is why Marie and I argue most mornings as we lie together side-by-side. My wife voted to leave.
We are both keen to finally leave the Americas. Alaska and British Columbia were an incredible experience for us but south from San Francisco has in the main not been good. The US is a boating nightmare that transcends down into Mexico, only beginning to flatten out once into the jungles of Guatemala, El Salvador – and the real jewel in the crown Nicaragua. Costa Rica was not a particularly rewarding experience either and we only spent a short time in Panama before being kicked out, we are there primarily to transit the Panama Canal into the Caribbean. Once COVID hit we briefly considered heading to the southern cape via Pitcairn Island and Ushuaia in Chile, but the virus situation in South America deteriorated rapidly. Westwards into the pacific to the Marquesas and Polynesia was never an option for us from Panama because we’ve already spend a long time in those islands when transiting the pacific from New Zealand to Alaska. But since the virus pandemic we’ve witnessed many sailing vessels leaving Panama for Polynesia even though all of those islands are locked down with many islands onwards from Polynesia closed entirely, including the normal westward destinations of Australia and New Zealand. To me, it makes no sense to leave a safe-haven port for a port of uncertain shelter, this violates the first and foremost safety law of the sea – your destination port and your last resort emergency storm ports must offer safe and ready security. Ignoring this to make a three-thousand mile voyage might show your intrepid adventurism but to vastly experienced mariners it suggests irresponsibility and stupidness. There has been many examples of this in the mass exodus of mainly US vessels from Panama and ports north – good luck to you in your voyage but someone, probably French or Polynesian, is likely to have to secure your ongoing safety.
Our own COVID-driven options are now limited in the extreme. First, for ourselves to return to Panama from the UK, we have to take privately paid COVID tests forty-eight hours before boarding the airline – of course, these have to be negative. There were never any direct flights from the UK to Panama, we have to transit Amsterdam, Madrid, Paris or a number of US based airports, all of which are COVID hotspots. Once into Tucoman international airport outside Panama City we have to undertake a second airport COVID test which costs a further fifty bucks. We then have to go into quarantine until these results are known – if positive then a further fourteen days quarantine in a government nominated hotel is legally binding and enforced. Arriving travellers also have to show proof of personal medical insurance in the event of COVID sickness – and there is the rub, no travel insurance provider will offer insurance cover for COVID if your Government advises against all but essential travel to your destination country – and nowadays no medical cover is available for the virus even if your government does not issue restricted travel guidance. Here in the UK, when returning from Panama, it’s again mandatory fourteen days quarantine upon arrival – so that’s potentially a total of one month in quarantine just to check if Sänna is ok tied in her moorings.
In terms of the Panama Canal, there are now transit restriction for vessels under sixty-five feet. Non-commercial vessels must transit in rafts of threes using their own mooring lines and fenders, there is a minimum requirement of seven crew – three skippers and four line handlers who must have quarantined for fourteen days beforehand and be tested virus free. No canal staff can assist except the designated pilot who must be social distanced onboard the rafted crafts, he must even be provided with his own toilet heads facilities. The Panama Canal is the lifeblood of their economy, the president and canal authority will ensure it remains open and safe for commercial traffic under any circumstances. Our main problem is that there are large numbers of small vessels such as yachts on the Caribbean side of the canal waiting to transit into the pacific, but not so on the pacific side waiting to pass into the Caribbean. The annual Arc rally from Europe brings many sailboats into the Caribbean who plan to take the milk-run across the pacific, also from the eastern seaboard of the US. There are far fewer making the transit in the opposite direction, we almost certainly will have to wait for the new canal rules to be relaxed or try to find two other vessels who are able to raft up with us. In the meantime, we need to somehow keep a keen eye on Sänna to make sure she’s safe and up to scratch – it does not take long for maintenance issues to mount when a vessel is left unattended.
Every sailboat skipper will tell you that things onboard a laid-up vessel deteriorate in hot, humid conditions when locked up closed. Expensive batteries run down, electronics and electrical connections corrode and the constant nightmare of creeping mould is prevalent, all of which are controllable under normal maintenance conditions. Continual maintenance is the absolute key to vessel safety, poor maintenance is the cause of many failed engines, dead navigational electronics and none functioning electrical systems – most coastguard rescuers will tell you this. Unless adverse storm conditions batter your vessel into submission then bad vessel maintenance is generally the root cause of most SOS mayday calls if it’s not a medical emergency. Continual maintenance is a vital ongoing commitment to keep Sänna seaworthy and safe, it takes over seventy percent of our time undertaking preventive maintenance and fixing things that do go wrong – in this way we keep Sänna in a high state of seaworthiness for long-distance voyaging, it’s a key element of safety and why we are still alive. We have never left Sänna for this amount of time, when we left in March she was in peak readiness with only the replacement of our long-suffering anchor chain and dinghy planned. We do not know what we will find when we eventually get to return to Panama.
At this moment in time there are over sixteen-thousand new COVID cases a day in the UK as a whole, an average rate per one-hundred thousand of nearly eleven-hundred and a growth infection rate R of around 1.4. There has been over seven-hundred thousand virus infections to date with nearly forty-four thousand deaths. By comparison, in Panama there are right now around six-hundred new infections a day, in terms of the Panamanian population that’s fourteen per one-hundred thousand and an R rate of approximately 1.0 which means the infection is largely under control compared to Europe. Over one-hundred and twenty-four thousand Panamanians have been infected with nearly two-thousand five hundred deaths to date. In neighbouring Colombia it’s far worse, in Costa Rica and nearby Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala the virus situations are less and appear to be scaling down. However, crossing those maritime borders in a sailboat is currently fraught with health controls, restrictions and limits… experienced long-distance sailors will know these port-of-entry procedures well.
Those of you who are mariners will be aware of the significance of the Yellow Q flag, which must be flown from the mast of every ocean-going vessel entering a foreign port for the first time. This is a requirement going back over three hundred or so years, when old sailing ships brought the black plague, rats, venereal diseases, smallpox and a host of other deadly ailments that decimated local populations in their sometimes thousands. Vessel health quarantine is still a legal requirement in most countries in line with international maritime law. For many years we’ve routinely hoisted our yellow Q quarantine flag alongside the courtesy flag of the country we are entering. The courtesy flag must be flown above our own national flag, below their courtesy flag the Q flag must be hoisted to signify to the port authorities that we have not yet completed immigration, customs and vessel health inspections. When procedures have been completed, and proof of health certification acknowledged, our Q flag can be taken down and then we are free to land from our vessel. Only in some countries do these health inspections actually take place – sometimes, we’ve found, to rigorously solicit a bribe or illicit backhand payment (Philippines, Thailand, Egypt…) but generally to genuinely ascertain that Sänna and ourselves are disease free (Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Yemen…). To date we’ve thought nothing much of the Q flag formality, now it’s going to be a crucial and enforced requirement for the foreseeable future whenever we enter a foreign port.
Never in a million years did we foresee that we might one day be deemed a plague or deadly virus carrying vessel, never in 2020 did we ever think this.
Dave – October 2020
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