We spent a couple more days on Tahuata before sailing on to Hiva Oa, the next island to the North, where we could re-provision, order pizza, and top up our Diesel. The following morning, we were intercepted by the standoff-ish Gendarme (police) who requested that we report to his office that afternoon with our clearance papers from Mangareva (Gambiers). The officials were clearly concerned about our recent movements. Rumors in the cruising fleet of Atuona (principal town of Hiva Oa) were starting to spread. Eviction? Quarantine? A meeting of all yachts with the mayor of Hiva Oa was scheduled for that evening, March 19.
19:00, March 19, 2020 the mayor made a declaration: All cruisers must leave French Polynesia within 72 hours! A special flight to expatriate the crews was being arranged. Yachts could be left at anchor in the bay. The local boatyard was fully booked. No more hard-stand storage available. Of course, this mandate created a huge uproar amongst the 20 or so yachts and the meeting quickly degenerated with scores of unanswered questions complicated by incompetent translators, lack of leadership, and a particularly unsavory journalist. The edict was so outrageous that Cindy and I adjourned early to enjoy a fine glass of Chilean red aboard the boat while the crowd ashore worked themselves into quite a lather.
19:00, March 20, 2020: New Plan! No yachts may leave the harbor without special permission from the Mayor or High Commissioner in Papeete. All crews are hereby confined to their yachts for the following 15 days. No shore access. No swimming. No socializing between Yachts. Total Lockdown. Details regarding groceries, taking water, fuel, etc. would be forthcoming within the following few days. And so we began our 15-day quarantine in Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands.
As promised, Team Covid Atuona (PCS) worked out a plan whereby cruisers could order groceries and potable water via email to Sandra, a local yacht agent. Fuel and propane would not be available. Swimming within 5 meters of the yacht was permitted. Neither people nor their pets were allowed ashore. The shore-side shower was off limits. Fishing from dinghies was prohibited as was visiting other yachts. All dinghy traffic required pre-approval. Permission to depart French Polynesia or sail to Papeete could be granted only by the High Commissioner in Papeete. Oh, and by the way, all alcohol and tobacco sales were suspended. We had lost our freedom overnight!
Over the following days, we were pleasantly surprised by the communal spirit of our fellow inmates. A few yachts organized a morning “net” on VHF channel 68 for information sharing. Marie on the French yacht “Jeronimo” volunteered to be the primary information conduit with the shore-based authorities. Pazzo delivered a daily weather forecast in English and French. Other yachts took turns with net-controller duty. One yacht had a couple of doctors aboard and offered their services free of charge to the cruising community. Dutch dentist Peter on “Liberte” made his services available to all. Sandra opened up her shoreside WiFi to the fleet and a particularly switched-on Dutch catamaran (Zwerfcat) set up a relay access point to extend Sandra’s WiFi to most of the fleet. After a week or so, we organized a VHF channel 68 happy hour where we could visit, and share stories. For the most part all our fellow confinees followed the rules laid down by Mark and Team Covid Atuona. Of course, we had a few tattletales who found it necessary to report any and all transgressions – primarily unauthorized dinghy traffic. Their fear, of course, was that such transgressions would extend the quarantine.
On the 5th day of lockdown, the High Commissioner in Papeete announced an extension of the quarantine to 25 days. I should add here that the quarantine applied not only to the yachts scattered throughout French Polynesia, but to the residents as well. The stay-at-home order for residents, however, permitted trips to the grocery, pharmacy, and gas station. It was unclear why fuel was considered essential during a stay-home order. To their credit, this draconian lockdown was very effective. Throughout the entire 25 day quarantine, there were no reported cases of Corona in any of the outlying islands (Marquesas, Tuamotus, Gambiers, or Australs). The Society Islands (Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, etc.) limited their case count to under 100, a level their medical infrastructure could handle.
Throughout this first week of confinement, we were dealing with another complication. I was in danger of running out of medications to keep my heart ticking. We had planned for Chloe to bring a fresh 6-month supply when she visited us in the Tuamotus in April. Without Chloe as carrier pigeon, we needed a new plan for restocking my meds. We had plenty of time to sail to Hawaii where the meds were readily available. We also had time to sail to Papeete where the meds were (reportedly) also available. The only place where they were not available was Hiva Oa, where we were. All flights between French Polynesian islands were cancelled so a quick delivery was not possible. We had sufficient stock left to await a supply ship who promised (thru the local pharmacist) to make sure the meds would be on the next ship. To their credit, PCS and the French authorities even offered to organize a special delivery on a humanitarian flight from Papeete if the ship failed to deliver. We were overwhelmed at the efforts others went to on my behalf. We will always be grateful!
In summary, therefore, we had 3 options: (a) Stay put in quarantine and trust in the French Polynesian system to deliver my medications to Hiva Oa, (b) Sail to Papeete and join the boats there in quarantine or (c) sail to Hawaii. This was a difficult decision since our plan was to continue on to New Zealand before the start of the 2020 hurricane season in November. We badly wanted to stay on plan. However, all South Pacific Island nations, including New Zealand and Austrailia were closed to visitors. We had no way of knowing when they might re-open. Further, we would have loved to explore the Tuamotus and sail south to the Austral islands (both French Polynesia) as well. Again, we were blind as to when the F.P. authorities would allow inter-island travel. We preferred options (a) and (b) but option (c) was the only option offering certainty. Unfortunately, it also demanded a long ocean passage without John.
In the end, with ample stock of my medications aboard the boat, we elected to sail northwest to Hawaii – 2000 miles over 2 weeks. The Hawaii decision took us back the USA and all the benefits of weathering this storm in a first world country. Our heart-felt thanks to our shoreside advisory team of Brother John, Frederic Laffitte, and Skip Sims who coordinated our entry into Hawaii.
A big thank-you also to Alexa and Chantal on French yacht “Caracool” (sp?) who worked tirelessly with the authorities to secure my heart medications from Papeete.
So, on April 1 (like fools) we upped our anchor, battened down our hatches and motored thru the Atuona Fleet to a salute of horns, cheers and well-wishes that choked us up. Happily, a large pod of dolphins soon joined us to ease our sadness as we sailed around the end of Hiva-Oa and set our course for the Big Island of Hawaii.