It was early April during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak and word of my upcoming yacht delivery had made it to family members, who reached out to implore that I decline an offer to deliver a boat up the East Coast, from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to Stamford, Connecticut. Their logic was sound. As a community, they said, we have a collective responsibility to lock down.
By this time, the pandemic had already changed the world, having forced shelter-in-place orders, emptied grocery store shelves and cost millions around the world their jobs. A heightened sense of fear was palpable in daily life. I feared most for my employment. During the summer I run a wilderness fly-fishing expedition company in Alaska, but the virus had attacked my business: Bookings were down 75 percent from the previous year. While I was nervous about traveling, earning a paycheck while quarantining on a yacht felt like the right choice at the time, provided I managed the risk effectively.
My lifelong friend Scott Hartmann, a captain at the yacht management and delivery company Venture Yachting in Connecticut, had asked me to help out with the delivery of a Pershing 5X. I had been working with Venture in the shoulder seasons and this was my fifth delivery with Scott in the past year. He and Oliver Calloway, the owner of Venture, were quarantined together in Florida in preparation for the delivery season. While others were partying on boats and crowded Florida beaches, they were taking no risks. Oliver had not seen his family in three weeks. He would be traveling alongside our Pershing on a 54-foot Riviera with Venture’s Brandon Stenzel.
“Unrivaled job losses accelerate across the U.S.” That was the headline in The New York Times on the morning I left my home in Colorado to catch a flight to Florida. I had arrived at the airport in Denver looking like I was prepared to rob a bank. Wearing a hat, glasses, facemask, gloves and a shoulder-holstered bottle of hand sanitizer, I approached the gate, which resembled a barren ghost town, only without the tumbleweeds. The attendant announced that only 11 of the flight’s 180 seats were occupied. I disinfected my seat, armrest and tray table before settling in. There wasn’t another person within 10 feet of me. I shut my eyes and thought about the open ocean.
I arrived at Seminole Marina in Fort Lauderdale in time to help put provisions in proper stowage holds. We had enough supplies to isolate ourselves for over a week. Fortunately, we were free of time constraints since the boat’s owner was concerned for our safety. If you’ve ever done a run from the Southeast to the Northeast, you know there is always something that can go wrong. Deliveries are all about logistics and revolve around things such as weather and mechanical issues. We figured Covid-19 was just another factor to adapt to and manage.
The next day, sunny skies and a 9 a.m. departure were a welcome change from our normal schedule of alpine starts, but we only had 200 nautical miles to cover on the first day in a boat that cruises at 28-plus knots. We entered the blue waters of the Gulf Stream in the warm Florida sun. The path to St. Augustine, Florida, was paved with calm seas and light winds and we made port in the late afternoon.
The dock attendants wore face masks and gloves as they caught our lines. We took on 400 gallons of diesel after having established a system for fueling that involved excessive amounts of hand sanitizer. While we generally dine out at each port, that was not an option on this trip. We hit the galley and cooked up halibut steaks and spinach pappardelle.
On the morning of day two, while en route to Charleston, South Carolina, we met up with Oliver and Brandon who had run through the night in the Riviera. We rendezvoused near a Navy tower to do some fishing. The Pershing is not a sportfishing boat but we were in search of something edible so we could avoid grocery stops. Scott got us close to the tower and put the throttles in neutral. My jig plummeted 80 feet and struck the ocean floor. On the second drop, I felt the weight of a fish and set the hook. After several minutes I saw the wide head, brown back and white sides of a cobia. As the fish fought back, Scott approached wearing a landing glove and carrying a bottle of vodka. I lifted the fish and guided the leader to Scott’s hand. He heaved the 20-pound, 44-inch fish onto the swim platform and I poured vodka into its gills. Cobia are notorious for thrashing; alcohol in their gills will subdue them quickly.
Winds increased as we continued north. As swells pounded the boat, we reduced speed. Suddently, the swim platform alarm was triggered, so we checked it out. It seemed okay, so we continued on. The Riviera approached from astern 20 minutes later. We didn’t want them to overtake our faster boat, so I pushed the throttles forward, but when our speed didn’t increase, I pulled back while Scott checked the platform. About 45 minutes later, Scott cut wires to override the heat sensor and we were able to raise it. We then let the Riviera take the lead as we rode comfortably in its wake.
As we entered Charleston Harbor the waves turned to ripples. We tied up in the marina and put cold beverages in our hands to celebrate a safe day. Here, and in other marinas, protocol had been put in place to decrease the risk of transmitting the virus. Credit card numbers were called into the office for fuel, and provisions were brought dockside from the ship’s store.
A stop in Charleston typically includes restaurant exploration, but not on this trip. Fortunately, we were well-stocked with provisions. Skirt steak, cobia fillets and grilled asparagus were on the dinner menu that evening. While we would have liked to see friends who live in Charleston, the risk was not worth it. Some boaters strolled down the dock with little regard for social distancing measures, but we stayed isolated on board. With blinds drawn, we ate our fill until we retired.
The morning came fast as the South Carolina sunshine bounced off the Italian hull of our Pershing. We pulled the lines and got under way. Dolphins surfaced around the boat as we approached the inlet, where glass-calm seas enabled us to throttle up to a comfortable cruising speed. As we passed Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Fear in North Carolina, the swell picked up astern, yet the Pershing’s rounded bow handled the following seas well. We plowed through the backs of the waves for over 4 hours on the approach to Morehead City, North Carolina.
Looming storm clouds and stiff winds were present on our arrival. We took on fuel and cleaned the boat as squalls moved over us. We snuck over to the Riviera for a nightcap and to check the forecast. Because the weather was taking a turn for the worse, we would run straight to Connecticut before the storm moved in.
The moon illuminated our path to the Intracoastal Waterway at 6 a.m. The Volvo IPS drives propelled us at 30 knots through Pamlico Sound into winding cypress groves. We continued north through Coinjock, North Carolina, doing our best to time bridge openings. Because of the pandemic, we had to carefully plan fuel stops, calling in advance to make sure the docks were open. We took on fuel at Atlantic Yacht Basin in Chesapeake, Virginia, before the 2 p.m. Great Bridge opening. I holstered the diesel nozzle and applied hand sanitizer before entering the salon. This fuel would carry us for the next 9 hours until Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Kammerman’s Marina had agreed to fuel us after hours
We moved through the locks bound for Norfolk, Virginia. As we neared the open ocean, the last railroad bridge delayed our voyage. A confused train moved back and forth for more than 30 minutes while we sat at idle. Eventually, the train picked a direction, we passed the bridge and cruised past the Navy refitting yard. Slips where active ships typically made port were vacant. None of us had ever seen so many vessels deployed.
At 5 p.m. Scott had been at the helm for nearly 12 hours, so it was my turn on the sticks. I adjusted our heading east of Chincoteague Shoals with storm clouds looming behind. Just before 7 p.m., my eyes focused on the radar as lightning bolts drew near. Before long, a torrential downpour overtook the Pershing and overwhelmed its windshield wipers. We slowed our speed, focusing on light skies in the distance.
The storm passed and we caught the last rays of sun for the day. That’s when the autopilot stopped functioning. I brought the boat back to neutral and we attempted to reset the system, but with no luck. Hand steering would be our reality for the next nine hours; I would use my iPad Navionics app for primary navigation. I pushed the throttles up to speed as the moon rose to the east. A monstrous beacon of light pressed into the sky and with minimal cloud cover, this “pink moon” would be a valuable aid to navigation during the overnight run on a course that was 5 to 10 miles offshore.
Few vessels roamed the seas that night. As we drew close to Atlantic City, the gambling mecca guided us toward the channel entrance. Even though most of the casinos were closed due to the virus outbreak, the city was bright with lights. We began to feel the chilly temperatures of the Northeast, so we piled on layers as we came into Kammerman’s and took on fuel. After an 11 p.m. dinner, we cleaned our plates and got back under way.
I set our heading for New York’s Ambrose Channel and got comfortable at the helm with an energy drink in hand. After several hours we neared the entrance to New York City, where we saw a yellow blaze of lights to the East. It was a floating city of cruise ships, container ships and commercial vessels, all at anchor and waiting for the morning light, or for the virus to pass.
We moved up the channel, past Lady Liberty under the New York City bridges and Rikers Island, and into Long Island Sound. The final push through 17 miles of the Sound went fast, and before long we glided through the breakwall at Stamford Harbor. At 4 a.m., we slid into a slip. We had made decent time traveling 1,127 nautical miles in 91 hours.
We spent the next morning getting the boat into pristine condition. Now that we were back on shore, reminders of the pandemic were constant. My parents, who live close by, came to say hello and offer me a pair of deck boots in exchange for Cobia fillets. But we had to meet on the dock and stand 10 feet apart. It felt like we were doing a drug deal as I slid the frozen fish over to them.
When I returned to the boat, I donned a fresh facemask, clean gloves and prepared for travel. I wanted to avoid big city airports, so Oliver drove me to the small airport in Westchester, New York. The security line is typically short, but with Covid-19 it was nonexistent.
Prior to the delivery I had quarantined in my home in Colorado. Now I was destined to serve another two weeks in isolation to keep others safe. This was one consequence of accepting the job, but I was good with that. In the end, this delivery proved that with proper precautions, traveling by boat could be done safely. And the experience had been incredibly satisfying. While I had missed socializing in ports and exploring new places, the oceanic isolation was just what the doctor ordered during a strange time in the world.
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.