The Caribbean and Bahamas became a sea of frustration as the Covid-19 pandemic spread. One by one, islands shut down to protect their limited health-care systems. Trinidad, where many boaters haul out for hurricane season, closed its borders March 16. The British Virgin Islands shut its airports and seaports March 23. The Bahamas cut itself off from the world March 27. Hank George, president of the Salty Dawg Sailing Association, heard about the first closures from some of the 800 members of the nonprofit, which was founded 11 years ago by cruisers who wanted to sail their own boats to the Caribbean. The members who contacted him had originally planned to sail back to America with the group’s annual rally in May, when crew were scheduled to fly in and help.
“We knew we weren’t going to be able to do that rally,” George says. “But as it was unfolding, we realized there were going to be a lot of stranded sailors, including inexperienced crew with underequipped boats that had never done an ocean passage. We needed to do something to help them.”
When the group announced that it was creating mini-rallies out of St. Thomas, bound for the U.S. mainland and Canada—the Homeward Bound Flotilla—250 boats initially signed up. The Salty Dawg team of 23 volunteers readied themselves to provide shoreside assistance, with boats leaving every Sunday from April 12 through May 20. In the end, Salty Dawg’s team helped all 184 boats that participated to get back. “Some of these people were used to only sailing for a day at a time between islands,” George says. “Now they were looking at an ocean passage with one, maybe two people on board.” It was arguably the largest evacuation of boaters in modern history. These are some of their stories.
Aboard the Beneteau 381
Altair Attorney Will Viss had promised his boss he’d be back to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by early June. The 38-year-old’s Caribbean cruise had been three years in the making. He’d bought a 1999 Beneteau 381 and taught himself to handle her on Chesapeake Bay. “I did a couple of offshore trips to Bermuda, and then I thought the time was right,” he says. “I sailed to the Caribbean and spent a year there. That’s how I ended up in St. John in April.”
When Covid-19 struck, Viss wanted to get to the boat’s homeport in Havre de Grace, Maryland. He wasn’t nervous about the passage; he’d done Gulf Stream crossings, and his longest run had been about 10 days from Bermuda to Sint Maarten. And he’d been sailing solo in the islands since September. He heard about Salty Dawg’s Homeward Bound Flotilla, and at first, didn’t want anything to do with it.
“I thought these rallies were expensive and for people with fancy boats.” But this time, Salty Dawg was waiving all fees. Viss figured it couldn’t hurt to get extra intel for free. “All I had to do was give them an email address, and I started getting very detailed weather updates, and a lot of information about which boats were leaving at which time,” he says. “I could also track, on their website, the boats that were leaving. I could see the boats that left a week ahead of me and how they were doing.”
Even so, he still wasn’t a joiner. While other boaters left St. Thomas together on Sundays, Viss left early on a Saturday. “I was a day or two ahead of the fleet,” he says. “The weather forecast was perfect. It was supposed to be light winds all the way home. I was going to read for 10 or 12 days.” Four days later, Tropical Storm Arthur formed near Cuba.
Aboard the Marlow Explorer 77 Ben’s Barge
Ed Pollner and Becca Dinda live aboard their Marlow Explorer 77 Ben’s Barge. Since Pollner left his job as an oil trader, he and Dinda have cruised about 25,000 miles. They got the Marlow two years ago, cruised her up the Eastern Seaboard and then decided to go as far south as they could.
When Covid-19 struck, they were in the Virgins and couldn’t get crew to help them return home. They also didn’t want to run back with Bahamian waters closed. Sure, the 3,000 gallons of fuel that Ben’s Barge carries would give them 2,000 miles of range at 8 knots, but it was just the two of them aboard. “We could deal with that if we had to,” Pollner says, “but between that and the Bahamas being closed, it would have been a big undertaking.”
They thought about waiting out Covid-19 in St. Thomas, but then decided they wanted to be near major medical centers, just in case. Pollner had heard about the Salty Dawg flotilla and emailed Hank George, asking if a stinkpot could join the sailors. Ben’s Barge left St. Thomas on April 21 with eight or nine other boats. None had written permission to enter Bahamian waters, where they were bound. And the Bahamian government wasn’t messing around. By then, a British cruise ship had been denied entry after five passengers tested positive for Covid-19. The last thing Pollner wanted was to get boarded in the Bahamas. That had happened to him once before. “There were about six kids, none of them older than about 25, all of them packing Glocks,” he recalls. “That was very scary for us.”
When he got 11 miles from the Bahamian border this time around, he was more than a little nervous. “I was texting Salty Dawg,” he says. The message: “Guys, we have to go this way. You have to help us.”
Aboard the Island Packet 31 Little Martha
Tommy Cook, who works in online retail, and his wife, Emilie, an attorney, decided last year that they wanted to sail to the Caribbean. The couple bought an Island Packet 31, spent a few months fixing her up, and then took off from
Jekyll Island, Georgia, with plans to explore the Bahamas. The couple left the dock November 15. Their only sailing experience was a few hours in St. Andrew Sound. “We just thought we would go to the Exumas, and if we liked it, we’d keep going,” Emilie says. By February, they were feeling pretty darn good. They decided to follow new friends down to the Caribbean. They’d made it as far as the Dominican Republic when Covid-19 emerged. “I remember sitting at the poker tables in Luperon and hearing rumors about it,” Emilie says. “Then it really became an issue for us cruising. We went to a national park in the Dominican Republic and got permission to stay there. You’re usually only supposed to stay for two nights, but we stayed eight. We couldn’t go anywhere else in the country.”
Soon enough, they headed for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. But other boats they were traveling with, with Canadian couples aboard, were denied entry. The others sailed on to the Virgin Islands while the Cooks stayed—and fast became miserable.
In the pouring rain, during their last chance to leave the marina ahead of lockdown, Emilie took a nasty fall in the road and broke her left elbow. Three days after she got out of the hospital from surgery, the Cooks knew they weren’t going to be okay in Puerto Rico. They could not leave the boat, where there was no air conditioning, and they weren’t allowed ashore for supplies. They thought about heading for home, but the Bahamas had closed its waters. Their friends encouraged them to head east.
“They said everything was fine in the Virgins, and we could sit at anchor there in a good breeze,” Tommy says. And so, they set off for Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas. “Backing out of the slip, I was trying to keep us off the boat next to us with my little gimp arm,” Emilie says. “I was in pain.” Tommy was going to have to singlehand it.
Usually, when Viss does a long-haul singlehanded sail, his father sends him weather updates by satellite phone. This time, Viss gave the number to Salty Dawg. He didn’t think they’d ever use it. “I started getting messages,” he says. “It was strange because I didn’t know any of these people at all. They said, ‘We’ve been tracking you. We have your location. We’re also developing a storm that’s tracking to your southwest. You’re heading to Cape Hatteras, and so is the storm. You need a strategy to get home.’”
It was Tropical Storm Arthur. The system, which formed near Cuba, was heading toward the Florida Straits. From there, it would become a depression north of the Bahamas and drift toward North Carolina’s Outer Banks. But nobody knew that yet. “My first reaction was, I’m doing fine, thank you very much. I’ll take it into consideration,” Viss says. Salty Dawg’s volunteers said the storm could turn straight at him. They wanted him to put on speed and beat it to the mainland. Offshore, Altair averages 6 knots with only some sail up, making her easier to handle. Salty Dawg wanted Viss to stay above 7 knots for the rest of the journey. “That means putting up a lot more sail, and over the next six or seven days, I had to have that strain on the rig,” Viss says. “It changes the boat’s movement. It changes everything.”
He slept less. He was physically tired from the boat heeling. His satphone buzzed with updates. By day five, Viss was about 500 miles off Bermuda. Winds were steady at 30 to 35 knots. Seas were growing. And sometime before sunrise the next day, there was a change. “I could feel that the boat had a new vibration,” he says. “I stepped out to take a look and heard the clinking. That’s when my heart sank. I looked up at the mast, and the shroud had snapped off. It was just swinging loose.”
Aboard Ben’s Barge
From her home on the mid-Atlantic coast, retired chemist Mindy Piuk was receiving incoming messages from guys like Ed Pollner aboard Ben’s Barge. She’d sailed with Salty Dawg in the past, but her Caliber 40 was in Europe. She was boatless in the States, which meant she could volunteer as the Homeward Bound Flotilla’s shoreside coordinator. The job, she says, is “whatever it needs to be. In a normal rally, if anyone has questions or problems, they contact the shore-side coordinator and we get them pointed in the right direction.”
For this flotilla, things were a lot more hectic. The team had one guy whose entire job was to track boats. Five people answered emails from boaters 24/7. There was a team for emergencies, another team working with the U.S. government on entry procedures, and a whole other team talking to the Bahamian government. “Everything was changing from week to week,” Piuk says of the Bahamas in particular. “Our team had to talk to them about every single boat that was operating nearby.”
Ben’s Barge was in that group of about nine boats as it approached the Bahamian border. “We were getting very frustrated,” Pollner says. “They made it clear that without permission from Nassau, you were not allowed to transit Bahamian waters. Pollner had no choice but to keep going, headed for Clarencetown on Long Island. Salty Dawg had been told that it was okay for Ben’s Barge to anchor and top off the tanks for a fast run home, but nobody would put that permission in writing. “We needed to stop both for sleep and fuel,” Pollner says, explaining that the couple had been resting in two-hour shifts for four days.
The Bahamas, at that point, had issued a list of marinas that were acceptable places to refuel. Clarencetown was on the list. “But the guy that runs it just wasn’t letting anyone in without a piece of paper,” says Pollner. The Bahamian government could have made his life miserable, so he just wasn’t having it.”
Aboard Little Martha
Things were better in St. Thomas than in Puerto Rico when the Cooks landed at Charlotte Amalie. They got groceries and were ecstatic to be at anchor with a breeze. The 48-hour sail down had been their longest ever and included dead-calm conditions that let them motor, so Emilie could rest her elbow. Still, they wanted to get home. They heard about the Homeward Bound Flotilla on a Facebook page for Virgin Islands cruisers. “We were looking at each other and doing the math,” Tommy says. “This was going to be nine or ten days out at sea. Were we really comfortable doing this?”
“Our boat was not prepped for heavy weather,” Emilie adds. “It was never our intention to do a trip like this. We didn’t have the experience that most people would have before undertaking that kind of a sail. On the website, they were asking for AIS identification, for your Iridium number. We had none of that.”
Through a friend of Salty Dawg, they got an Iridium Go inside of 24 hours. They had an AIS receiver, so they could see other boats on the screen, but they had no way to transmit their position. They had an autopilot and a VHF radio, but no radar. They had a chartplotter, but no charts. They spent the next three weeks reading everything they could find and stocking spare parts. By the time they left Charlotte Amalie to head for home, Emilie was out of her elbow splint. She took the helm and Tommy tended the sails. For the first five days, they had a great downwind ride.
On day five they learned Tropical Storm Arthur was brewing. They were heading for the Old Bahama Channel route, which runs along Cuba’s north shore, setting boaters up for a hard-right turn north to Florida. “The plan became to anchor off of Great Inagua in the Bahamas and wait a couple of days. Salty Dawg coordinated with the Bahamian government to allow that safe passage,” Emilie says. When they got there, they found four other boats waiting. They felt immense relief that they wouldn’t have to tangle with the storm. Or so they thought.
It is possible to sail without a shroud, but Altair’s was busted on the starboard side, and the wind was coming from starboard. The 50-foot mast was straining. There were 85 gallons of fuel aboard. Viss had a range of 600 miles with his 44-hp Westerbeke, and he was 500 miles from Bermuda. “But there were a number of problems,” he says, including steep waves. “When the boat slides down the front of the waves, it’s moving a lot faster than the propeller is turning. That’s really bad for the transmission.”
On top of worrying that he’d blow out his engine, Viss realized he’d picked up bad fuel in St. Thomas. Changing the fuel filters didn’t help. “This is where Salty Dawg had a brilliant idea,” he says. A shoreside volunteer suggested that Viss take a spinnaker halyard that goes to the top of the mast, run it down to the boat’s port side, and winch it tight. That line helped to support the mast, which gave Viss the confidence to put up more sail and gain speed.
Arthur kept pounding the Beneteau, but Viss made it through. The storm was drenching the U.S. Eastern Seaboard when he got within 200 feet of land. “It was early on a Monday morning and I was awake most of that night. I knew the land was there; I could see it on the charts,” he says. “But I couldn’t see any lights. The Salty Dawg team had notified the Coast Guard that I was coming in. There was a big cutter parked outside of the bay. That’s when I knew I was going to make it home.”
Aboard Ben’s Barge
Pollner and Dinda had no choice. The marina at Clarencetown wouldn’t let the couple take on fuel, so they left for Staniel Cay, where Ben’s Barge could not drop the hook or tie up, but could take on enough fuel to reach the U.S. mainland. And that’s exactly what they did. “The weather was perfect for us,” says Pollner, who was in one of the first groups to leave St. Thomas, prior to the formation of Arthur. He had a friend with a boat at Hinckley Yacht Services in Stuart, Florida, so that’s where they went. They hauled out and left the boat for a month before cruising up the U.S. coast to visit family.
It wasn’t until he got to Montauk, New York, in late June that Pollner finally felt free of Covid-19’s worst stresses. “It’s night and day between the South and the Northeast,” he says. “People are taking it much more seriously up here.”
Aboard Little Martha
After waiting out the weather, the first day of sailing off Great Inagua was fine for the Cooks—until Arthur made some moves the storm models hadn’t predicted. “We got an email,” Emilie says. “It’s not lifting. You’re heading straight for it, and it’s going to get ugly.”
They were in the Old Bahama Channel, and they had nowhere to go but onward. The first real squall hit Little Martha their second night out. “We had just a shred of sail out, and it still overpowered us,” Emilie says. Winds were 45 knots. There was thunder and shooting rain.
Around 7 o’clock the next morning, Emilie heard another boat from the flotilla over the VHF radio. It had a single sideband radio and radar. By this time, Little Martha had got turned around in the waves and wind. “I called out to the other vessel, and I asked if they could see this cell on their radar, how we could sail out of it,” Emilie says. “They answered and shone their spotlight from their deck so we could reorient.”
The Cooks motored through that harrowing night. The next morning, the report from Salty Dawg was that up ahead, things were miserable. “I said, ‘Oh no—how can it be more miserable?’ Then the Salty Dawg communicator emailed us and said they were following us,” Emilie says. “He said your boat is little, but she is mighty. You’re going to be okay.”
“He calmed us down,” Tommy adds. “He assured us that he had eyes on us, and that if we can just slow down, the weather would pass. So, that’s what we did.” They had been on the boat for 12 days at that point and wanted nothing more than to get off. They ended up docking at Fort Pierce, Florida. Boats were everywhere. Beaches were open. The normalcy seemed bizarre. “Salty Dawg had all these experienced sailors who gave us great advice,” Tommy says. “It was probably the single greatest learning experience of my life.”
This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.