LeAnn Morris Pliske, stuck at home in Fort Lauderdale with her husband, their 12- and 13-year-old kids, and a couple of dogs, was the personification of pretty much every American’s psyche this past summer. “I was losing my mind,” she says. “My kids were stir-crazy. We had to get out of here.”
They all got tests showing they were negative for Covid-19, packed up that paperwork along with their passports, the Bahamas health visas that they obtained online, and their usual customs forms, and headed to the islands aboard their 45-foot Hatteras sportfisherman Half Fast. A few hours and 50 nautical miles later, they were legally off the coast of Bimini with three weeks’ worth of supplies, and with aquamarine water and open space all around them.
“It’s dead flat with no topography to speak of, and there are no big hotels,” Pliske says, adding that every bar and restaurant was closed for anything other than take-out meals. Even so, nobody in her family cared one bit. “The water and the snorkeling, that’s all amazing, and it’s why you go to the Bahamas anyway.”
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have been weighing the need for economic activity against the need for public health measures to contain the novel coronavirus. This balancing act has been particularly precarious in nations like the Bahamas, where tourism reportedly accounts for more than 60 percent of gross domestic product. The Bahamas was still recovering from 2019’s devastating Hurricane Dorian when Covid-19 struck, creating the potential for another catastrophic situation. The biggest hospital in the capital city of Nassau—which has about 275,000 residents—has just over 400 beds in total.
To protect the health system from being swamped, shutdowns throughout the Bahamas began less than a week after the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in the islands this past March. Various restrictions for residents continued throughout the summer, being loosened or tightened island by island as cases emerged. Toward the end of July, after attempting to reopen for tourism, the Bahamas closed its borders to most Americans. As of mid-August, facing a spike in Covid-19 cases, the Bahamas banned all international flights except for emergencies and restricted hotels to essential staff only. The Pan American Health Organization reported the spike in Bahamas cases was similar to spikes in Turks and Caicos, Aruba, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica—all of which had also just tried to reopen their borders for tourism.
But there is an option in the current Bahamas plan that makes it possible for Americans like Pliske and her family to visit responsibly. With the right paperwork showing they are Covid-free, visitors who arrive by private boat are still welcome—as long as they have a place to quarantine for 14 days. And a private boat, according to the Bahamian government, is an acceptable place to quarantine. Or, as Pliske explains it, to exist in a way that is actually fun for the adults and kids alike. “If we didn’t have this boat, we’d be divorced by now,” she says with a laugh. “It was either we all get on the boat and go to the Bahamas, or we’re going to lose it.”
More than a few Americans desperate for an escape have been watching the Bahamas and wondering if the plan the nation implemented for boaters might serve as a roadmap for the Caribbean to follow this winter. The Caribbean cruising season typically starts around Christmastime for bareboaters, charterers of crewed yachts and snowbirds on their own boats.
“As of late August, about a month after private boats were allowed entry into the Bahamas with onboard quarantines, it was hard to tell whether allowing bareboaters might also have a minimal impact. The Moorings reopened its Exumas base briefly in mid-July but then had to shut down until at least October 1, given the Bahamian government’s ban on commercial flights, a Moorings spokeswoman told Soundings.
But for private boats or charter yachts with crew—especially those welcoming guests by private jet—the Bahamas approach was looking more and more like a plausible option for other islands.
“They’ve enacted very strict rules that you’re there for the cruising grounds and not to go into the local businesses,” says Daphne d’Offay, senior charter manager with Ocean Independence, who regularly books crewed charters in the Bahamas. “There won’t be cruise ship tourists as usual going in and out of all of these restaurants and shops—we think, right now—so if that works in the Bahamas, then that is how we’re thinking about our model.”
And who wants to see all those cruise ship tourists anyway? Pliske says that during the time her family spent in the Bimini area, they encountered boats mostly the size of Half Fast, along with a
handful of larger yachts. Government officials told Pliske’s family that if they saw other people on a sand spit, they should go to another one. She was happy to do so, and her family had no trouble maintaining that level of social distancing for the entire three weeks they were there.
The experience was different from what the family usually enjoys in the Bahamas—the boisterous, fun-filled raft-ups and fish fry nights on the beaches were nowhere to be found—but the lack of gatherings only made her feel safer when she had to don a mask and go ashore for food or other essential supplies. “The Bahamians definitely aren’t messing around,” Pliske says. “I respect that.”
The downside to the strict protocols is that even with a small influx of boaters, many Bahamian businesses will continue to struggle economically. Bahamian marinas, for instance, have been feeling the pinch of far fewer visitors. In late August, Browns Marina in Bimini should have been packed with boats coming and going in the harbor all day long, but the manager who was on hand to answer the phone told Soundings there hadn’t been a single boat visiting for about two weeks.
“It’s kind of tough,” he said, adding that if the Bahamas could welcome more boaters like the Pliske family who follow the safety regulations, it would greatly help to ease the economic pain. “The majority wear masks. Most are adhering to all the protocols. For the most part, it’s been all good. Send them over.”
Pliske says the only reason her family returned to Florida at all was the start of the kids’ school year. She doesn’t expect that problem to remain for long, though; she now has a Bahamian cellphone number, and she’s having a new router installed aboard Half Fast. Soon, she’ll be able to run her boat’s online access through the Bahamian telecommunications network.
“We had an internet issue, or else we’d still be there,” she says. “I didn’t have enough bandwidth for school. I have a guy working on it. As soon as we get it figured out, we’re gone.”
This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.