This is not the way it was supposed to go for the Dutch barque Europa and her crew. They were supposed to be heading west across the South Pacific to revel in the splendors of Easter Island, Tahiti and Tonga as they sailed for Australia. Instead, after spending the southern summer enjoying the marvels of Antarctica, Covid-19 threw a monkey wrench into their plans.
In March 2020 the pandemic had just gone worldwide and the crew of the 184-foot steel-hulled barque was stuck in Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southern tip of South America, quarantined and unable to go ashore, with no end in sight.
Capt. Eric Kesteloo and his crew of 11 women and seven men from 12 countries were faced with a hard reality. They had managed to slip into Ushuaia just hours before the port was closed to get their guest crewmembers to the airport and out of the country, but the captain and permanent crew were marooned, not on land, but aboard their ship, anchored in the harbor, on their own island prison. Covid-19 prevented them from heading west with their usual complement of 45 paying voyage crew because no country would allow them to set foot on land anywhere.
So, a decision was made. The crew would return to their homeport in the Netherlands, about 10,000 miles away, on a 109-year-old tall ship, sailing, non-stop, relying only on the wind.
The Europa is a throwback to another time. She was built in 1911 in Hamburg, Germany, and spent the first 66 years of her life as a lightship at the mouth of the river Elbe. In 1986 she was brought to the Netherlands where an eight-year conversion turned her into a barque-rigged tall ship and sail training vessel for maritime school students and holiday seekers. Over the years, Europa has become known as the “Ocean Wanderer,” following the same trade winds of the 19th-century windjammers and an annual travel itinerary that since 2001 has always included the Antarctic, frequent refits in Cape Town, South Africa, and trips on the Southern, Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Among tall ships, Europa is known for piling on the canvas—often setting her stun and sky sails, a rare sight in the 21st century—and thrilling spectators as she enters port. But on March 17, 2020, as they were crossing the Drake Passage to Ushuaia on their way back from an Antarctic trip with passengers aboard, the ship’s crew learned of the coronavirus’ worldwide spread.
When it became clear that Europa needed to undertake a non-stop return to the Netherlands, Capt. Kesteloo and his crew took aboard enough supplies to last them for the 10,000 miles from Tierra Del Fuego to their homeport. They needed the supplies to get home, but despite Covid-19 precautions, they wondered if the articles they loaded for their survival might also bring the infection on board.
Kesteloo estimated the trip would take about two and a half months. This time there would be no stops at South Georgia Island, South Africa, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha or the Azores, nor any voyage crew to finance the trip or help them run the vessel.
On March 27, Europa left Ushuaia, entered the Beagle Channel and pointed her bow east for the Atlantic. Almost immediately, the captain and crew found sailing without voyage crew a shock. There were fewer dishes to be cleaned, but each of them also had to spend an hour a day at the helm, a job usually performed by guest crew. Their progress across the ocean varied from windless conditions and no boat speed to stormy conditions that delivered great progress.
A low-pressure system quickly got them 1,000 miles closer to their goal. Using a satellite phone, Kesteloo wrote on the ship’s weblog that the low was the best he had ever encountered. “The sailing has definitely been epic: winds gusting to 62 knots, waves up to more than 20 feet, with the occasional rogue due to a cross swell and current running against the wind,” he wrote. “Getting soaked on deck five times over while sail-handling or coiling lines that have been washed off the pins and overboard. Hand steering all the way. Sailing is fun!”
Sometimes the ship heeled so hard that the iPad used for navigation would switch from portrait mode to landscape mode, and the crew got so wet and the windy conditions lasted for so many days that none of them had any dry clothing left.
The low took them halfway into the dry, ordinarily windless Horse Latitudes, where early Spanish explorers would throw their horses over the side to lighten their ships. But the low also reminded them not to trifle with the sea. Kesteloo had made 60 crossings, but this would be the first time he would see his ship suffer damage. A thick steel freeing port was bent by a bigger than usual wave, which he wrote “sounded like a truck hitting the ship.”
But the highs and the lows made them feel alive. “We admire the everchanging nature of the ocean,” wrote Richard Simko, one of the ship’s expedition guides. “One moment a roaring beast, the next one a purring cat. We celebrate life because we feel this journey is living life to the fullest. Something we will proudly talk about to our relatives and friends back home over a glass of wine or pint of beer.”
When the weather was good, crew members occupied themselves by drying their clothes, reading books, catching fish, greasing masts, repairing sails and celebrating birthdays. Dead calms gave them the opportunity to hove-to, take a dip in the middle of the ocean and get a different perspective of their floating home. At night, when the skies were clear, stargazing was a team activity.
Almost two weeks after the “epic low,” the weather gave way to what American bosun Krista Swedberg called “epic slow,” leaving them stuck at 21 degrees latitude for almost an entire week. When the ship barely made 1 knot, they called it “snailing.”
Fresh winds allowed them to cover 17 degrees of latitude in just days. By now, their hands were getting rough again from working the wet ropes. By May 1, 4,000 miles had passed beneath Europa’s keel, but they were 10 days behind schedule, running out of fresh fruit and vegetables and 200 miles too far to the west. Despite that, when news arrived that the lockdown in Argentina had been extended into September, they knew they’d made the right decision to head for the Netherlands. “We are now chasing the wind to bring us closer to where we all want to be,” Simko wrote. “Home.”
In the Doldrums, the wind was fickle, often weak and frequently accompanied by monsoon rains. Capt. Kesteloo knew 55 gallons of diesel and 18 hours of motoring could get them into the northeasterly trade winds, but some on board felt the trip would be more meaningful if they covered the whole distance strictly under sail.
“Who am I to rob the romantics of this opportunity?” Kesteloo wrote on the weblog, but he personally thought it was silly to float around for days on end if the engine could get them to the wind. Some crew were anxious to get home to their families. He also knew the endless drifting was bad for morale. By the third windless day, he announced they would have a Doldrum Appreciation Day with no maintenance chores. He hoped sitting around with nothing to do might slow time even more and sway the romantics to use the ship’s Caterpillars.
Either way, there was no escaping the coronavirus. Although they knew they were safe aboard their ship, they worried about loved ones who might be exposed to the virus at home.
By May 30, after 7,500 miles of sailing, once again becalmed, headed in the wrong direction and with one of the crew needing to be back in the Netherlands by June 24, the engines were fired up. After 63 days of strictly sailing, the roar of the diesels sounded odd to the crew. Even those who had favored motoring from the beginning were saddened that they could not complete the trip under sail alone. After 22 hours under engine power they found the wind, set sails, lost the wind, motored again and found more wind.
On June 6, with 1,500 miles to go, the crew’s thoughts turned to their arrival. With some countries still on full lockdown, where would some of the non-Dutch members go? Might they have to quarantine for another two weeks?
On the approach to the English Channel, another low forced them to pull out their foulies and harnesses. With 40-knot winds, 50-knot gusts and waves and rain crossing over the deck, an hour at the exposed helm was a soggy, cold affair. But as Europa gained on her destination at 7 to 10 knots, an increase in bird sightings and ship traffic told the crew land was really close. As Simko wrote on the ship’s log on June 12, they could “almost smell it.”
On June 17, after 81 days at sea and 10,058 miles, Europa and her crew arrived in Scheveningen to a socially distanced welcome from family and friends. They were greeted with fresh fruit and a traditional Dutch delicacy, a case of salted herring.
Simko had been right. When they got close to land, they could smell it.
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.