By Dorie Cox
This is a glimpse into what yacht captains and crew are doing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Very little has stayed the same as they face uncertainty and changes each day. But on board several yachts in mid-March, as the coronavirus continues to close ports, seal country borders, temporarily shutter businesses, and isolate people, this diverse group looks for ways to do what they do: solve problems and keep going.
On board S/Y M5, a 255-foot (77.6m) Vosper Thornycroft, Capt. Don Anderson is proactive. While in a shipyard in Northern Italy in late February, he saw the country start to become one of the first in Europe to be affected by the virus. Although he still had three weeks under European Union yacht travel rules before he had to leave, the mounting problems in Italy prompted a decision to leave earlier.
Meanwhile, his crew of 15 remained isolated on board to minimize exposure and followed the Italian port medical officer’s advice to monitor their health, keeping a spreadsheet of their daily body temperatures to document their absence of coronavirus symptoms.
“It feels like we are doing something, not just helpless,” Capt. Anderson said.
Uncertain about how the yacht would be met at other country borders, they headed to Tunisia for the required departure from the EU, and then set a course for Palma.
“The port doctor wrote a letter saying that the crew had no signs of anything and we are still tracking temperatures,” Capt. Anderson said in mid-March. “I think the port doctor saved us.”
That and the decision to leave before March 9, when the Italian government imposed a national quarantine.
“We were not in a contaminated area,” he said. “Technically, that saved us.”
Upon arrival in Palma, the yacht was allowed to enter Astilleros de Mallorca for yard work.
“There are workers there today (March 16),” the captain said. And the crew are still recording their temperatures, just in case.
Many yachts and their crew are just waiting as yacht charters on both sides of the Atlantic see cancellations. Capt. Glen Allen, president of Fleet Miami, said the company is waiting also, and preparing to make hard decisions. Several of their yachts charter in the Mediterranean and the company’s flagship, the 146-foot Feadship M/Y Harle, face uncertainty.
“We’re talking about not sending Harle for the first time in 11 years,” Capt. Allen said.
The company is on hold to make final decisions until April. But as of mid-March, M/Y Harle was on a charter in the Bahamas, a nod to the safety and privacy that yachting offers, he said.
“The charterers went ahead with their trip,” he said. “Lots of guests are coming in on private jets. That is important to note.”
Yacht charter bookings are down, also. In the Bahamas, there have been few charter bookings from the Bahamas Charter Show in late February, according to Capt. Timothy Laughridge, who attended the show with M/Y Lady Victoria, a 120-foot Feadship.
“It’s not a good year to mention bookings with the coronavirus,” he said. With an eye to the positive, he said yachting is the best way to get off the grid for a private scenario and many yacht owners travel by private jets, anyway.
“One of the safest places to be away from people – isolated on a yacht,” Capt. Laughridge said. “How they get here could be a challenge. The problem is there are too many unknowns and changes in travel rules.”
Caught in a quagmire
But for other potential travelers, questions about airline travel, being allowed entrance into a country or whether they will be able to return home after leaving are making decisions difficult. And as U.S. President Donald Trump issued a proclamation to ban foreign nationals entry into the country on March 11, Capt. Andrew Grego and his crew worked to solve another set of challenges.
The 160-foot (49m) M/Y Clarity under his command is due for its five-year classification society survey. With a home base for charters in the Bahamas, Capt. Grego typically schedules shipyard work in Fort Lauderdale. In an effort to minimize crew exposure to the coronavirus, he asked his class society RINA (Registro Italiano Navale) for an extension of six months on the renewal.
In his estimation, every new location – every shipyard, every shoreside vendor – has the potential to expose the crew or vice versa.
“It seems inevitable for crew to spread or get a serious threat with movement,” Capt. Grego said. “And with so little known, we could have the virus on board for years. … My primary concern is for the safety of the crew.”
If the renewal is not completed in time, the yacht faces ramifications.
“If we get the OK, we’re fine, but if not, that leaves us vulnerable,” he said. The yacht’s insurance could face cancellation if the vessel does not adhere to class society regulations.
“Then the value of the vessel goes down,” he said. As he continued to research and communicate with the yacht owner as of mid-March, he learned that a delay approval would also require approval from the yacht’s flag state.
“Even if the flag state says yes, RINA still wants the in-water and annual survey,” Capt. Grego said. “In-water is 50% of the yard period anyway, and we can’t get RINA divers and surveyors here.
“Now we’re at a stalemate,” he said. “If we go out of class, we can lose our insurance, which will lower our value, and we could face lawsuits because we would be misrepresented as a class-compliant boat.”
As he keeps options open, Capt. Grego said he and the crew continue to work on the boat, take a few hours off and hold regular meetings. And the yacht’s weekly charter rate has dropped.
Search for port in a storm
Despite uncertainties on where they will land, Capt. Michael Dailey and his crew on a 230-foot (70m) Feadship try to continue business as usual during their seasonal trans-Atlantic from the Caribbean to the Med. They held their “halfway soiree” in time for sunset on the back deck of the yacht in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Just like we always do on ocean crossings on this yacht,” he said.
The crew kept to their plan to meet the owner’s request for an early Mediterranean summer cruising season, and the yacht left Antigua before the government of Antigua and Barbuda confirmed its first case of the virus on March 13.
With decades as a yacht captain and travels worldwide, Capt. Dailey said he has never been denied entry into a port.
But as of mid-March, he was unsure if they would be allowed to keep their appointments in Horta in the Azores or Gibraltar, or in their destination of Palma de Mallorca. So he is taking extra precautions.
“Normally, I would have given Horta a miss as we have enough fuel to get to Gibraltar,” he said. “But under the circumstances, I’m not taking any chances. We will stay as full of fuel and as fully provisioned as is feasible at all times.”
In self-isolation and symptom-free due to the ocean crossing, Capt. Dailey said he expects to keep the crew on board with limited exposure during any stops or dockages. At press time, the yacht had received permission to bunker and have provisions delivered to a quarantine berth at one of the stops.
“What they can fill of the order, of course,” he said. Then the yacht may be required to leave the assigned quarantine berth for sea or to go to anchor somewhere nearby.
If allowed to dock with shore power, he estimated the crew may be able to last maybe a month without replenishing provisions.
Even without shore power, he said the ship’s power could be maintained for at least two months. The plan is to be ready to sit this out alongside a dock for the long haul, to move, or to just anchor out, he said.
“If needed, we can claim force majeure – they can’t leave us at sea,” Capt. Dailey said. “But I don’t believe it will come to that.”
Meanwhile, the crew have no symptoms and no contact other than the intended stops for fuel and provisions.
“We should be a safe bet to let in,” he said. “These ports have their own problems – we don’t bring any problems. Our previous locations didn’t and we don’t.”
He has full confidence in crew morale. They did a 49-day trip and still went out together when they hit land.
“I know these guys,” Capt. Dailey said. “No one has given way to alarm.”
Some of the crew are scheduled to go on holiday, so plans are being reconsidered.
“You can go, I won’t stand in your way, but you might not be able to come back,” he told them. If crew decide to leave, they may have to self-quarantine and cover their own expenses.
“This is not the end of the world,” Capt. Dailey said. “It is a major inconvenience, but not the end of the world.”
Yachting has shown to be resilient through challenges including the 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2008 global recession and multiple hurricanes, said Capt. Allen, who is also president of the International Superyacht Society.
“Proper planning prevents panic, as always,” he said. “In those terms, we aim to stay positive. Yes. it’s bad, but it will get better.”
Ever hopeful, he said he often finds the need to explain the industry.
“The argument is always made, ‘Why are the rich spending on yachting?’ ” he said. “The reality is, if they don’t, they kill jobs. Each yacht employs many people, directly and indirectly. We need to support them. If we keep pounding on this, maybe people will understand that. This is not just using ritzy boats. It means jobs in so many communities.”
Patrick Kelly seeks to be helpful as the health, safety and environmental compliance manager at Lauderdale Marine Center, and said that yachts are in a better position than many businesses.
“We have such a porous industry – crew go home on vacation, we have every nationality. The thing that gives me hope in the industry is that most vessels are not in contact with large numbers of the general population,” Kelly said. “Yachts can control, to a large part, the extent of their exposure. It is primarily crew, owners and vendors. Most are clean, they’re clean to a fault, and that helps tremendously.”
And most yachts have some sort of Safety Management System that addresses cleanliness, medical issues and the element of personal responsibility. He recommended the IMO’s International Medical Guide for Ships, as well as the International Chamber of Shipping’s Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers for more guidance in dealing with COVID-19.
“There are already measures in place for shipboard populations, so compared to the rest of the country, yachts have a better footing,” Kelly said.
As the pandemic continues, yacht captains and crew – the heart of the industry – find ways to weather the storm, Capt. Anderson said. Speaking by phone on the yacht’s first day in Palma, he said that although there were noticeable slowdowns and limitations, yard workers were on the job and there were many yachts in port.
“But it’s only Day One – we’ll see what it looks like in a week,” he said. “This has set back the owner’s plans, but he’s a realist. He wants to come use the boat, but the travel is hard.”
As for the yacht crew, they are “bummed” that they are restricted, Capt. Anderson said.
“Only one person can shop at a time, and people can’t congregate,” he said. “I said, ‘Pretend it is a crossing for two weeks. You have a job, food and a place to stay. We’re all in the same boat.’ ”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.