“We were all, I think, largely glad to be in our little bubble, but concerned for those ashore. For me, the priority was to complete the work we had to do and to get the ship and crew safely back to UK.”
Captain Simon has blogged about his experience getting our crew home safely following the Covid-19 outbreak, which took a firm grip on the UK during our transatlantic voyage.
The new Voyage Crew joined the ship in Antigua in 28°C bright sunshine, all enthusiastic and ready to go.
We knew that Coronavirus had arrived in UK, but it had little effect on us so far. We sailed from Antigua on Wednesday 11 March, with 39 Voyage Crew and volunteers, and nine Permanent Crew onboard. The plan was to head up towards Bermuda then on to the Azores with a view to making our first stop in Gibraltar. We were due to arrive into Piraeus, near Athens on Easter Sunday.
It didn’t take long for word of the seriousness of the situation to get through to the ship. Many Voyage Crew were in email contact with friends and family – mainly back in the UK – through the ship’s satellite system and a degree of concern began to make itself known to all of us. I asked Ship Operations to send through information every day – such as government advice and the latest situation back in the UK. We printed these updates off and put them up in the Messes so that everyone was kept up to date.
After only a couple of days, I had to abandon the idea of going up towards Bermuda and instead, chose to head straight towards the Azores. The wind direction would not allow the ship to sail without being very late into Greece, so I took advantage of a band of light airs and altered course for Ponta Delgada in the Azores, motor-sailing using both Main Engines and some sails. Even so, the ship’s routine continued, so watches were stood, cleaning was completed (enough to keep the ship a pleasant, safe place to live), we were fed and watered and we clawed our way North-East.
We were going to have to stop for Bunkers – to fill up with fuel again – and I was now considering whether it might be safer to stop in the Azores and avoid Gibraltar altogether. This was discussed with the team ashore, who were more aware of how the world was changing. A few days before we arrived in the Azores, the decision was made to bring the ship back to UK.
Before arriving into Ponta Delgada, I had to complete a Medical Declaration of Health – all normal so far. Then I had to do another one the day before arrival. That was unusual, and even more so when I then had to complete a third one the night prior to arrival.
By this time, we were aware there would be no shore leave, but the requirement that when we went onto the berth to take all the rubbish ashore, we had to have the minimum number of people and all in gloves, masks and goggles was our first visual indication of how things had changed. Nor were we allowed any further than 10 metres from the vessel – although the bins where the port authority wanted us to put the gash were about 25 metres away.
Once in mobile phone range of course, everyone was rather glued to their screens, talking to folk at home or looking up the news. Some news articles appeared genuinely incredible, while others had the ring of truth. Even those which seemed true left us feeling a little uncomfortable. We were all, I think, largely glad to be in our little bubble, but concerned for those ashore. Many questions were being asked, but at the rate of change ashore, any plans we made now weren’t going to survive unchanged.
For me, the priority was to complete the work we had to do and to get the ship and crew safely back to UK. That would take probably 10 days or so and then we’d see what the score was. After sailing from Ponta Delgada, there was a last burst of phone calls and messages before we lost the signal and everyone was back to email only.
The parents of the young Irish lads had asked the Trust to divert to Cobh and drop them off. As it became apparent we would no longer be going to the UK South Coast and as transport options between UK and the Republic of Ireland appeared more restricted, a diversion to Cobh seemed sensible. It seemed a long week that seven-day passage to Cobh.
The Port of Cork offered their Pilot Launch to take the young trainees ashore, where they were met by Mums and Dads. I’ve seen the pictures from the paper – the telling one shows them keeping a good distance. As a Dad myself (Hi boys!), it must have been heart-rending, for the mums particularly. After all, what Mum doesn’t want to give her little lad a great big hug in those circumstances – even if he is 16 years old and 6 feet tall? The parents very kindly sent out some food and a whole load of Easter eggs – yum!
The team ashore had been busy organising a berth; it wasn’t straightforward. The South Coast ports were full and a lot of vessels were anchored off. Initially it looked like Avonmouth, but that didn’t work, then Cardiff was a possibility, but Barry, just along the coast from Cardiff, was where we headed once the fog lifted in Cobh.
Sailing from Cobh into a flat calm and bright sunshine was very pleasant after the last week of bumpy weather. The ship was certainly quieter without the eight young Irish lads!
The Bristol Channel has some big tides, so we had to wait until evening for the lock, but once in alongside, Border Force came to say hello. Once everything was settled, the Watch Leaders had organised some bubbles for everyone to celebrate our safe arrival after some 3739 miles. This was the last time all were together as some left that night to go home.
Jobs and childcare meant one husband drove down from Yorkshire to collect his wife and one other, arriving at 11 o’clock that night. The rest of the voyage crew departed in the morning, in a mix of cars either hired here or driven here by relatives come to collect folk. Some were off to northern Scotland, others to half an hour down the road from Barry. In a few days, our remaining volunteers will leave – one to Surrey, one to Germany and one to Canada.
The Permanent Crew haven’t been off the ship yet, so although we’re sort of aware of the way you’ve all been living these last few weeks, it’s perhaps not fully hit home.
When we arrived in Barry, we landed a small team to rig the gangway. I was asked to speak to the Border Force team at the same time and it suddenly dawned on me that these officials kept stepping back whenever one of the gangway team passed at all close to them. We, of course, have been living in close proximity to one another for the last four weeks or so. That made me pause – we’re home, or nearly so, but in our own bubble out at sea in this amazing ship – built by some of you – we were quite safe from what was going on in the world. Now isn’t that an interesting thought…
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