All at sea during the pandemic
"When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!"
- Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote.
By Keri Algar.
All photos by Jana McGeachey
Don Quijote rolls gently at anchor off the island of Antigua as Beef O'Keefe and Jana McGeachy sit to Sunday night toasties. For two months a mercurial coronavirus has left them dancing between anchorages around the tiny Caribbean island. With their cruising permit expired and nearby sea borders closed, the Aussie-Canadian couple say they feel like refugees of the sea.
"We're out of Vegemite too, that's another apocalyptic situation," says Jana on her second cheese toastie.
If isolating aboard a 43-foot yacht in the Caribbean doesn't sound like the end of the world, consider this: Antigua and Barbuda is in the middle of the region's hurricane belt, as Jana loosens her own belt – she's five months pregnant.
"Our decision to stay here and ride out the pandemic has not been so great," admits Beef. "If we leave Antigua now, we won't be allowed back and nowhere else is open. We'd planned to haul the boat out for the hurricane season and to be back at work in Australia by April." Their off-season earnings bankroll boat life for now: Beef's a carpenter and Jana an eco-guide and photographer.
"Once June hits we're going to need to leave and if ports aren't open we may have to take the boat to Panama."
The 1,000 nautical mile sail west will be the longest passage undertaken by these novice sailors. It's as many miles as they've sailed since acquiring Don Quijote two years ago in Florida.
"We knew we wanted to sail across the South Pacific, but you need experience for a crossing like that, and we needed training wheels," says Jana.
While it exasperates sailors with its doldrums more often than not, the world's largest ocean is far from pacific. After two years in the Caribbean, there's still much to be learned.
"We've still never flown a spinnaker, and we don't know how to sail downwind. We surprise ourselves daily with how little we know," says Beef. "There are so many systems on a boat, navigation, plumbing, the engine, rigging, electrics. You need to be able to fix anything that breaks at sea, because it will break."
Jana advocated they learn by island-hopping through the Caribbean's 7,000 islands, reefs and cays – overall a fascinating region. To tropical climes and spectacular scenery, add an exotic mix of lively cultures – Spanish, Carib, Afro, and French among them – the sounds of steel drums and cheap rum.
"Plus it's the sailing wonderland of the world. You've got 15-20-knot winds every day from the same direction, and you don't get gigantic swells."
Which is precisely why the Caribbean as a surfing destination is relatively unexplored. "There are a few known spots, like Cane Garden Bay, Barbados, and the Bahamas," says Beef. "A lot of islands have got amazing setups. They just don't get a lot of swell. They rely on swells from the northern hemisphere winter, then it can get really good and light up all these little islands, and you've got no crowds and warm water. But the majority of the time you're looking at little crappy wind swell and its frustrating to find surf. It's okay, one day we'll be at P-Pass!"
But not today. "Instead we're smack in the middle of hurricane alley living on borrowed money with a kid on the way."
Beef pauses. Is theirs a quixotic misadventure, or like their yacht’s namesake, are Beef and Jana making real their impossible dream?
"Can I just say, this is one of the nicest anchorages we've been in for a while. There's a beautiful little roll and we're looking up through the hatch to a three-quarter gold moon shining on the mast, the flag's blowing on a light breeze. I wouldn't be doing anything else.
"The world kind of shrinks when you're on a sailboat. In five days we could be in Venezuela, in ten days in Panama in twelve days in Mexico or Colombia, South America…all these places you dream of when you're younger.
"It's hard to describe the feeling when you motor out from your anchorage and into deep water, when you set your course, set your sails, shut off the engine, when it's quiet, and you're travelling by the power of the wind…it's magic.
"It might bite us on the arse in twenty years. A house goes up in value, and a boat depreciates, so yeah it's financial suicide. And in the most corrosive environment in the world, the salt eats into everything, light fittings, electrics, the boat is disintegrating every day. It's the most expensive way to travel the world for free.
"But life goes so fast and then you're thirty and then you're forty. This way we can travel on a budget. It gives us a little home. We can explore, hunt for waves."
As the epicentre of the pandemic shifts to the Americas, they embrace a sense of fatalism. There's only so much worrying one can do in a day, the rest is for living.
Now on the north of Antigua, Beef takes the dinghy to check the surf. Ashore, they hike jungle peaks and harvest wild honey. Back onboard by the noon coronavirus curfew, they spend afternoons working on the boat: taking apart the heat exchanger on the engine, scrubbing the waterline, checking in on other cruisers on the two-way radio, pickling local produce. Beef has a rum and Jana practices hypno-boat-birthing meditations – just in case.
"Life is simple," says Jana. "We're learning that what we think we need is different from what we actually need. Our goal is to be fully sustainable and get to a point when we don't even need to turn the motor on to make water.
"We'd like to find a way to earn an income while we sail. We've got a YouTube channel about our journey but what we'd really love is to document is the ecology of remote islands and archipelagos in the Pacific, maybe connect with an environmental or research group and provide them with that remote access, somehow to give back to the remote communities we visit.
"But it'll be interesting to see how the world of cruising changes after the pandemic dies down. Will there be that freedom of movement that we've all come to think of as normal? Will remote places want visitors, or will coronavirus make that different?"
Never more than now have the plans of sailors been written in the sand at low tide. "For now, we can't really plan for the future and for birthing this baby until we know where we're going to be."
// KERI ALGAR
Check out Nauti Nook Sailing Adventures if you'd like to see where Beef and Jana drop anchor next.