Yachts stranded in COVID limbo
Small yachts are stranded in ‘COVID Limbo’ as cyclone season approaches says Ocean Cruising Club Roving Rear Commodore Guy Chester.
Upwards of 300 small yachts are stuck in ‘COVID limbo’ across the South Pacific, most are in Fiji and French Polynesia.
“Crews on these yachts are urgently seeking refuge from the forthcoming cyclone season commencing November 1,” says Guy.
“The safety of these small yachts, sailed by families, couples and single handers, is at serious risk of compromise if they cannot gain safe haven before the end of October.”
Guy says New Zealand has, for many years past, been the preferred destination for yachts during this period.
“For many of these sailors their yacht is their home and they rely upon their insurance policies for a sense of security. Insurance cover becomes invalid for any yachts remaining in a recognised cyclone belt throughout the world.
“Small Pacific nations are not equipped to safely berth or dry store this number of yachts, and any that do remain in the region will lose the safety net of their insurance. This is what makes the situation an urgent humanitarian issue.”
The Ocean Cruising Club – OCC - has been lobbying the New Zealand Government since April in an effort to persuade them to facilitate the entry of these small yachts, who Guy says through no fault of their own, find themselves stranded in a COVID 19 limbo in the Central South Pacific cyclone zone.
“In June, a response advised that an exemption to New Zealand border closure would be possible for humanitarian reasons or other compelling needs,” says Guy.
“The OCC regard escape from the cyclone belt such a compelling reason. Yet recently, the OCC were advised by New Zealand Health that to avoid hurricane/cyclone season in the Pacific is not considered a compelling reason!”
Guy says the yachts will have been isolated at sea for at least 14 days during a voyage to New Zealand and are prepared to remain in a quarantine anchorage on arrival as an additional safeguard. “It seems inexplicable that they can, in any way, be regarded as a threat under COVID 19 restrictions.”
The yachts would normally be arriving in Northland in October and early November.
“The crisis now is that even if New Zealand offers exemptions for cyclone refuge, the four-week application process, plus additional time for visa processing, means we are effectively running out of time,” says Guy.
“To safely make passage to New Zealand yachts require a suitable weather window and any further delay puts them at increased risk. An urgent solution is now required.”
The OCC Indo-Pacific Coordinator Fiona Jones says she is now desperate to find a solution for the crews in the Pacific.
“My husband and I sailed our yacht into New Zealand in 2006 and we were welcomed everywhere we went,” says Fiona. “The hospitality shown to us in remote areas of South Island and Stewart Island will never be forgotten.
“Since then two of our children and six grandchildren have become citizens of New Zealand, and we are very proud that they have done so. None of us wants COVID 19 cases brought into New Zealand.”
The OCC had been working with the Marina Operators Association and Sail South Pacific to ensure COVID safe protocols can be in place for yachts arriving.
“With two to six week passages crews have been in quarantine for that time anyway,” says Fiona. “They are prepared to self-isolate aboard their yachts once they enter New Zealand and have an agreed protocol to ensure there is minimal risk to the New Zealand community.”
John Martin of Sail South Pacific has been working with Northland marinas to ensure COVID safe arrival and self-isolation aboard can be undertaken safely. He is arranging the Destination NZ “rescue” to coordinate staggered arrivals of the flotilla from French Polynesia and Fiji if New Zealand provides exemptions.
“Yachts accept they need to have strict quarantine and medical records while at sea and to satellite track their route to prove their continuity of passage (thus quarantine time),” says John.
Chris Galbraith, the chair of NZ Marina Operators Association says Northland port of entry marinas have developed strategies and protocols for clearance and isolation, currently being considered by government agencies.
“The annual influx of these vessels is a major part of the economic survival of marine services businesses, hit hard by the COVID shutdowns,” says Opua Business Association chair Peter Boyd, Chair. “The yachts make a significant economic contribution.”
The Ocean Cruising Club has written to Prime Minister Ardern and the Minister for Health on several occasions with no solution to date, says Fiona.
“What was an emerging situation has now reached a crisis point, and the OCC is urgently requesting that New Zealand provide safe refuge for yachts caught in ‘COVID limbo’.
“New Zealand is well known as a nation of sailors, and annually welcomes international cruising yachts to its waters. The Ocean Cruising Club asks the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Health officials to ensure a humanitarian outcome is found urgently,” says Fiona.