Catching up: Where’s Juniper been?
Our last post was in Dec 2018. We’re still alive, well, and at least trying to cruise. But 2019 was a lost year for us: in January, Scott ruptured a disk in his back that forced us to put our cruising plans aside. With surgery scheduled for March, we rented an apartment in Puerto Vallarta across from the hospital for post-surgery recovery. Just by being off the boat, where we have to climb and bend on a constant basis, even to get in and out of bed, Scott’s back was able to relax and heal. On advice of his doctor Scott postponed surgery, took it easy, and slowly recovered to where surgery was no longer necessary. We left Mexico in June and spent the summer and fall in California and Oregon and spent Christmas in Miami.
We returned to Mexico in January 2020 and worked on readying Juniper. After spending 2 years docked in Marina La Cruz, we had a few projects to complete before cruising again. Our more immediate needs before leaving were new bottom paint, engine maintenance, and replacing a number of electrical parts. By the beginning of March, we were very, very close to wrapping up and getting Juniper out of La Cruz. It was about the middle of March when it became evident that coronavirus was going to hit Mexico.
With the U.S. Administration calling for the closures of the Canadian and Mexico borders and the State Department putting up a Level 4 Travel Advisory asking all Americans to come home or prepare to stay in place indefinitely, we had a choice to make: stay in Mexico or return to the states.
How we made our choice to leave Juniper and Mexico
We’ve had friends and family ask us: You have a boat, why not just sail? You have a watermaker, you don’t need diesel on a sailboat, so you’re self-sufficient, right? If only it was that simple.
Juniper Needs a Shakedown
Leaving a marina, especially when your boat has been sitting idle for a while, involves getting out and doing what’s called a “shakedown”. You test out your boat – your sails and rigging, your engine, your ground tackle (anchor and chain), your watermaker, your electrical system, your plumbing, the list goes on and on – and make sure that everything works. It’s not uncommon to get out of a marina and find problems you didn’t know you had. It’s prudent to shake things out and have the opportunity to go back into the marina to fix what’s broken.
Regardless of a pandemic, you want to do a shakedown. But in light of a pandemic, you really, really want to make sure everything’s in working order. We felt we would be taking an unknown risk leaving La Cruz. Even if we were able to leave without any immediate issues, the risk in having something break that we couldn’t fix ourselves and potentially have marinas closed was too much.
Why not stay in La Cruz?
While each dock has a water spigot connected to public water, it’s not potable. We have a watermaker, but you can’t realistically run it in a marina. The water is very dirty, there’s not enough current to keep things moving, and frankly, people release their excrement into the harbor despite it being discouraged. Every couple of days, Scott and I walk up to the marina’s deli and buy a few jugs of fresh water and fill up our water tanks. And speaking of excrement, Scott and I, along with other responsible boaters, use the Marina bathrooms and showers, so we’re getting off the boat and into a shared space pretty regularly.
In addition, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle is a small fishing village about 40 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta with a population of about 1,600 people. There’s no bank, there’s no supermarket, and there’s no hospital. There are two small grocery stores that supply the village with produce and supplies. We would not want to be in competition with them for food. (As of this date, the marina deli is supplying marina residents with fresh produce and supplies for sale, so as not to take away food from the locals.)
Where could we go?
When we were considering our options, we talked about where we would go if we stayed on the boat in Mexico. Our pre-pandemic plans involved going up into the Sea of Cortez, a sparsely populated region of Baja California. The Sea of Cortez is the obvious choice. There are tons of isolated anchorages where, if provisioned correctly, you could anchor and move about according to the weather and not see another human. During a normal cruising season it’s possible to go to anchorages and not see a single boat. Or go to an anchorage and find five. It varies. If one anchorage is full, go to another. But we were not the only boat in Mexico trying to figure out how to self-isolate and every other cruiser was also considering the Sea of Cortez. In addition, we were aware that islands in French Polynesia were, one by one, closing ports to boats, not letting sailors go from one island to next, and could very easily see this happening in Mexico. What would it mean for us if we left La Cruz and found ourselves unable to anchor? Or unable to enter a marina? While we’d like to stay in out of the way anchorages, closed marinas would put at risk if something happened to the boat, to us, or if a hurricane was on its way. Sure enough, we’re now hearing reports that this has come to pass. Small fishing villages are asking cruisers not to anchor or come ashore. Mexico has closed down national park islands where cruisers typically anchor, and implemented and are enforcing “stay in place” orders with cruisers being asked to stay in place, whether that means in the marina or where they’re anchored, and not allowing boats to enter or leave marinas.
When you’re getting ready to spend a few months exploring idyllic and out of the way anchorages, you stock up on at least 3-4 months of food and supplies. Boats going up the Sea of Cortez prepare by filling up their bilges with food. While you can get to a market in towns like La Paz and Loreto, you try to minimize doing so as all the interesting things to do in the Sea of Cortez are accessible only by boat.
Since Juniper’s been at a marina we haven’t provisioned for cruising. Remember that blog post we wrote a while back about our refrigerator malfunctioning? We still have issues. Our freezer won’t freeze and while our refrigerator runs when on shore power (meaning, plugged into the dock) it won’t cool below 40 degrees. Also, when running on our batteries (which is what we do when not in a marina) it sucks up all of our power and won’t cool at all. We had planned on having this fixed when we got to La Paz but that’s clearly not happening now. And provisioning for 3-4 months during a pandemic when locals also need to stock up would be incredibly selfish.
Mexico’s Health System
At the time we were deciding whether to stay or go, Mexico’s president wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously. Mexico as a country doesn’t have the number of hospital beds or ventilators compared to other developed countries. Even assuming we would be safe from contracting the virus on the boat, if one of us got hurt or if Scott hurt his back again, we would need to go to the hospital and we wouldn’t want to do that for all the reasons.
While living aboard Juniper, we’re never 100% independent. We need food. We need diesel for those times when there’s no wind. Things break. There are some cruisers, especially those who were all set to sail the 20+ day voyage to French Polynesia before they closed their ports, whose boats are fully prepared and provisioned, and have the skill set and the experience to be pretty independent and hang out somewhere at sea. We’re just not at that point.
Quarantining In Miami
So here we are in Miami, Florida, our official state of residency, where we’ve been quarantined in a short-term furnished rental riding out the pandemic in proximity to Viviane’s family for about a month now. We’ll return to Juniper as soon as the situation allows, but until then we’re in the same boat as most everyone else.
If you’re interested in reading more about how the pandemic is impacting cruisers, there are two articles in the NYTimes: Moored in a Fragile Paradise and The Seas as the Ultimate Coronavirus Isolation? Not. So. Fast.