Stranded in paradise: Hundreds of sailors stuck in Pacific

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – As long as she can remember, Kristen Pankratz, 28, has shared her father's dream of sailing the world. Somehow, life always got in the way. But after quitting her advertising job in Dallas, she finally left with her parents in January.

Now, along with hundreds of other sailors, they find themselves trapped in paradise. As they sailed west across the vast Pacific Ocean in March, the coronavirus pandemic spread its tentacles around the world. They arrived in Tahiti in remote French Polynesia, one of the last places in the region to offer refuge when the borders closed.

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With the countries of the South Pacific not yet ready to reopen, the family does not find a way to go, nor a way back, and does not want to abandon the boat. So they remain where they are, in a strange limbo, hoping to be able to return to the west again, before the cyclone season arrives in November.

Currently, there are around 550 sailboats that are taking shelter in French Polynesia, according to a manifest maintained by the maritime authorities. Typically, boats have a crew of about two or three, although some have 10 or more on board. There are hundreds of other sailors stranded in other parts of the South Pacific, in Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand and Australia.

The Pankratz say they were treated extraordinarily well and were able to see beautiful caves and black sand beaches without many other tourists around. Others say they encountered suspicion and, at times, hostility on the part of local residents, for fear of bringing the virus from abroad.

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Kristen Pankratz said at first that she felt sad that the dream trip was not going according to plan, but soon realized that the situation could have been much worse. She started to feel guilty for not being at home with loved ones.

"When we first went out, people at home were very scared of us," she said. "But we ended up being safer than in the USA"

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Pankratz, with his parents David and Anne, set out on his 14-meter Amazing Grace sailboat from St. Lucia, as part of a group of sailors who had similar ambitions to circumnavigate the world.

After navigating the Panama Canal in the Pacific, they received sporadic updates from their satellite phones and other sailors about the deteriorating virus situation. They ended up spending a week at sea longer than planned to reach Tahiti, catching fresh tuna on the way to stretch their supplies.

Then came four and a half weeks of blocking at a marina, where they were allowed to get off the boat just for exercise and shopping. Pankratz established a routine with some of the other sailors: high-intensity exercise classes at 7:30 am on the pier; cocktails at 5:30 pm on the boats.

After the blockade ended, they were able to see more of Tahiti. And this week, they left for some new islands after authorities eased restrictions to allow more travel between the scattered archipelagos of French Polynesia.

British sailors Rob and Frances Lythgoe passed the blockade in a different part of French Polynesia, on the island of Raiatea. They said they hardly spoke to another soul for 10 weeks.

Rob Lythgoe said that the mayor went out on a boat to tell them that they could only land ashore one at a time and if they wore masks, although local residents did not wear them. So they formed them with a pillowcase.

Lythgoe, 57, said people on the islands suspect they may have brought the virus from Europe, despite being isolated on the boat. One man said that they should leave. Lythgoe pointed out that there is a long and unfortunate history of foreigners bringing disease to the South Pacific.

"Being white, middle-aged and middle class, this is the first time that we have experienced discrimination," said Lythgoe, adding that it was an enlightening experience.

Like many others, Lythgoes hope that New Zealand you will eventually relax the border restrictions so that they can sail there to get the necessary repairs to your boat and prepare for the next stage of their journey. They fear that sailboats are being unjustly bundled with cruise ships as a possible source of infection.

Other sailors already in New Zealand they say they have no ticket and are preparing to crouch in the southern hemisphere winter.

Vandy Shrader, 58, from San Francisco, said she and her husband Eric arrived New Zealand in November, on his Scoots, a 50-foot (15 meter) mower, and they planned to leave for Fiji now. Instead, they placed the heater on the boat at the Whangarei City Basin Marina.

"We are very happy to be here," said Shrader. "I feel like we won the blocking lottery."

It is because New Zealand almost eradicated the virus after imposing a strict block in March.

Shrader said she and her husband have been at sea for almost six years. They are among a community of full-time cruisers who enjoy the lifestyle in "a big boat, but a small house".

Shrader and other sailors say the ocean teaches you to be flexible and patient. Sometimes you have to face storms, other times you are in danger. She says she'll wait to see what happens until September and maybe set sail. But who knows? Maybe they will stay in New Zealand for another year.

It all depends on the virus. And time.

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