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Doug Mann thought he would ride out the start of the coronavirus pandemic on his sailboat anchored on the shores of Culebra, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. With airports closing across the Caribbean and restrictions tightening, the American citizen planned to inch his way closer to the United States mainland ahead of hurricane season.
But when he arrived, after a three-day sail through rough waters, local officers told him he had to leave. Immediately. So he sailed on.
As governments across the Caribbean moved to restrict the spread of the coronavirus, closing ports and instituting quarantine rules that vary by island, mariners of all nationalities found themselves unwelcome at port after port. Unable to dock, many have converged on the only available and practical harbor of refuge: the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As an American territory without control of its borders, the idyllic islands now have the largest number of boats that local officials have ever seen bobbing off their shores — as many as 600 boats at one point, up from 270 typically moored or anchored there each year. With weather up north still dicey and ports shuttered en route, they have few alternatives.
Residents have become increasingly concerned about not only the potential damage to fragile marine ecosystems, but also the water quality and an already limited medical supply. The virus is expected to crest in the territory next month.
Here, for an unknown duration
In an open letter on March 27, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. welcomed visitors to a “safe haven under U.S. Flag protection at this grave time.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands — made up of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix and Water Island — are subject to American laws. Across the territory, yachts of all sizes now crowd the turquoise waters, shoehorned into the curved bays on makeshift moorings. Typically at this time of year, sailors hop port to port across the Caribbean enjoying the beaches — now those beaches are closed and mariners are supposed to stay on their boats except for picking up essentials.
“Everything has converged here all at once,” said Jean-Pierre Oriol, commissioner of the territory’s department of planning and natural resources, who has worked there for two decades. “I’ve never seen the volume here in the territory that we have right now.”
At the end of March, New Jersey residents Carol and David Hewit were on their Island Packet sailboat, about a quarter mile from the Dutch island of Sint Eustatius, when, Mrs. Hewit recalled, “we were greeted as we entered their only harbor with bullhorns and boats.”
They turned around and sailed through the night to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Now moored on Francis Bay in St. John, the couple, who are in their 60s, say they do not want to return home; the New York area is now the pandemic’s epicenter. Like many sailors, they do not want to leave their boats by flying home — if they could even get a flight out; theirs, for later this month, has already been canceled.
Their son, based in midtown New York, has moved his family, including their infant grandson, into the couple’s home, and the Hewits fear contracting the virus on the plane and passing it along.
Many mariners like the Hewits plan to ride out the pandemic on islands, choosing what appears their safest option in an ever-changing set of unknowns.
But Marvin A. Blyden, a territory senate leader who has drafted several pieces of legislation regarding the mariners since their arrival, worries that playing safe haven for guests will prove dangerous for residents.
“We don’t have the resources to deal with the large influx,” he said. “Yes, we’re an American system. Yes, we should look to help those in need. But at the same time we must protect our borders and we must protect our people.”
Concerns over water quality
Sailors might seem self-sufficient if they have food, water and other supplies onboard, but waste disposal remains an urgent need. Most big ports include pump-out stations, but St. John’s does not, so mariners must trek three miles out to sea to dump their waste. (Some have not followed the rules: There have been reports of illegal dumping, which could affect the waters across the territory.)
“Just by increasing the volume of boating, you impact the environment as a whole,” said Leigh Fletcher, president of Ocean Systems Laboratory, Inc., which conducts water-quality testing in the territory. “We should be setting up a special program for what is now occurring.”
Residents are particularly worried about the quality of beach water, which has not been tested since the end of March. (Testing in the national park is expected to start within the week, but testing of territorial waters has been suspended indefinitely, pending the local government’s payment of an outstanding bill.)
And many boats are farther away in areas that are never tested, the lab owners said, making it impossible to know the effects on marine ecosystems. These ecosystems are crucial to two of the territory’s most important industries: tourism and fishing.
“It’s a much longer story for us,” said Brigitte Berry, a St. Thomas resident who helped found the Marine Rebuild Fund to clean the waters after two devastating back-to-back hurricanes in 2017. “I remember my dad fishing in that bay. He’s told me stories about his dad fishing in that bay, I see my nieces playing in that bay. We want generations more to fish and swim in that bay, so we get very protective of that.”
Though the public beaches have been shuttered, the natural resources department issued an advisory earlier this month, warning that “compliance with water quality standards for safe swimming or fishing at beaches territory-wide is unknown.”
Moreover, overboard dumping increases the risk of viral contamination, noted Amy Dempsey, vice president for Ocean Systems. The coronavirus survives in sewage and, she said, the effect of salt water is unclear.
Mariners following the rules worry about coming back to a stranger at their mooring ball.
Stephen B. Meister and his family have been moored off St. John for almost a month. They had left their home in Long Island for his daughter’s spring break, but are now working, schooling and in the case of his daughter, Micaela, practicing the violin on their 70-foot yacht.
One recent morning, sailing off to dump their waste, Mr. Meister saw a catamaran approaching his dingy, in which his wife and daughter sat, near their mooring ball.
The catamaran had its boat hook extended. “They’re jousting at my wife — like medieval knights,” he recalled. “And they’re arguing ‘You can’t hold the mooring.’”
He quickly returned to claim his place, and made the 30-minute journey eight hours later when “the coast was clear.”
Now, to keep track of how many boats are entering the territory and get a better handle on contamination concerns, government officials have reinstituted monthly mooring and anchoring fees, which were temporarily suspended with the outbreak.
Since the fees, Mr. Meister confirmed that “the mooring ball wars” had come to an end.
More and more garbage
Some cruisers, seeking a more secluded haven away from town, have nestled among the tree-sheltered waters of the Virgin Islands National Park, which makes up almost two-thirds of St. John.
But with the closure of the park — and the halting of garbage collection — bags of trash soon were piled around the locked barrels, concerning boaters and residents alike.
Some residents banded together, filling a truck bed with trash on a recent weekend. The park also quickly certified several residents — who wear masks — to help with garbage removal and grocery delivery.
Nate Fletcher, a St. John resident and the owner of Blue Line Yacht Charters (which has not had an onboard guest in more than a month), now goes twice a week, boat to boat, collecting trash. He gathered 60 bags on Tuesday.
“It’s a big career change,” Mr. Fletcher said with a laugh, adding that his boat, the Poseidon, a 37-foot Midnight Express with three 300-horse power engines, is “a very, very fast trash boat.”
The $5-a-bag charge does not yield a profit, but it allows him to stay even with his bills, while helping resolve what was “quickly becoming a problem,” he said.
The coronavirus has arrived
To combat the spread of the virus, the U.S. Virgin Islands have instituted shelter-at-home and social-distancing measures. Restaurants and bars have closed.
The virus arrived in the Virgin Islands in March, and by mid April, 51 Covid-19 cases were reported, and two deaths, with more than a third of the cases coming from tourists or residents traveling within 14 days of displaying symptoms.
Local health officials project more than 20,000 infections and upward of 100 hospitalizations if people abide by the strictest measures. But with looser rules, hospitalizations would rocket up to almost 1,000 “at any one point in time,” Dr. Esther Ellis, the territorial epidemiologist said by email.
The islands do not have the resources to handle such an outbreak. Medical professionals say the two hospitals on St. Thomas and St. Croix are understaffed and together have 20 intensive care unit beds and 127 ventilators.
In the hopes of stymying the spread of the virus, the local government has implemented a self-reporting health questionnaire, which boaters must fill out.
In the crowded Virgin Island harbors, boaters are hearing from other mariners in the Caribbean who feel stranded in more restricted waters; these sailors are asking if they should come to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The governor’s office, which lacks the authority to close ports and airports (this would halt food and medical imports), said that they would not discourage mariners from coming, but there are strict territory-wide guidelines they should follow when they arrive.
Richard Motta Jr., the governor’s communications director, added that “solely out of capacity,” the office would prefer “if they are to come to the territory to come to St. Croix because a lot of the bays have already reached capacity at St. Thomas and St. John.”
The number of boats remains high, but much of the traffic has halted in recent days, and some boats — between 100 and 150, Mr. Oriol estimates — have already left.
Those who are staying indefinitely are up against yet another impending deadline. Hurricane season begins in June. Many boat owners have insurance policies requiring them to leave the Caribbean by June or July. Many would typically hire crew members to help with the journey back, but cannot easily do so under pandemic conditions.
One solution is the “Homeward Bound Flotilla,” an organized departure of boats leaving every Sunday for at least a month. The first nine boats left on Easter.
Salty Dawg Sailing Association, a nonprofit which typically organizes social boating trips, has set up resources to help the passage, waiving its typical fees.
“We just wanted to be as inclusive as possible,” said Hank George, the association’s president. “We didn’t want anyone wandering into the ocean on their own.”
Mariners joining the flotilla may access a U.S. Coast Guard interface, an online journey-tracker and weather updates. The Salty Dawg communicates with authorities and helps troubleshoot closed ports en route.
Approximately 160 boats have registered so far; most are stationed in the territory and will head out over the next month.
Other mariners, like the Hewits, plan to stay put. Mr. Mann, who was turned away at Culebra, said he plans to leave as early as next week for the Chesapeake Bay, weather depending.