Stuck all summer in the middle of the Pacific – Wall Street Journal Article

This Article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on the 2nd of September 2020 as part of their ‘Life in Quarantine’ series.

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Edited by Ellen Gamerman

Jo and Rob Birch spent the summer in an alternate reality where there is no coronavirus.

The couple, who live on a sailboat, have spent months in the Marshall Islands. The isolated country between Hawaii and the Philippines is one of the few places on Earth where the World Health Organization (WHO) reports zero confirmed Covid-19 cases.

The Birches, who didn’t know how to sail when they sold all their possessions three years ago and bought a 40-foot catamaran, had only planned a short stay in this country near the equator before heading to the island of Vanuatu. But in March, country after country shut its borders and there they were, stuck.

Rob and Jo Birch had been exploring the Pacific on their sailing catamaran. 

“The whole of the Pacific was closing around us,” said Ms. Birch, 50. The couple had considered heading to New Zealand, where they are citizens, but to do so would have taken them through dangerous seasonal weather with no stops on a journey of roughly 3,000 miles. To their relief, the Marshall Islands granted them a yearlong visitor visa.

While anchored off the capital, Majuro, the Birches tried to be useful. Supplies were dwindling on Ailuk, a coral atoll more than 200 nautical miles to the north, after a ferry stopped running there. The Birches sought permission from Ailuk officials to help local villagers by bringing over essentials like flour, sugar and fuel.

“They were desperate for supplies,” said Ms. Birch, who was joined on the mission by crews on other sailboats waiting out the pandemic. “The cruising yachts earned their keep.”

Back on land in Majuro, the Birches shopped and took taxis as usual. The only clues of a global outbreak were the occasional hand-washing stations. On a visit to the Marshallese atoll Maloelap, they high-fived school children and drank from hand-shucked coconuts.

Jo Birch during a trip on Maloelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands. 

Yet locals knew that if the virus ever did arrive, it might overwhelm them. The Birches described watching as officials barred a South American ship’s crew from setting foot on land after more than three weeks at sea. To comply with the quarantine, other sailors helped resupply the boat.

The Birches, who are British and met while working backstage theater jobs in the U.K., started their odyssey in 2017 in Brisbane, Australia. Since then, they have examined World War II planes crashed in island jungles and spotted whales at sea. They were newcomers to sailing, figuring out fixes in real time when things broke on their boat, Double Trouble. “It always happened at midnight in the pouring rain with no moon,” said Mr. Birch, 46.

In late August, the couple finally left the Marshall Islands, setting sail on a voyage to Fiji lasting over two weeks. They were going stir crazy on the Marshalls and heard that Fiji had just opened up to foreign yachts. The country will be a stopping point on the way back to New Zealand, where they hope to land by year’s end.

The WHO reports 28 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and two deaths in Fiji. With the fear of sporadic outbreaks, the Birches had to get tested for the virus before entering the country.

Once in Fiji, they expect to see some changes in rituals familiar from their trips around the Pacific, like the kava ceremony, where locals and visitors drink from a communal bowl. Ms. Birch said she felt nervous going from not thinking about the virus to being aware of it all the time.

“We’re going to be almost dropped from another planet,” she said, “into what the rest of the world has been going through.”

— Ellen Gamerman

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