Covid 19 aka the corona virus. French Polynesia immediately put strong measures in place to reduce the impact of the pandemic in the region. Effective as of 11 March, all international flights and cruise ships were prohibited from entering FP waters. All inter-island travel was forbidden (by sea or air) and a curfew was put into place. On 21 March, the entire population was quarantined (until 4 April).
Normally, I don’t put dates on posts because our posts don’t go live for 4-6 weeks after they were written. The reason we do that is to ensure our posts go live every Tuesday and Thursday (even if we do not have internet access). But this situation is different and dates are required to give you an idea of timing.
I know many of you, if not all of you are sick and tired of hearing about the corona virus and being quarantined. If that is the case, feel free to skip this post. However, if you are interested in learning how French Polynesia, a third world country, spread across thousands of miles, handled this pandemic, read on.
Full disclosure: We do not read or understand French so I am sure there is a lot we did not hear about, read about, or learn from others. This is just what we discovered as tourists in French Polynesia. In addition, to our lack of understanding of the main language, we are also without internet. We are located in the far archipelago called the Gambiers (the southernmost islands of French Polynesia). In addition, we have not even been staying near the main village within the Gambiers. We’ve been hiding in the remote islands away from the main land which are mostly uninhabited.
First Week – Early march
The first case in French Polynesia was a government official who traveled from France back to Tahiti in early March. Within a week 2 more cases were announced. And the rumors start flying around. Well, I shouldn’t say “rumors” as much as mis-information. It wasn’t people being malicious at all – just spreading information that may or may not apply to us here in FP. Some people assumed that French rules would apply here, but that was not always the case.
Chaos started by the second week of March. Smaller islands started closing (The Cook Islands and Galapagos) and the word on the street was that non-residents were going to be repatriated. Other countries were requiring two-week self-quarantine prior to entering (New Zealand and Australia).
Before the virus, our plan was to head to New Zealand in July via The Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji. With the smaller islands closed to us it would make an incredibly long and tedious voyage of over 2500 nm.
Cruisers were posting on the French Polynesia Cruisers Facebook Group (which is a group I started by the way – because you know, I rock 😊) All non-residents were being repatriated (sent back to their home). Guests on shore being asked to leave, flights were being cancelled, and more and more cases were popping up. The FP government did not know what to do with pleasure vessels. There were not enough places to leave our vessels and most did not have a home to return to (aka Matt and I).
French Poly cruisers stared a WhatsApp group to keep everyone informed on the status of cases in FP and around the world. WhatsApp is a unique app that allows text communications with very little bandwidth. So, in most cases we could get WhatsApp texts when we could not get anything else.
By the third week in March all hell broke loose. The FP government sent all FP locals back to their home island. This is huge as many students’ study in Tahiti and many people work in other islands, trading, shopping etc… Over 150 students and adults were returned back to the Gambiers. In my opinion these are the ones that are most at risk for bringing the virus to the Gambiers. They were in Tahiti where most of the cases were found.
Once all locals were returned home, they shut down all inter-island travel. The land-based tourists had to get on one of 6 flights back to the U.S. or one of three flights back to Europe. Then all flights ceased in and out of FP at the end of the week. No cruiser is allowed to travel between archipelagos and in fact asked to “stay put at their island.” We were quarantined and stuck in paradise.
Residents Repatriated to their Home Islands
We had front row seats to the last group of locals to come back to the Gambiers. They are offloaded from a ferry on to shore using all sorts of precautions. Everyone wears gloves and masks (on-board and shore).
Residents return to Gambier during pandemic
The dock is low and it is close to high tide so tables were set up to hold the luggage as passengers disembarked. I would have liked to see them taking temperatures before sending them home, but maybe that is too much to ask. People from other islands come in pangas to pick up their guests and take them back to outer islands.
Once everyone disembarked from the ferry, they washed it down, inside and out.
Disinfecting the boat
Quarantined in Gambier. A two-week lock down, self-quarantine was put into place where everyone, on land and sea, were required to stay at home (or on their boat) for 15 days. Locals could go outside to work (if you work in a market, bank, or medical facility). In addition, locals could only step outside to get food, fuel or medical care and only if it was within a 2-kilometer radius of their home.
Return to the Mainland for the Supply Ship
We are so remote that all of the food and supplies have to come on a supply ship every 3-4 weeks. Only some local fruit and eggs are grown on the main island in the Gambiers.
The supply ship arrived while we were quarantined and it was pure chaos. We had ordered (3) 200-liters of diesel to share between 2 other boats and were only able to get (1) 200-liter barrel. Primarily because they wouldn’t allow us on shore until after 5p and curfew was 8p so we just did not have time to transfer the fuel. All the pleasure boats in Gambiers converge in Rikitea to meet the supply ship.
Sailboats return to Rikitea
The next day, we did go to shore at 0700 to procure some fresh veg and frozen goods. Armed with my mask and gloves, I got in line behind 3 other locals. They were allowing 4 people in the market at one time.
Masked up to get provisions
Cruisers may go to shore if they ask permission first and then they “may” be escorted by the police. We are only allowed to go to shore for food, fuel, or medical care. With prior approval from the police, one person may go ashore at a time and only for an hour at a time. In addition, the person ashore has to carry a govt form stating their business for being on shore and the date and time.
Boats Arriving Despite the Country’s Closure
Any new boats arriving are being sent to Tahiti, regardless of their original destination. Once in Tahiti, they will be allowed to refuel, provision, and do minor repairs and then asked to leave.
This was horrible news to the cruising community as it is the Pacific Passage time. What does that mean? It means hundreds if not thousands of boats that have prepared to cross the Pacific will be rerouted, turned away or unable to come. It takes many, many months to prepare for a crossing of this magnitude. Now, their choice will be to stay where they are (Mexico, Panama, U.S., Chile) and wait until next season (next year) which can be troublesome organizing visas. Go to Mexico which seems to be the only open country, or go home. So sad.
Many cruisers complained because they had been quarantined on their boat during their long passage from other countries (between 14-30 days), but FP wanted them to be quarantined where they could monitor them for an additional two weeks. Their country, their rules.
Restrictions Get Tighter
A cruiser friend of mine had made a few masks and generously gave me one. Yeah, as I did not have any medical masks.
Even being quarantined on our boat, it is still breath taking here. A sunrise in Rikitea, Mangareva (mainland Gambiers):
Sunrise surprises with its brillance
On 28 March, the government announced an extension of the quarantine to 15 April. They also made the rules stricter including no swimming or water-sports. Kind of hard for boaters as we have to be in the water to check through hulls, clean the bottom, monitor maintenance, etc… They made exceptions for us that we can do these maintenance things as long as we are not near the local population (near their shores). In addition, they implemented a curfew of 2000-0500 and anyone out during those hours will be fined 160,000 xpf ($160).
As of 3 April, there are 37 cases of Covid-19 in FP. One in Rangiroa (Tuamotus), three in Mo’orea and the rest in Tahiti. They recently received a huge shipment of tests and are planning on testing the general population in Tahiti and Mo’orea only. It has been 4 days since a new case has been confirmed. There are zero cases confirmed in the Gambiers.
What Has Sugar Shack Done
We have anchored away from the mainland off of uninhabited islands. For the most part we have been miles away from other people for the first 12-14 days. Another boat called HooDoo with a lovely, young American couple came to anchor about .5 miles away from us. They were under passage for 23 days (essentially their own quarantine) and came here to be quarantined to their boat for an additional 14 days. We felt comfortable being around them as they have not been exposed to other people for 6 weeks.
Being far away from locals and the authorities, we felt comfortable pushing the line a little. We did jump in the water, swam a little, cleaned the bottom of the boat and did some underwater projects. We read a lot, worked on puzzles (on devices), watched movies and worked on boat projects.
Loosening of the Quarantine Restrictions
The quarantine is lifted after five weeks of solitary confinement on the boat. The FP government loosened the quarantine restrictions in the outer archipelagos (not in Tahiti and Mo’orea where the virus is located). We are located in the Gambiers which is furthest archipelago from the Societies where Tahiti and Mo’orea are located. We have not had any confirmed cases, but then again, we have not issued one test.
In the outer archipelagos we are allowed to travel within the archipelago (to one of the 12 islands) but we cannot leave the Gambiers archipelago. The eateries open for take-out, the markets are open for regular hours, and we can visit with other people in groups of 6 or less, while maintaining 6’ social distancing. However, there is still a curfew from 2000-0500 and liquor is not being sold (only beer and wine Mon-Fri 0800-1600).
Little More Freedom
A month later (7 May), we have a little more freedom. The eateries are now open (if they wish) and the curfew has been lifted. We are still asked to maintain social distancing and have been asked to refrain from having large social gatherings.
The Last Bit of Freedom
Now, if we could only get permission to travel between the archipelagos!
We are Free
On 21 May the FP government allowed pleasure vessels that have already cleared into the country to travel between archipelagos. Great news. The only problem is the local gendarmerie in the Gambiers are stating that we cannot leave until the 29th of May. Not really a hardship as the weather is not good for a 4-day passage. So, we wait…but we are free!
Being quarantined in the Gambiers was the best place to be!