Sailing Totem: Cruising, the Ultimate Pandemic Prep

The Totem crew has discovered a number of similarities between social distancing mandates and the cruising lifestyle.

April 8, 2020
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Totem is a floating island of self-isolation, swaying gently at anchor in Matanchen Bay…the SUP is stowed, Siobhan’s longboard rests on the side deck, the dinghy is hoisted; gear languishing in the face of our Coronavirus-era retreat. Behan Gifford

This afternoon Jamie and I tried to remember how many days since we’d been ashore; without consulting a calendar or receipt, we couldn’t. Not a single crewmember is phased by this. During a time of uncertainty and upheaval, gratitude provides solace, that the way we’ve been living for over a decade means that some restrictive societal shifts brought by the virus are softer when experienced by a boat crew living in the margins.

Delayed gratification is the norm

In a culture conditioned to instant gratification and fast shipping to meet any need, suddenly being without that certainty must be unsettling. It’s a practical reality that we often cannot source something that we would like to have. Our location may be too remote, the country we’re in may not have that particular item, we may simply be away from developed world distribution.

Boys fishing off a village in Madagascar; no Amazon, no supermarkets, not much of anything really. Behan Gifford

Cruisers are accustomed to making creative substitutions, waiting the weeks or months necessary, and simply going without.


Staying at home is not a big deal

When you’re used to being out and about, commuting, at work, dashing out for a forgotten ingredient – the sudden imposition of stay-at-home directives is surely jarring. But for cruisers, life within our tiny footprint in remote places has prepared us well to live comfortably with restricted movement. Confined to the boat for days at sea condition us well, too: confinement is wholly non-negotiable on passages.

Meanwhile: photo-dating determined this last gasp of socially-distant socializing, 19 days ago. Funny how even our carefully spaced cocktail hour with a friend looks tone-deaf now that stay at home direction is the norm.

We’re accustomed to stretches of restricted socializing. Breaking up a passage with celebrations (halfway cake, Equator party, mystery gifts) helps; being respectful of the needs and sensitives of others while sharing a small space does, too.


Accustomed to keeping connected from afar

One of the hardest parts of cruising, especially in the beginning, is being far from loved ones we’ve left behind. Tech tools to maintain contact help: my mother learned how to use email in 2008 so that we could stay in touch more easily. A few days ago, we had an extended family Zoom meet-up for my father’s 85th birthday – a larger, if virtual, gathering of relatives for his birthday than any in some time.

family meet up
Brady Bunch style gallery of family members catching up. Behan Gifford

Uncertainty is unexceptional

The vague future coronavirus has forced on the planet – our uncertain timeline until Normal resumes – is hard to accept. Cruisers face uncertainty like this routinely. It may be wondering what the welcome will be like upon landfall at a remote island, where the language is unknown to our ears. It is the uncertainty of a weather forecast, always capricious beyond a near-term window and yet a very real impact to our immediate comfort and safety. If this encompassing uncertainty left us feeling unmoored, we wouldn’t be cruising. Instead, it has surely inured us to an element of the stress around today’s situation.

Stocking up is a fact of life

We’ve had to stock up the boat knowing it will literally be months until we can go to a store, and no, we don’t catch fish that much. Our deepest provisioning has been not just for passages, but remote areas: if you forget something… too bad! Make do, or go without. I was able to do our provisioning on the fly with minimal planning thanks to my meal-list method (see Provisioning for a Pandemic) – but had I done my expected, detailed-spreadsheet version it wouldn’t have looked terribly different.

Provisioning in Namibia: not a lot of options from South Africa (January) to Connecticut (June) in 2016. Behan Gifford

We don’t just stock up on food – we have to, well, disinfect it too. I was yanked from complacency about soaking a stalk with dozens of bananas after having a stowaway scorpion bite me in Papua New Guinea! But the bleach-water dip, the shedding of packaging, is also part of our habits to stay pest free aboard – and it works well for virus risk mitigation, too.

No schedule? No problem

Our lives have no routine except that which we impose. Cruisers rarely wear watches for that reason: it just doesn’t matter. But for the unaccustomed, the lack of a schedule risks sliding into boredom. Families are hit the hardest as parents are suddenly faced with remote working AND homeschooling AND childcare – an impossible task in good times. It must be especially disconcerting for kids who typically have highly structured days.

One of the great gifts cruising provides families is that kids, by necessity, learn how to deal with being bored on their own. Sure, we help with tactics as parents – but largely, kids learned to entertain themselves.

Playing with toys in the Pacific Ocean
Deeply engaged in imaginative play, somewhere in the Pacific ocean. Behan Gifford

Everyday life

Quite a few other habits align well with shifts in the time of coronavirus; this is just a smattering.

  • Wearing a face mask feel awkward? Full-face sun protection is a tactic used by many tropical sailors; a Buff neck/face gaiter covered my nose and mouth, saving me from the sun on hot beach walks in Peñasco last summer.
La Bandita
My alter ego, La Bandita. Covering your nose and mouth can take getting used to. Behan Gifford
  • Having trouble remembering what day of the week it is? WELCOME TO OUR WORLD! We sometimes have to pause and think to remember the month, and watches are rare in our community. It’s kind of liberating (as long as you don’t have that conference call at 3:30 to have a clean virtual office view ready for).
  • Hair getting shaggy? DIY haircuts and low-maintenance styles are about all you’ll find in the cruising community; nobody is fussed and I can’t think of anyone dependent on a regular salon visit.
OK, so this particular cut was mandated by lice…mid-ocean. Behan Gifford
  • We’ve been baking bread for years! It’s kind of cute seeing people connect with their inner baker under confinement. Unless you’re lucky enough to be in the Med or French territory islands, there’s a lot of squishy white junk out there… baking is a survival requirement. Grateful to have a solar oven to bake baguettes without propane, which could become precious in isolated Baja Mexico.
  • Holidays in isolation: like that time we had an Easter egg hunt on the deck of Totem, anchored at Ascension Island, and the real race was to find every chocolate egg before it turned into a puddle in the heat. At least families can share a seder through Zoom!


One of the greatest skills the cruising life teaches us is how to be adaptable. It’s a requirement for life with a constantly changing set of rules, languages, cultures, foods, environmental conditions, etc. When our son, Niall, started college – he (and we) attributed his relatively smooth transition into the mainstream and a radically different way of life to the fact that most of his life conditioned him to adjust to new situations. The life changes inflicted by coronavirus aren’t terribly different: I suspect the CLODS – cruisers living on dirt, as former cruisers often refer to themselves – are having an easier time than most right now.

It’s still challenging

I don’t mean to make light of dealing with the stress that coronavirus has brought. It’s real for land folks and cruisers alike. We’re processing them in our own way. Totem is heading for isolated parts of the Sea of Cortez. We’re provisioned for months and expect very little interaction with Baja towns and villages that we know well. At dinner last night we bemoaned that our last “real” taco was a month ago (it’s just not the same, making your own).

Meanwhile, like many cruisers, we’re quite content to pass extended time on the floating islands which are our homes. We’ll manage our resources carefully and hope the post-coronavirus normal isn’t too distant. We’re catching up on boat projects, keeping up with coaching / sailmaker work, reading a few more books, learning independently and together, playing cards and games, having group chats with friends and family, and watching movies. With the addition of decent internet and a stable anchorage, this is far easier than a passage!

Join us this weekend for TOTEM TALK: SUNDAY BRUNCH! We’re going to host an open meeting on Sunday, April 12, at 10am Pacific / 1pm Eastern. We hope you’ll join us to talk about life in Mexico under Coronavirus restrictions, some wild stories as cruisers we know get locked out of landfalls, and we’ll take questions about how to cope … or … whatever you want to talk about! Details on how to join will be posted to our Events page soon.


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