Las Gallettas on Tenerife, the leap year switches to February 29th: The crew for our German 50-foot yacht arrives from different directions. For the next day it is supposed to head off: towards La Palma and then on to Madeira. A completely normal transfer is on our cruise schedule. But then, due to Corona everything turns out to be differently.
Besides the skipper and myself as co-skipper and documentary there have four guests on board. Estimated are five to six days, with wind almost exactly from Madeira (north) but with the prospect of a slight turn to the east. [direkt zur deutschen Fassung]
Everything was still relaxed then: Transfer trip from Tenerife to Madeira © Ole Sal
Speedy trip from Tenerife to Madeira
After a quiet night anchoring in the bay of Playa San Juan, we set off. Hardly out of the protection of the volcano Teide, 4 to 5 Beaufort are waiting for us almost directly from the direction of Madeira, raising to 6 Beaufort. Despite of the strongly reefed sails, the boat runs racy and fast. After a long leg in the direction of La Palma, we turn to starboard bow, course east-north-east.
Faster than expected we reach the Madeira Archipelago only three days later. As predicted by the meteorologists, the wind had turned to east. Thus, we reach our destination Madeira in nearly four long legs.
A fast cruise... © Ole Sal
...with the navigation app Boating HD © Ole Sal
Our first port is Machico, east of Funchal – too small for our 50-foot yacht. So either anchoring or heading further east. Finally we berth in the Marina Quinta do Lorde, a 4-star resort with hotel, apartments and houses – and a modern, quite big marina. It looks beautiful there. Lovely, almost kitsch. However… „Where are the people?“ we ask ourselves as we arrive.
The marina seems to be deserted when we are at the floating dock in the early evening. Well, it is not exactly high season – that would be from April to November on Madeira. At least, finally we find some signs of life in the restaurant of the marina: There are a few people dining there.
Marina Quinta do Lorde in the island's south before the lockdown © Ole Sal
Our personal Black Friday
Then comes Friday the 13th. We set sail again, want to get to know and explore the area. Still there is no alarm concerning Covid-19. We keep track of the world situation with interest, but only from time to time. Our destination today is Porto Santo – not the easiest destination in terms of wind and weather with the prevailing northeast wind. But we make it and after eight hours we moor in the only real marina on the small island.
Although we are not superstitious, we get a bad feeling as we hear the latest news. The punch hits us shortly after. We are not allowed to return to Quinta do Lorde as planned for the next day. Corona crisis – now on Madeira Island, too! All harbours are closed from now on.
From one evening to the next morning all ports are shut down. We would be free to leave the harbour, but we are not be allowed to go back in. All, really all ports of the archipelago prohibit the entry of new ships and cruising yachts.
Cruise ship guests had flooded Funchal before the lockdown
We suspect that the government’s ad hoc decision is probably mainly meant for cruise ships. Shortly before, the cruise liners had flooded the harbour and the capital Funchal with thousands of guests. As the Canarian Islands were already taboo for days due to the corona crisis, all cruise ships were redirected to Funchal. Now, two to three big cruisers populated the harbour here at the same time each day.
Cruise ship in Funchal on Madeira © Colin Watts
But somehow, in the rush, the authorities seemed to have forgotten to define reasonable regulations for yachts and marinas in Madeira. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, within a radius of 500 nautical miles there is no possibility to enter any other harbour. The Canary Islands, some 250 nautical miles away, are completely closed off, and the entire European Atlantic coast is apparently closed off as well.
No safe harbour on Madeira?
The hope that there is at least one „Safe Haven“ for cruising yachts on the archipelago, which remains open to incoming yachts seems not to have turned into reality, yet. No mooring, provisioning, bunkering and medical assistance – not even under quarantine.
The big problem along the Madeiran coasts: apart from three or four ports and marinas suitable for private yachts on the south side of the island and the port on Porto Santo, there are only a few anchorages on the archipelago. After our first exploratory tours, we have realized most of them seem to be almost unprotected and not safe – or even dangerous – in tougher weather conditions.
Especially extreme changes in wind force and direction that often occur in late winter – up to 180 degrees, sometimes within minutes – are quite a challenge.
No safe haven within 500 nautical miles? © Wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0
After a few telephone calls between the two marinas and with the national police GNR (Guardia Nacional Republicana), responsible for border security, we get a permit to enter Quinta do Lorde – exceptionally, for the following day. But unfortunately the permit has given only by phone.
The Corona punch
“STOP! NO ENTRY! MARINA IS CLOSED!” we hear the yelling from a dinghy as we try to enter the port of Quinta do Lorde – as approved the day before. All our lines and fenders are clear to moor, but a dedicated marinheiro tries to block the harbour entrance with his dinghy and to keep us from entering. He calls, gesticulating wildly with waving arms, and means to stop or turn us around.
We had already feared this and we are prepared. The dinghy has no chance against our 50 feet yacht. We leave the boat on starboard, moor at the first accessible floating jetty and berth. The marinheiro, who knows us from the day before, is upset. He has his instructions – the police, his bosses – and in general… What should he do now? We ask for clarification by the authorities.
The fear of Covid-19 makes cruising sailors unwanted © Martin Sanchez
Two officers come onto the jetty with face masks and protective gloves. It is the first time that we experience something like this in Madeira. We are being questioned from three metres away.
After some back and forth, they let us know that we can stay for the time being until clarification, but that we have to stay on board. It could have become worse than that.
We may stay, but not on land
The national police GNR seems to be without a real plan in view of the new, apparently completely unexpected situation. Not only at the port, but also at the airport. After several hours of discussions with the marina and the police we finally get an exceptional permission. So after our fast ride before the wind from Porto Santo to Madeira we can now legally stay at the floating jetty in Quinta do Lorde.
Our ship is probably the last one that could still enter here and thus got a safe berth in Madeira. Late in the evening, a police chief visits us personally and explains that we are allowed to move freely again – after six hours in quarantine on board.
This was only possible because we could prove that we had been properly checking in on the archipelago more than two weeks ago. And that we had only started the day before from Quinta do Lorde to Porto Santo.
No entry, stay away! At sea?
NO ENTRY is, since 14 March 2020, the answer to probably all inquiries from cruising sailors at marinas in Madeira. So where to get provisions, diesel, water and, in case of emergency, medical help if you come from the Canary Islands or the Azores? If there are emergencies on board or technical defects? This still seems to be not clarified until today.
No more entry to Funchal for strangers © Ole Sal
Various inquiries to marinas and authorities have remained unanswered to this day. No matter if marinas – like Quinta do Lorde, Funchal and Calheta – or port and tourism authorities are asked: Nobody seems to know anything about exemptions or about any “Safe Haven” regulations and procedures.
The German Embassy in Lisbon provides information on the general situation and the rules and regulations during the current state of emergency in German language. Formally and probably also in reality there is still an absolute prohibition of entry in all ports of the archipelago.
Stranded on Madeira
We are stuck – the one-handed sailor Heiner with his small 9.50 metre sailboat on Porto Santo as well as the skipper and owner of the 80 foot Sunreef mega-catamaran in the harbour of Quinta do Lorde. I leave our boat on schedule in order to organise my return trip to Berlin.
Sailors, you better are in a safe harbour now © Ole Sal
Just that… since the beginning of the corona crisis there are hardly any flights left to book. Since the middle of March, it has been possible to fly home only at extraordinarily high prices, if at all: for 1,600 euros, with 36 hours travel time and three stopovers instead of a direct connection for 300 euros.
Christian and Frauke, a sailing couple from Spiekeroog, a small island in the north of Germany, get the very last flight of BinterAir from Porto Santo to Madeira and then catch their actual flight directly to Germany. But they have to leave their ship in Porto Santo. A friend is now taking care of it. The onward journey of the couple to the Canary Islands is postponed without new schedule.
Before the complete lockdown, Cristiano Ronaldo arrives on his home island
Karl from our crew just reaches his flight with TAP to Lisbon. After a night at the airport and the connecting flight to Germany he safely arrives, after more than 24 hours, at home in Wiesbaden.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the eponym of Funchal airport, arrives on his home island under great media attention only a short time later. By then even the absurdly expensive international connections are cancelled without substitution.
Funchal airport in lockdown mode © Ole Sal
Theo from France is skipper of a training yacht from La Rochelle, the ship is based in Porto Santo. His last crew can barely fly out, but the new crew members can’t land on Madeira anymore. Theo and the owners in France decided without hesitation: He and two remaining crew members want to leave directly for La Rochelle. 15 to 25 days at sea are ahead of them.
No better place to get stuck?
I actually want to go back to Berlin, but only with a direct flight from Funchal to Germany. But… that no longer exists, neither from the airlines themselves nor from the Foreign Office, which has organised the return of – as of early this week – 187,000 people from other parts of the world. But Madeira is just a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with about 250,000 inhabitants, and we are in low season.
“Wherever there are still opportunities to return home with your own resources, these should be used”, explains a speaker of the german ministry of foreign affairs at float’s request. “Where this is no longer possible, the Federal Foreign Office and its missions abroad are working hard to find solutions. We cannot offer transport solutions for sailboats in this context.”
On my exploratory tour through the old town I see two people sitting on the balcony. I hear them speaking german. I talk to them. Michel is a German-French sailor but here on shore leave in Madeira with his partner.
Now the couple is stuck in Funchal and spends the day in the holiday flat they rented without further ado. For 4th May the airline has now promised to fly them to France via Lisbon. And the airline pays for the apartment until the departure.
Shutdown chats... © Ole Sal
... at a distance © Ole Sal
At a safe distance from each other we exchange our experiences. It doesn’t take long until a young couple joins us. Anna and Daniel from Berlin are also stuck here – and he is an enthusiastic sailor, too.
A short time later I find a perfect and affordable accommodation for me in Funchal. I share a big house with two nice people and have everything I need – including a great view of the Atlantic Ocean from a height of 100 metres. And space for my hammock. Here I could stay. And I’m actually preparing for four to twelve more weeks on the island.
Afraid of strangers – afraid of me, too?
The people of Madeira seem to keep quite consequently to the commandment “Stay at home” that is shown here everywhere on display boards. The otherwise lively oldtown is empty, practically all shops are closed. Almost nobody is on the road except a few joggers, dog owners and shoppers.
Only supermarkets and pharmacies are open, as well as gas stations and some electronics and hardware stores. Buses now run according to the Sunday timetable every single day of the week.
Improvised reporter workstation © Ole Sal
Most of the locals are quiet and seem to be calm. I am not sure if I see some fear in their eyes. The fear of the Corona virus, but also the fear of foreigners, because probably them have brought the virus to Madeira. Some of the otherwise so friendly and open Madeirans suddenly prefer to avoid foreigners, and therefore also me.
But when I get in conversations with them in the supermarket or other places, most locals are very friendly and helpful to the strangers stuck on their island. My landlord comes every few days: We keep our distance, but otherwise we act very friendly and normally.
It is hard to say which ships are still lying, anchoring or drifting here on the “Blissful Islands” – the island groups in the North Atlantic from the Azores to the Canary Islands. Some yachts have already made their start to the way north. Most of them wait and see.
Under no circumstances anybody should leave for Europe in a hurry before the transit regulations along the European Atlantic coast and the entry permits for Germany have been clarified. This warning comes from maritime experts, sailing associations and authorities alike!
The season’s weather is not necessarily optimal for this route at this time of year. And all ports along the European coast seem to be closed for leisure yachts. A non-stop trip from the Canary Islands or Madeira to Germany could take four to six weeks.
Routes for the Atlantic crossing © Public Domain
But only if everything goes well, you have enough food, water, diesel and a suitable crew. And if there are no medical or technical incidents or even needs for repairs or spare parts. A crew will be hard to find here, though. There are only the few foreigners who are stuck here – allegedly 300 at most. Nobody can estimate how many of them could and wanted to sail at all.
Liveaboard sailors are bored or busy
A skipper friend lives on his small yacht in the harbour on Porto Santo now. He tells me about his increasingly narrow range of motion. He has not been allowed to use the ferry to Madeira for two weeks. To leave by boat would mean not being allowed to return to any port on the islands.
Two crews in Quinta do Lorde were allowed to move freely on the premises and even use the rental car for shopping. But this is also over since some days ago. Communication is almost exclusively done by phone or digitally. Most crews stay on their boats – and get bored. Or they try to plan their further journey, if they not work on the goals of their to-do lists which can never be achieved in normal on-board life.
Today is day 19 of the Corona crisis on Madeira and day 15 of the state of emergency. What will it look like in two weeks? And after that? Perhaps in a few weeks time there will be an opportunity for me to sail in northern direction.