Life

My Family’s COVID Year Sequestered on a Superyacht off New Zealand

The deck of a superyacht.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo Jag_cz/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. This as-told-to diary with a superyacht captain has been edited and condensed from a conversation with Laura Lai.

I’m a superyacht captain specializing in large sailing vessels. I started sailing after graduating university in 2008. I was looking for a job that would provide me a bed and food and thought that I could figure the rest out after that. At the time, I didn’t know there was a superyacht industry. I just knew that there were large sailboats out there that would need help sailing. I bought a one-way ticket to Florida in the middle of hurricane season and found work on sailing yachts there.

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What I ended up getting into was traditionally rigged ships. My first captain told me he wouldn’t be able to pay me for the first three months, but he could provide me with “adventure, a good cause, and a bunk that’s mostly dry.” And I said, “I’ll be there.” After that, my wife and I joined another traditionally rigged boat. Our pay on that boat was a living stipend—and any class we wanted to take at a maritime institute. It’s where we got our education. I got my captain’s license from that.

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Now I’m a captain, usually rotating back and forth with my co-captain every six weeks from the vessel to my home in San Antonio, Texas, where I had a newborn child. Before the pandemic, I reported to this boat in Panama, just on the western side of the Panama Canal after it had crossed through. I captained the boat across the Pacific along with my co-captain until we stopped in New Zealand for what was supposed to be a six-month refit on the vessel before we continued on our circumnavigation. My family joined me here during that time.

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In March, after six months of hard work to get the boat ready to launch and continue on around the world, she was being lowered into the water as the New Zealand prime minister was giving her speech about the country going into lockdown. This is the first time we were hearing about these kinds of things during COVID. What? Lockdown? What does that mean in the modern world? We were launching. She was rolling. The boat was going to be in the water within an hour. And we had to make a difficult decision to say, well, if we’re going into lockdown, the crew has to fly out immediately and get back to America. If we’re going to be locked in a house, we can’t safely manage and look after the boat.

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In this grand moment of launching, we halted meters from hitting the water and told them to haul it back up. We went up and shut everything down. We secured it, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to access the boat. It was crazy. It was like this hard push for six months trying to meet a deadline so we could sail around the world. Then all of a sudden, after a speech from the prime minister, we have to pull it back out of the water, tie it up, leave it, and come back in a month.

We repatriated all of the crew on the second day of the lockdown here in New Zealand. During the lockdown month, I would ride my bike down once a week, sneaking aboard the boat just to make sure there were no environmental or safety hazards. Once we were out of quarantine and the rules allowed it, we launched the vessel the very next day.

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COVID has taken us from a crew of six to a crew of one. So, what I’m tasked with now is to manage a boat that’s normally crewed by five on my own. And to do that and keep up safety practices, I live aboard the vessel. Since my family’s here in New Zealand, we moved aboard the yacht together.

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There was no running water. There was no hot water, naturally. There were no systems. It was cold. The boat was torn apart. It was a construction site, and we had to work as a family and just start uncovering and rebuilding this boat at the shipyard to make it work. On top of that, when we first entered the nationwide quarantine for COVID, we just found out we were pregnant, so it was tough work to ensure that the boat was safe and comfortable for my wife and toddler. We’ve since had our second son in October, and now we’re all living together in the crew quarters.

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The owner cannot access the vessel since it’s in New Zealand. So, we’re in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for the right season to redeliver the vessel back to the United States. Until then, the owner can’t use it, so we are here keeping up with the vessel’s maintenance while raising our family.

As far as pandemic precautions, we don’t have to take too many now. We’re in New Zealand and it’s fairly safe. Our COVID situation hasn’t been one of face masks and hand sanitizer. It has been one of baby gates and swim lessons. Living aboard with young children, we’re on constant watch to make sure that our kids are safe and aren’t getting outside on deck where they shouldn’t be.

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The day we repatriated our crew, we realized that we were kind of the people who had stayed behind, or were left behind, and had this feeling of being alone. A low point of the yachting industry is you don’t choose exactly when and where you’re going, and you spend a lot of time away. I haven’t seen my siblings in probably a year and a half. You don’t get as much time at home with family. And that is fine when you’re young and you’re traveling with your wife, but now that we have some kids, we start to feel this more and more.

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Now, because we’ve been here for so long, we’ve become ingrained in the yachting community in Auckland. This is the longest we have stayed in one place since we graduated college, so this is a bit of a unique experience for us. Because we’ve got such a great community here, they kind of took the place of family when it mattered most, like when we had our newborn.

Should COVID have not hit, we would be approaching Antarctica within a couple months. We were going to do the Northwest Passage in the summer of 2021. I wouldn’t have been able to bring our children aboard on that voyage. So even though this isn’t a typical experience in my career as a captain, living aboard the yacht as a family this year has been the challenge and the blessing of our life—to be able to share our love and passion for this profession and lifestyle with our young sons.

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