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Months at sea with no internet, sailing ship heads back to a ‘different world’

By the time the 100-year-old Dutch schooner sailed into the Caribbean’s French Antilles, the harbour master wouldn’t let them anchor for fear of infection. After three weeks at sea, they were allowed to dock for three hours in Honduras to take on cargo and provisions and then sent on to Belize and Mexico, where nobody would be allowed onshore.

Now the Avontuur must recross the Atlantic, more than 6000 nautical miles over several weeks in notoriously rough seas, to the only port that will accept them, Hamburg.

Melbourne University academic Christiaan De Beukelaer on board the Avontuur cargo sailing ship.

Melbourne University academic Christiaan De Beukelaer on board the Avontuur cargo sailing ship. Credit:Matthias Berg

And then Dr De Beukelaer has to find his way back to Australia.

“It could take anything from five to nine weeks to reach the Azores,” he says, speaking from the deck of the ship, which is currently anchored in the busy Mexican port of Veracruz. “And then from there, it all depends on the weather, the north sea…”

Luckily, there is no infection on board. To protect themselves, the crew wear gloves and masks when stevedores or inspectors arrive and the provisions are quarantined or disinfected before anyone touches them.

It takes Dr De Beukelaer “about 20 seconds” to walk the length of the Avontuur, a 44-metre two-masted schooner retro-fitted by the German shipping company Timbercoast for the new wave of zero-emissions cargo transport, trading in environmentally friendly rum, coffee and chocolate.

The east-west Atlantic crossing is notoriously rough.

The east-west Atlantic crossing is notoriously rough.Credit:Matthias Berg

Many of those on board paid for the privilege, although all of them work as deckhands, doing everything from scrubbing the galley to weighing anchor. The Melbourne academic sleeps in the cramped sailors’ quarters, where privacy is a curtain pulled across one of 10 bunks. “It’s living in close quarters, yes.”

It wasn’t until they arrived in Mexico that anyone could get hold of a local SIM card to call friends and family. When they set sail this weekend, they will again be cut off for several weeks, save those fateful messages to the captain.

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Dr De Beukelaer has only a hazy idea of what it must be like for his friends and family.

“We’re so disconnected from the world. It’s almost as if the whole pandemic is something that is happening like in a distant galaxy somewhere. Yes, it means that we can’t go on shore. But beyond that, it doesn’t directly affect us. We don’t have to queue to go to the supermarket. We don’t have to practice social distancing or work from home and avoid all kinds of things that we would otherwise like to do.”

The Avontuur was allowed to drop anchor for a week at Veracruz to take on provisions and a cargo of coffee beans.

The Avontuur was allowed to drop anchor for a week at Veracruz to take on provisions and a cargo of coffee beans.

There was no social distancing – “I’m not even sure what that exactly means” – when Dr de Beukelaer was last onshore in mid-February in Tenerife during the island’s giant carnival, the second-largest in the world after Rio.

The rest of the crew, just onshore from Germany, were keen to celebrate so he went along. “It’s not exactly my kind of event,” he says. “I find it a bit crowded.”

Like so many people around the world, Dr De Beukelaer has watched his plans for 2020 fall apart, and must now navigate the rough seas ahead without much idea of what lies in the future.

Home for months has been this 44-metre schooner, shared with 14 others.

Home for months has been this 44-metre schooner, shared with 14 others.

“Whenever we’re near shore, we start hearing these messages about how things onshore have changed so much and it’s just very difficult to imagine what my life will be like when I get back to Melbourne.”

Born in Belgium, Dr De Beukelaer was meant to sit his Australian citizenship exam on May 1, and intends to reschedule when he’s finally back in the country.

He tries not to think about it too much, beyond dreaming of writing a book about his time under sail.

“I think I’ll have to give my sanity a good check after I get back rather than now because this is just – we’re in it. There’s nowhere we can go. We have to just make this work.

“I guess perhaps this is my home right now.”

with Nicole Precel

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