On 15 March 2020, the 1911-built steel barque Europa arrived in the Beagle Channel at the end of a three-week voyage to Antarctica. The circumstances were almost routine. Every southern hemisphere summer since 2000, Europa has undertaken several such voyages – typically five each season and with up to 45 people on board, most of whom are charter guests. To keep on schedule towards the end of this voyage, Europa had to motor quite a bit of the way upwind across Drake Passage. “We always plan a little sail-by off Cape Horn at the end of those voyages,” Eric Kesteloo, Europa’s captain since 2006, told me, “and then we have the westerlies for the last day’s sailing. That all went well.” But as she entered the Beagle Channel, the crew heard some news on the VHF radio which was to fundamentally change Europa’s plans immediately and for the foreseeable future.
At the beginning of that voyage Covid-19 had been causing concerns, although it was not yet clear how serious it would become. Certain precautions had been taken – guests filling in a form to confirm they hadn’t recently been to China, for instance – but otherwise the voyage had gone ahead as normal. Three weeks later, however, the virus was officially a pandemic and the situation was very different. The news that the crew heard as Europa made her way up the Beagle Channel was that Puerto Williams had been closed, and when they arrived at their home port of Ushuaia about four hours later they found that they were only just in time: another six hours and the 48 guests would not have been able to disembark.
Until then, the next plans for Europa had included taking her to the Pacific where she would undertake 15 separate voyages – all of which had been sold out for some time – to several remote Pacific islands, then to various Australian ports before sailing around Cape Horn to the Falklands and beginning another Antarctic season. Having already made arrangements to refuel and to replenish food supplies in Ushuaia in readiness for the first leg, they were still able to do so straight away. The crew, however, were all quarantined and had to stay on board, initially alongside and then at anchor. “I spent a lot of time browsing the internet trying to find out more about the virus,” said Eric, “and I couldn’t see anything positive about how long it was going to last.” After consultations with his colleagues at the Europa office in Rotterdam and with his crew, it wasn’t long before it was decided that the best thing would be to take Europa home to Holland.
This would be a voyage like no other, at least in this day and age. Europa has a fuel capacity of 20,500 litres, an engine that uses 500 litres per day (giving a speed of five knots in calm conditions) and she needs to run a generator – which uses another 130 litres a day – at all times. They knew that they would be unable to stop anywhere to refuel, so the 10,000-mile voyage would have to be non-stop and the majority of it under sail. The longest voyage Europa normally does is about 3,500 miles between the Canaries and Salvador). The food they had just brought aboard was for 55 people for ten days, and they now needed supplies which would last much longer. So it was arranged for some of the crew (wearing protective clothing) to make two trips ashore in Europa’s RIB to stock up further. All of this food was then stored in one of the empty guest cabins where it was left for a week before it was touched.
CASTING OFF FOR HOME
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