Aussie sailor stuck at sea thanks to COVID-19 border restrictions

When international borders started closing in March, Ben Roulant became stranded on his sail boat off the coast of New Zealand. His initial plan was to sail a roundtrip from Sydney to Tahiti, over three-weeks, with a short stop in NZ.


Then everything changed.


“We sailed from Sydney to the Bay of Islands on the northern end of New Zealand in early March, no one was taking coronavirus too seriously,” Roulant told Chloe Hart from ABC News.

“Then, in a week everything changed, the cruise ships happened and New Zealand went into level three restrictions.”


At that point, Ben’s sail mates jumped ship.


“Some had come from New Zealand, so they just went home — the rest from Australia, Singapore and New Caledonia were so worried the planes would be cancelled they quickly flew home to their respective countries,” he said.


Ben’s girlfriend had been planning to fly from Sydney to Tahiti to meet him, but when he became stuck off the coast of New Zealand, she tried to fly there. Thanks to lockdown, she wasn’t allowed, so Ben spent five months aboard his boat alone.


Sailors around the world marooned

According to Ben, waters and air travel are governed by the same law, which means there are many sailors around the world, unable to come to shore.


“You can go to Fiji — so there are a lot of boats that have left New Zealand for Fiji because there’s nowhere else to go,” he said.


While waiting out at sea on ‘The Eve’, Ben has managed to do a whole lot of varnishing and repairs. Now, after 150 days on the water, he’s found someone to help him sail back to Sydney, where he lives with his girlfriend.


During his five months at sea, Ben tried to work with the Australian Government to find a way to get back to Sydney via sail boat. He told the ABC that his experience dealing with the Government was frustrating.


“The Kiwis have been absolute champions, the Government kept extending our visa and said we were welcome to stay until we were allowed back home — it’s been a lot more difficult and frustrating with the Australian Government, but I now [have] got that approval.”


Isolation first

Ben’s first stop after landing in Sydney is quarantine. Although he asked for an exemption, which would allow him to self-isolate on his boat, or at sea, his request was rejected by the Australian Government.


Now, when he arrives back in Australia, he’ll be picked up by the police and delivered to a hotel in the CBD for a 14 day quarantine, which will cost $3,000.


“Considering we would have been on the boat for eight days just the two of us [getting to Sydney], I think we should be able to quarantine on the boat — or include the week at sea,” he said.


International sailing competitions cancelled

In a normal year, Ben travels the globe competing in international regattas. So far, the Magnetic Island and Hamilton Island regattas have been cancelled thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ben is concerned that the Sydney to Hobart will follow.


“Putting 150 boats together in Sydney Harbour and then to gather in a tiny marina in Hobart where there’s no COVID — does not make sense,” he said.

“It is what it is, I don’t see anything will go ahead, I mean they’ve delayed the Olympics and everything else.”


The blue-ribbon event attracts a large volume of international competitors, who would not be able to take part in the race thanks to international border restrictions.


“International entries are definitely not going to happen, for us some of our normal crew comes from Victoria — they’re sure they won’t be able to come and I doubt by December the international borders will be open,” Ben told ABC News.

“Sailing is my job, my passion and my life — but if they want to fix this [pandemic] sailing is not an important thing. Although it generates a lot of money, if it doesn’t go ahead I’ll be ok with that.”


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The Eve on New Zealand waters

Photo: (Instagram: Eveswan65)