Here we are in April 2021 and it still seems we are no closer to getting together again and taking delivery of Destiny from the boat yard. Building a boat in lockdown has proved to be a seemingly endless challenge. It’s now been more than a year since we said goodbye to each other at Heathrow Airport in London. We fully expected to meet up again in a few weeks. We had no idea then that the situation would turn out as it did of course. As a result of the global Coronavirus pandemic, the boat is going nowhere. Borders across the world are closed and although there are a few windows of opportunity in some countries which frequently open then close again, the possibilities for cruising are limited.
Ed is at the boat yard in China – Chris is stuck in France. The Chinese government do not yet allow foreigners to enter the country and neither do Hong Kong. Unless you are fortunate enough to qualify for a special visa on the basis of economic need or for some other specific reasons. There are almost no flights other than those available for repatriation of residents.
The Last Year ….. and a bit
The original delivery date was May 2019, which we never believed as it was far too ambitious! The date was pushed out to October 2019 – then December 2019. Various deadlines for completion of the boat passed. The delay was due to a number of reasons, including the complexity of design and delays with getting materials to China. Some of the delays with materials were our own fault. During 2019, we were dealing with a lot of problems with our business sale and were not focussed enough on the boat. Ed visited the boat yard in May and in October but we were not hot enough on the milestones – our own as well as the boat yard.
In December 2019, it was clear Ed needed to be at the boat yard again to support the detail stages. He left Chris alone in Greece to close down and sell our old sail boat, SY Liberation, and flew there from Athens. A lot of new ideas have gone into Destiny and it was impossible to manage this remotely.
Home for Chinese New Year ….
He was on site over Christmas and New Year and they launched the boat for the first time. He then came back home to Europe for a few weeks over Chinese New Year at the end of January. At this stage, the expected delivery date – a realistic one – moved to early May 2020. But, Ed’s flight home was just as the coronavirus was breaking out in Wuhan. Nobody understood then what would happen over the coming months. More than a year later we look back and smile at our naivete.
The airline cancelled Ed’s return flight from London back to Hong Kong in mid February. The boat yard was closed and China was in lockdown. At the same time, cases were beginning to emerge all over the world. In Europe, just over the border from our home in France, Italy in particular had a serious problem. Even then we just assumed it would be contained and solved quickly. We rebooked the flight for two weeks later expecting it all to be over by then. By the time that date came, the pandemic was still a problem for Italy and some other countries around us in France – with isolated cases starting to pop up all over the place. Flights had still not resumed properly so we rebooked again. We considered booking for 9th March but decided to give it another week to “be on the safe side”!
How little did we know …..
On 16th March 2020, Ed got on a plane to Hong Kong and has not been home since. He fully expected to get his visa in a few days as usual and be back at the boat yard in Zhuhai. It was not to be.
East vs West
Boarding the plane in London, the reality of the fear of Asian people hit Ed. He was the only passenger in the queue not wearing full protective suit and facemasks. At this time the West had no idea about social distancing and wearing face coverings. Of course, Asian people had some previous experience with SARS so it was not such an odd concept for them. In fact, they found our attitude towards masks and lockdown to be incredulous. We truly felt there was a total over-reaction and it would all blow over – no worse than the ‘flu, they said. But more was to become clear when Ed landed in Hong Kong. During the two days it took us to drive from our home in the Alps to the UK, and for Ed to fly to Hong Kong, the whole world changed.
Crisis Hits Europe
In the hour before we left the French Alps, the French President announced a total lockdown and evacuation of all tourists and employees from the ski resorts. Tens of thousands of tourists were in complete panic – they had only just arrived that morning. Our mobile phone lines went down and we could not get any news until we were a distance from the Alps. Hotels and travel businesses faced a huge evacuation that nobody had ever had to deal with before on this scale. The local authorities had announced only the previous day that resorts would be staying open until the end of the season. Then just hours later the central government turned all those plans on their heads. It was an unprecedented action and to be honest all those involved were in complete shock.
We got out of France just a few hours before the mass exodus and the borders closed completely. We thought we had got out in the nick of time. Ed boarded his plane and Chris set up in the UK with our motor-home. She planned to spend a few weeks visiting family and arranging to ship our personal effects to the Far East. Once that had been done, the plan was to return to France. She was supposed to close down our house and rental properties and join Ed in China.
Lockdown Across the World
A few days later, the UK followed France into lockdown. However, lockdown in Europe means something completely different to lockdown in the Far East! At the other side of the world, Hong Kong and China closed their borders to foreigners. The Hong Kong visa centre closed before Ed could even get there and they were not accepting any applications. Mask wearing and temperature controls were obligatory. We were both stuck in limbo on opposite sides of the world.
We could have taken the decision at that time for Ed to just turn around and come back to Europe. However, we knew for sure that would be a disaster for the boat. It was essential he was at the boat yard for the production stage we had reached. Missing this step would mean living the rest of our lives with a boat which was not as it should be.
We jointly decided we had to do whatever it took. We still believe it was completely the right decision, despite the situation it has left us in. He checked into the Novotel Century in Hong Kong and settled in for “a few weeks” of semi-quarantine and lockdown. He bought a supply of masks and learned to look like a bank robber!! Masks were obligatory and staff took your temperature before they allowed you to enter the hotel and any shop or restaurant.
The same in Europe ….
In the meantime, Chris spent four months isolating herself in the motor-home in the UK. Entry back into France was forbidden and European borders closed. Fortunately, she was on a good site where all the necessary facilities were available. The owners closed the site completely but they allowed six vans to remain. None of them had any other place they could go. The six groups of people stayed separate from each other and could not speak or socialise. We could leave only to buy food and essential supplies. Every trip was risky as nobody wore masks at that time – there were simply none available. Candy (Selene) very kindly shipped a carton of them over to Chris from China!
The understanding of infection control was minimal in many shops, despite efforts to train staff and provide the materials. Chris could fortunately learn from the experience in the Far East and knew how to take the right precautions. She managed to get hold of sanitiser, gloves and other essentials before it was all sold out. It seemed you had no choice but to take your life in your hands just to get food! But there are worse places to have been in isolation – at least there was open space. Ed’s lot thousands of miles away in a tiny Hong Kong hotel room was not so pleasant!
Chris has a number of medical issues which put her in the “high risk” category and it was a very worrying time for Ed to be so far away and unable to help. It was particularly difficult for him when she went down with a bout of “normal” pneumonia. She ended up in the local hospital (NOT Covid though, fortunately) with a course of anti-biotics and rest.
In the end, it took until July 2020 for us both to be liberated at roughly the same time. After four months of being in a tiny Hong Kong hotel room, the Zhuhai Government granted Ed a special business visa. Thank you China!!! Jet Tern had also put a huge amount of effort into negotiating with the local government and making our case.
He had a small window of opportunity to cross over the Hong Kong Macao bridge and enter China, before the borders closed again. He had to fulfil a long list of medical requirements and testing at both ends. However, at this time, governments had not yet built the formal infrastructure for such things. There was no real network set up of testing centres or facilities to deal with non-residents needing medical care. Finally, armed with a negative test result, he jumped on the bus and made it across the bridge.
Quarantine hotel ….
At the other end, he was greeted in Zhuhai by police in full PPE and placed in an isolation area. After hours of waiting and several Covid-19 tests, they escorted him to a designated quarantine hotel. He and the other residents of the hotel were under heavy guard the whole time. The hotel had santised the entire room before Ed’s arrival. They locked him in the room and he could not set foot outside it for 14 days. Each day, doctors knocked on the door several times. They insructed Ed to stick his head out and they took his temperature before closing the door again.
There was no food available in the hotel – the idea was the “in-mates” could order takeaway delivery from local restaurants. This was not so easy for a Westerner since all the apps were in Chinese and payment was not possible by foreign credit cards! Fortunately, our Selene project manager at the boat yard, Candy, made sure he didn’t starve. She ordered food for him each day and made sure he had everything he needed. The only problem was she is a tiny person, with a tiny appetite, and Ed’s meals were a fraction of his normal daily food intake. Despite Candy’s best efforts (which were much appreciated), he was starving! Twice during the 14 days he had further Covid-19 testing – the most important being on Day 10 which would determine whether or not he could be released.
Finally free – in a limited way!
In China …..
On Day 14 of quarantine, the authorities released Ed following negative test results. The Jet Tern driver collected him and took him to the boat yard. But the nightmare was not yet over as it took several days of physical recovery. For an active person like Ed, being caged up in a small room for 14 days took a heavy toll. Almost immediately after arrival on the boat, he collapsed on the flybridge – we think due to lack of movement, heat and lack of food. It took a while to get back to normal but he was happy to finally be back on the boat. A very worrying time for Chris stuck back in Europe but all was well again after a few days.
Since his arrival, he has been staying in a small local hotel, close to the boat yard. They don’t speak a word of English. There are no Westerners anywhere to be seen. Breakfast consists of fried noodles every morning. Lunch is a tray from the factory canteen. Boiled cabbage, plain rice and a small piece of meat or fish. Meat is mainly bones and mostly chicken feet. Luckily Ed isn’t a fussy eater! A few times a week, he treats himself to a Burger King or Chinese KFC equivalent in the evening.
Occasionally he eats a meal with Howard Chen in the evenings such as the great stone grill place in Zhuhai. It isn’t realistic to do this often because of the cost. He has the luxury of his Nespresso coffee machine in his room. This was a birthday gift which Chris managed to source in Hong Kong during his quarantine there. Capsules are a problem though – so sparingly used.
As soon as the boat is launched again, he intends to move onboard. At this point in time, he would pay a fortune for a slice of bread and cheese or a steak! And he swears he will never go in a Burger King again in his life. But, for this length of time, there is not really any other option. The Western hotels are luxurious and would have cost us more than the boat over the last year. They are also located in the middle of town, an hours drive away from the boat yard. All in all, its a challenge.
And in Europe ….
Around the same time as Ed arrived at the yard in July, the UK government also lifted lockdown. Chris finally took the ferry back from the UK to France. She had not been able to ship our possessions as intended unfortunately. She palletised everything and left it behind in storage. Friends will help us to ship the pallets whenever we can. What was clear, however, was that the idea of joining Ed in China a few weeks later would be impossible.
Now almost a year on, there is still no sign of the borders opening up for non-residents. There are very few flights operating. As a result, we just have to sit and wait. No point in getting stressed as it is totally outside of our control. We thank God for the internet! We keep constantly in touch by WeChat with voice and video calls several times a day. Sometimes we spend almost the whole (European) day talking – the whole evening for Ed. We’ve also installed home security cameras in the house so we feel as if we are still together across the miles. Some people probably think that’s weird! It helps us both with the worry of being apart as we can still keep an eye on each other and don’t feel so alone.
The Experience in China
Lockdown in China really means lockdown. There are no exceptions. You stay at home – no discussion possible. There is a reason that the country has all but cleared the disease from within its borders! Internally, full lockdown only lasted for a few weeks. However, that’s enough when it’s 100% enforced because it’s then impossible for transmissions to occur. The majority of cases which have occurred in China since that first outbreak and period of lockdown have been imported. Foreigners granted exceptions, journalists and Chinese citizens returning from abroad. Hence, while the country now moves around internally very freely (and without masks and social distancing), they will still not allow outsiders to come in, other than in extreme exceptional circumstances. You can understand where they are coming from, despite how frustrating and incredibly difficult it is for us personally.
All the people Ed came across during the process were friendly, helpful and sympathetic to his plight. The organisation and management of the procedures was exceptional with very clear rules, which everyone followed without question. At no time was there any feeling of threat or danger – quite the opposite. They took the pandemic extremely seriously – as it should be – and there was no opportunity for any flexibility. As a result, we had a good feeling that once they released you, you were truly safe. Unlike so-called lockdowns in Europe and America where you see crowds of people on beaches and streets, flouting the rules, with the police powerless to enforce them.
Cultural differences ….
I guess this could be construed as a political statement – which is not the intention. There are many different views on this issue and of course everyone is entitled to their opinion. There has been a lot of criticism and finger pointing at China going on in the last year. Our observation is that it is generally from people who have never even been there.
The East is not the same as the West. Not better, not worse – just a very different culture and each has its pros and cons. There is fear and anger – racist attacks on oriental origin people in the West, despite many not even being Chinese. Conversely, the Chinese are afraid when they see a Westerner, in case they bring the disease back in. Families stand up from a table in a restaurant and move their children to a safe distance. We can only talk about our own personal experience. This has never been anything other than a very hospitable and friendly welcome in China, even in these circumstances. Our hope is that things return to normal soon.
The Impact on Destiny
On the boat, things came to a grinding halt for some time. Firstly with the lockdown across the world, none of the engineers needed for commissioning could get to the yard. Secondly, for a while, we suffered a shortage of general materials. Factories had been closed and stock was low. Although by April 2020 life in China was back to normal, we had to import a lot of equipment from the US and Europe. The pandemic was just taking hold there and supply lines were difficult.
The boat yard tried to keep working with what they had which meant they followed the process in a different order to the project plan. For example, normally they install all machinery before they finish the interior cabinetry. But in the absence of machinery, they moved to the next step to keep some momentum. In the long run, this was a mistake – and caused more work. When machinery finally arrived, the installation caused damage to the interior floors and cabinetry. This meant the yard team spent a lot of time with repairs and doing things again. It was a nice thought – but with hindsight it would have been better to hold fire.
Abandoned (but much loved) boat ….
Basically, the lack of materials and constraints of travel restrictions kicked the entire project plan out of the window. One of the main issues was because we launched the boat in December 2019. Normally it only stays in the water for a few months for sea trials, balancing and testing. In our case, we “abandoned” Destiny at the yard dock for a year without moving. Inevitably, she was not at all pretty on the bottom when the yard lifted her again earlier this year! Once more, this meant doing work over again – mainly anti-fouling and gel coat layers. Clearly we bought a new boat! We would not accept one that has degraded from a year laying still in the water.
For us there is an upside though. We have the chance to see what our boat would look like after it was a year old! We identified many of the snags which are normal in any new boat build, before we even take delivery. This is good news for us and for the boat yard. They will avoid the costs of undertaking warranty work through contractors in other countries. We’ve had many new boats over the years. In our experience, you always spend the first year on the water dealing with warranty issues and minor defects. But we’re hoping that with Destiny we will avoid that to a large extent.
Building a Boat in Lockdown – Impossible Challenge
The complexities of our design were beyond the experience of Jet Tern technical workers. We knew this from the start so no criticism of them. Specifically, our electrical system, air conditioning system, heating system, audio/visual systems, fine detail of the water systems and the electronics. There were also a lot of little “gadgets” – such as black water tank cleaning, built in air compressor and jet-wash. They simply did not really understand these conceptually. We knew exactly what we wanted, and we had created all the technical design documents ourselves.
Therefore we always intended that we would complete and direct this phase. The contract arrangement was that we would direct and instruct them. We would do commissioning and configuration and the yard would provide the manpower. When they were hesitant during the design phase about agreeing to changes they did not understand, we kept saying “don’t worry, we’ll be here to manage it” …… but that was before Covid!
Being creative ….
The yard team tried hard to keep things moving, during Ed’s absence. He tried to manage them remotely by WeChat from his hotel room in Hong Kong. They exchanged pictures, scribbled instructions and drawings. On both sides, they translated messages – difficult and stressful for everyone. Despite all his time in China, Ed does not speak a word of Chinese. Well, he knows ONE word and it’s not one to repeat! The boat yard shop floor workers do not speak English so communication is challenging. This is normally not a problem face to face! Demonstration and hand gestures always works – but remotely via chat messaging, it’s a whole different ball game.
When Ed arrived, inevitably he found many things “half done” and other things wrongly done. But, in the circumstances, it’s a wonder they got as far as they did. Ed spent his time finishing off and correcting things with them. By December 2020 the boat was in a pretty good state of build and installation. We now have just the snagging list to complete which is currently in progress.
A Silver Lining?
In China …..
Since the end of 2020, life in China is perfectly back to normal. You would never know there was a pandemic going on – unless you need to leave or enter the country. But we still face the issue that the John Deere engineer cannot visit to commission and tune the engine. The Northern Lights engineers can’t sign off the generators. The surveyors for our flag registration can’t do the survey, and neither can those who will complete the CE certification.
So while waiting for completion and acceptance testing to be possible, Ed is taking the opportunity to take the project further. He’s doing the tasks we had intended to do ourselves after delivery – the advantage being that he has a team of workers to help him. They are learning a lot from him too in this process. In addition, he’s helping them with the other boats in build at the moment for other customers. This will help Selene to build more complex boats in the future. It’s also improving their understanding of how their boats are used and the customer’s requirements.
Realistically, we know Ed will be at the boat yard for at least another two months. Perhaps a lot longer if Asian governments don’t lift travel restrictions soon. The boat yard need until the middle of June to complete the snagging list and other work underway, if the technical teams don’t have to work on other boats. The order book is picking up very well now so we have competition for the workers’ time!
And in Europe ….
Back in Europe, we are also making good use of the down time. Our original plan was to keep our house and rental properties for another few years. We wanted to cruise and live aboard for a while first. We intended then to go back for a few months to finalise everything. Ed would finish off the renovation of our house (which has been underway for ages in his spare time)! Only then would we dispose of everything as the last step in our retirement. But, the travel company renting our chalets went bust in December 2020 and we lost our main source of income. The travel company also left the chalets in a very bad state of repair.
So, with Chris stuck behind, we decided to accelerate this step. She is currently managing the completion of the property renovation and repairs by contractors and selling everything up. Anyone want to buy a fantastic chalet in the Alps? This way, when we finally get onboard Destiny together we will not have to come back for a very long time! Time lost now means time saved later.
We’ll get there …
You can always find a silver lining. In circumstances such as these you just have to look for it among the clouds and try to stay positive. The reality is most definitely very different from our dreams but in our lives nothing has ever gone according to plan. We’re used to adapting to curve-balls and re-thinking our ideas but this is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced. We’ve spent time apart before for business reasons, but this length of time is excruciating.
In the words of a famous song, we will survive. The pleasure of achieving our dream will be even greater with the effort we’ve invested. Our relationship is rock solid and we’ll get there in the end – it is after all our DESTINY.