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Safest place may be at sea say Portlanders who have cast off on global circumnavigation

Randi Whipple
Sarah Laidlaw and Rob Martin are sailing around the world on the 38-foot cruiser Mapache, seen here before departure at the Port of Ilwaco, Washington.

There is probably no better place to social distance than on a small boat in the ocean. But you do have to go into port occasionally, provided it's not closed. The risks and unknowns created by the ongoing pandemic have put off some people's plans to sail around the world right now. But not for one Portland couple.

Sarah Laidlaw and Rob Martin cast off from Ilwaco, Washington, and crossed the Columbia River bar into the Pacific Ocean in early September on a round-the-world sailing trip. They estimate the circumnavigation will take them three to five years. Martin, 44, was laid off early in the pandemic from a business internet sales job. Laidlaw, 39, left her job as a public defender in Portland.

"Both of us had had this idea in the back of our heads for I don't know how long -- I guess my parents told me since I was eight years old -- but never thinking it would really come to fruition," Laidlaw said in an interview from the Humboldt Yacht Club during a stopover in Eureka, California.

"Our goal was to go to places where not a lot of other people go and to see the things that not a lot of other people see," added Martin.

Laidlaw and Martin began seriously planning the circumnavigation before the coronavirus capsized everyday life. The pandemic did not stop them from setting out.

"We did have some hesitation. You know, what do we do? Do we keep going or do we put this on hold?" Laidlaw acknowledged. "There is a lot of advice out there from people who have done similar trips and they always say, 'Don't wait. Just go. If you wait there is going to be something else that stops you from going.'"

"Maybe it's safer out here than it is on land with the fires and the ash and everything happening with COVID," Martin reasoned.

Martin and Laidlaw are voyaging aboard a 38-foot Hans Christian cutter named Mapache, which is Spanish for raccoon. These mariners modernized the electronics on their single-masted cruiser and added an autopilot, a solar panel system and a saltwater desalinator before departure.

As September turned to October, the pair was sailing down the northern California coast towards Mexico. Laidlaw expects they will have to quarantine on their boat at anchor for two weeks once they arrive in Mexican waters.

After that the plan is to hopscotch to Ecuador, then strike out across the wide Pacific. Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Africa, Brazil and the Panama Canal are some likely stops on the itinerary later.

There is a constantly changing list of countries where Americans are currently unwelcome or subject to long quarantines because of the uncontrolled COVID-19 spread here at home. Laidlaw said she and her husband are confident they will find workarounds.

"The sailing community is a tight knit one the more that we get to know it," Laidlaw said. "There is the ability to plan ahead and not just cross the ocean with our fingers crossed and hope that the first island lets us in."

"Traveling in a boat is inherently a lot more quarantined than somebody who could be in the United States and six hours later be walking off of a plane into another country," Martin said.

If the pandemic gets worse, not better, Martin says the good ship Mapache is stocked and equipped for the couple to be self-sufficient at sea for more than three months.

Credit Sarah Laidlaw
The round the world sailors took shelter from storm winds in Yaquina Bay near Newport, Oregon, where thick wildfire smoke subsequently made navigation difficult in mid-September.

The voyage got tossed its first curveball just days after casting off from Ilwaco when the crew sailed right into the massive cloud of smoke from Oregon and California's mid-September wildfires. Not only did this make navigation difficult, Laidlaw said the smoke appeared to disorient seabirds.

A storm petrel actually crashed into the back of Laidlaw’s head off of the southern Oregon coast. Laidlaw said she and her husband eventually cared for and released a total of four petrels who took refuge on the sailboat -- decidedly uncharacteristic behavior for the species.

Martin served four years in the Navy right out of high school, but neither he nor Laidlaw consider themselves experienced ocean sailors. Martin said they purposely chose the Mapache as the right vessel for this epic voyage because of its stability and sturdiness.

"It's the exact opposite of a racing boat," Martin said, after describing the floating home as basically, "an on-the-water tank that can withstand heavy storms."

Martin guessed that the pandemic has deterred some sailors from launching circumnavigation attempts this year. He said this nautical fraternity skews toward retirees who run higher risk of serious illness if infected by the novel coronavirus since they tend to be older. However, the Portland couple are by no means the only recreational cruisers venturing the oceans this season.

A British Columbia man embarked on a solo circumnavigation from Victoria just one day after Martin and Laidlaw set out from the Columbia River in early September. Unfortunately, 70-year-old Glenn Wakefield's voyage was cut short when he suffered a massive stroke on September 16 while sailing approximately 500 miles west of San Francisco.

Wakefield's wife MaryLou said her husband was able to transmit a message to his family that he needed help before losing consciousness. A medevac helicopter brought the solo sailor to a Bay Area hospital in critical condition. MaryLou Wakefield set up a crowdfunding webpage to raise money to cover the extraordinary medical bills.

The round the world circuit is about to get busier with the imminent starting gun for the Vendée Globe yacht race. The 2020 edition of the once every four years race is on schedule to begin on November 8. Competitors in the "Holy Grail for solo sailors" race nonstop without assistance around the globe via the three capes (Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn), starting and ending in France. Around 33 skippers are entered in this year's Vendée Globe.

Laidlaw and Martin intend to voyage at a decidedly slower pace than the ocean racers. The couple hopes to find local nonprofits in various ports where they can linger to volunteer.

"We want to do more than just visit the tourist spots and drink at the tourist bars," Laidlaw said.

The pair also plans to pick up odd jobs here and there to earn money to keep their frugal voyage going.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.