Sailing in the time of COVID

Wednesday, July 16, 2021
(Late entry)
Latitude 54o 38’ N
Longitude 8o 26’ W

Killybegs Harbor, Ireland

Last Tuesday afternoon, the 13th of July, we were headed straight towards Mallaig, Scotland at six knots with less than 250 nautical miles to go. At that distance we were looking forward to being in Scotland by Thursday or Friday at the latest. Then we download the latest batch of e-mails.

On board the Lillian B, getting e-mails at sea requires connecting to an Iridium linked hotspot housed in a dome-shaped antenna on the stern of the boat and then running an app (XGate) on the laptop. By explicitly pushing the start button in the app, the software and hardware search for one of the Iridium satellites circling high above the earth in polar orbit. In theory, there should always be an Iridium satellite in view overhead anywhere on the earth, unlike the geosynchronous satellites which maintain their position above a fix spot on the ground for communication and data streaming when on land, such as for Dish TV. Once found, the XGate software checks whether the signal is strong enough. If not, we have to wait for one of the satellites to circle closer overhead. If the system receives a signal of at least 20% strength, the software starts spewing out a series of text on the computer screen indicating the progress of the handshake and approximately 90% of the time it successfully progresses to “sending mail” followed by “receiving mail for lillianb.” The size of the messages that can be received is currently limited to half a meg in size, i.e., no pictures or large files. Our communication on board the Lillian B. is very limited in frequency and size.

Fortunately, we have benefited greatly from those back home who have full access to the internet and relatively unlimited bandwidth. For one, friend Dick Hiatt has tracked our position as we have crossed the Atlantic and sent us distilled weather reports. Dick has also been the one to take these blogs and post them on the website And our spouses have sent daily e-mails from home. The daily downloads are reminiscent of a World War II movie with the sailors gathering anxiously for mail call. “Carstens, you got another letter from your girl!” In addition to news from the home front, our spouses have been an invaluable source of information on the evolving COVID situation.

On Tuesday afternoon, Becky Carstens’ e-mail informed us that the harbormaster at Mallaig said that we would be required to quarantine for 10 days after arrival, along with a COVID test on day two and day eight, despite having been at sea for 24 days. That would have allowed very little time to enjoy Scotland. In addition, my wife Kay would have had to quarantine ten days herself before joining me in Scotland. The alternative was to head for Ireland which reportedly would open up on the nineteenth of July. Comparing 10 days quarantine in Scotland vs. 6 days waiting to get into Ireland, we altered course once again, headed to the Irish port of Killybegs, 145 miles to the east.

The next morning as I relieved David on watch I was greeted by a somber shake of the head and a very despondent, “They’re not going to let us in.” This was followed throughout the afternoon by crew discussions on whether we should just show up or call ahead, ending with the decision to call the Harbour Master in Killybegs around 4pm, before he or she went home for the evening. The number in the guidebook wasn’t the Harbor Masters, but close enough that we were put in contact with the Assistant Harbor Master, Jim Gallagher. Jim was sympathetic and even apologetic about the fact that he couldn’t authorize us to come into the dock but suggested that we anchor east of the east pier for the night and contact the Harbor Master in the morning. We were ecstatic. That was as good as we could have hoped for.

Give authorization to enter and anchor, we began planning our entry route. One of the collateral effects of COVID is that the supply of electronics from overseas has been delayed and according to the Raymarine supplier, they could not provide the electronic chips for charts of Ireland and the UK for our on-deck Raymarine chart plotter in time before our departure. Fortunately, Garmin provided better customer service in that the Garmin representative downloaded the electronic charts for their handheld GPS navigation unit via the internet onto a blank microchip and then overnighted them to us in time before we left Maine.

Using the Garmin handheld GPS, we were able to create a route for safe passage. It was 11pm by the time we were making our final approach with a slight haze obscuring the distant hills. There was sufficient twilight that we could make out some of the surrounding land, but we were primarily approaching the harbor using the GPS, cross referenced with the paper charts and flashing navigational aids showing the way. Staying on the electronic center-line we could identify the destination buoy ahead as it flashed green every two seconds, followed by the next buoy, flashing green every 6 seconds, a quarter mile ahead. As we grew closer, the AIS triangles on our chart plotter, corresponding to the dozen or so boats moored along our path began flashing red, like geese squawking at us to stay away as we passed nearby. Using a combination of the GPS and aerial photos of the harbor in the guidebook, we found our way to east of the east pier as recommended. As we circled our assumed anchor spot, the bows of five immaculate fishing vessels that looked to be the size of the Queen Mary were pointing straight at us, a few hundred yards away. We questioned whether it was okay to drop anchor directly in their path, then realized that those boat drew more water than the 25 feet below our keel and they would have run aground before running into us. It was midnight of the 14th. We dropped 60 feet of anchor chain and slept in until ten o’clock the next morning.

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