When I flew to the Marshall Islands on February 28, the only disease anyone was interested in was the measles. The check-in person in Honolulu needed to see my vaccination proof, as did the air-steward before I boarded the plane, and finally, I showed it one more time going through customs on arrival.

I had travelled from New Zealand to the Marshall Islands to join friends on their yacht. The plan was for a month of diving, kiting and exploring. Then I would fly back home on March 25.

The plan started out fine, and by March 4, we were anchored on an uninhabited atoll at least 24-hours' sail away from the nearest cellphone tower or internet connection. We had a satellite phone on board for emergencies, but other than that, the outside world was out of reach. When we signed off from the world, the travel restrictions and lock downs in the news were really only for China, and toilet paper was still being purchased in an orderly fashion.

A friend had suggested I write a travel article about my trip and so I was keeping a diary. The first few days of it read like any tropical holiday. "I saw my first seahorse!" "What is this fish I just shot and can we eat it?" "B*%* sunburn!!!!"

Sunset over the Marshall Islands, where Sarah Duncan is currently living on a boat. Photo / Supplied
Sunset over the Marshall Islands, where Sarah Duncan is currently living on a boat. Photo / Supplied

But then on March 6, a message came through on the satellite phone saying that the Marshall Islands had stopped flights into the country because of coronavirus. We were understandably a bit shocked but all agreed it was a smart move considering the lack of healthcare provisions on these remote atolls.

Flights were still leaving though so there was nothing to worry about, and the holiday continued. "Night hunting on the reef, caught two crayfish." "How am I still getting sunburnt? Is this sunscreen even working?!"

The next text message came through on March 8. The atoll we had sailed from, and were intending to return to, had barred ships from entering. This one was a bit more worrying as the yacht's batteries weren't working and my friends were waiting on new ones to arrive in April. Until then, the engine had to be running in order for the navigational instruments and auto-pilot to work. A 24-hour sail was easy, but a multi-day sail to somewhere else was going to be more of an undertaking.

Exploring the wrecks below, Marshall Islands. Photo / Supplied
Exploring the wrecks below, Marshall Islands. Photo / Supplied

We emailed the Marshallese Internal Affairs department to explain our situation and ask for permission to enter the closest atoll. The satellite phone sent the email off, and things went back to almost normal. The only real difference was that dinner-time conversation now revolved around weather windows for longer sailing passages, whether it was possible to jerry-rig the batteries, and other contingency planning.

But during the day, fish were still getting chased, beaches were still getting walked and the sunburn had slowly started to turn into tan.

But then the answer came back from Internal Affairs. We were not allowed back into the atoll we had left from - our only option was to go to the main atoll of Majuro, two to three days' sail from where we were.

And so the contingency plans started kicking in. We looked at the weather and decided we had enough diesel to run the motor constantly for the whole passage (therefore ensuring all instrumentation would keep working). We would head for Majuro on March 16.

Another text message came through: the United States had closed its border to anyone travelling from Europe.


We set sail on the morning of the 16th, and throughout the passage the satellite phone kept pinging. Italy was close to surpassing China with number of deaths; Spain had declared a state of emergency; and one from my parents saying they weren't worried, but that I should get back to New Zealand sooner rather than later.

We arrived in Majuro on the evening of March 18. The next day was spent trying to work out what on earth was going on in the world, and whether or not my flight out was still viable.

On March 20, the only international carrier for the Marshall Islands abruptly stopped its flights. Just like that, my window to leave was closed.

The next flight out of the Marshall Islands is scheduled for mid April. Sarah Duncan is now moored in Majuro, hoping her sunscreen will last.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website