Wellington: A honeymoon couple stranded on the remote Falkland Islands in March because of the coronavirus has managed to return home to New Zealand by hitching a ride of more than 5000 nautical miles (9200 kilometres) on an Antarctic fishing boat.
Feeonaa Clifton said she had never spent even a single night on a boat before she and her husband Neville embarked on the month-long voyage through some of the world's most forbidding seas. After weeks spent watching albatrosses and learning how to don survival suits, they were finally able to set foot on land again on Tuesday.
Their adventure began on Leap Day, February 29, when they were married at their Auckland home. They had been together for 25 years and raised three children. Feeonaa, 48, an artist, said they hadn't believed in the idea of marriage.
“We realised, at some point, we hadn’t actually appreciated or celebrated one another, at least not in front of family and friends,” she said. “It was just something we wanted to do, and the time felt right.”
The plan was to spend two weeks of their honeymoon on the Falkland Islands where Neville, 59, a communications engineer, was born but left as a young child, and then a month in South America.
They arrived on the Falklands on March 7 just as the pandemic was worsening. Their flight back to Brazil was cancelled, and they ended up spending 12 weeks in lockdown with an elderly aunt.
With a population of about 3000, the Falklands are about 500 kilometres east of Argentina in the south Atlantic Ocean. The islands have reported 13 cases of the virus, all now recovered.
With not much to do, the newlyweds took long walks, climbing every hill they could find. They admired the rugged landscapes that were devoid of trees.
Few of their options for getting home were realistic. The only possible flights were convoluted routes through Britain or Africa and the prospect of lengthy quarantines along the way.
Then they heard a New Zealand fishing boat was planning to make the journey with the crew and catch from a sister boat. Run by the company Sanford, the sister boat had spent months at sea catching Patagonian toothfish, which is often sold in the US as Chilean sea bass.
Skipper Shane Cottle said he was a bit nervous at first about taking the couple on his 38-metre vessel San Aotea II, along with the crew of 14.
“I wasn't sure about their sea legs and that sort of thing,” Cottle said. “We go south around Cape Horn and across a part of the ocean we call Middle Earth. There's nothing there and nowhere to get medical assistance.”
Cottle said the couple turned out to be lovely and, after a couple of days of queasiness, perfect sailors. He said the crew managed to get an excellent run home, without the huge storms and icebergs they sometimes encounter.
Clifton said the seas still seemed big enough, and they were seldom allowed on deck because it was too dangerous.
“Walking around without getting injured was our main objective,” she said.
The newlyweds gradually fell into a routine. They used their body weight to do resistance workouts each day in the confined space. They did some research and work. They played cards, watched films on shared hard drives and chatted with the crew. They tried to help with some light duties but mostly tried to stay out of the way.
They saw dolphins and watched albatrosses follow them. Meals were generous portions of lamb, pork and steak for the hard-working crew, and Clifton said she was excited to finally get some fresh fruit, some New Zealand bread, and the yeast spread Marmite.
She said they slept in bunks, rather than the romantic notion of hammocks.
“The mattresses were surprisingly comfortable,” she said. “I'm going to miss that feeling of being on an ocean, of being swung to sleep like a baby.”
Their honeymoon wasn't what they expected but she said it was wonderful in many ways.
“It was frustrating with the restrictions at times, but it also opened up new possibilities in our lives.”
They landed in the port of Timaru and expected to be back in Auckland within a few days. Clifton said the first things she wanted to do were hug her kids and have a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate being home.