Stranded family hunkers down on boat awaiting baby’s birth

Cayman community reaches out to help

Marie-Michelle Larouche wasn’t expecting she would be giving birth in the Cayman Islands when she, her husband and two children set sail from Montreal, Canada in September 2018.

Larouche, who is now 36 weeks pregnant, and her family – husband Philip Kelly, son Alexis, 8, who is home-schooled, and daughter Rosie, 2 – have been living on board their 31-foot sailboat Ohana in Governor’s Harbour in Grand Cayman since early March.

They had only planned to be Cayman for a day or two, but as the borders of places they had intended to sail on to started closing in response to COVID-19, and it seemed likely they might get stuck at sea with no welcome ports in the region, their travel plans changed drastically.

Philip Kelly and Marie-Michelle Larouche, with their children Rosie and Alexis, on board the Ohana at the Cayman Islands Yacht Club on Wednesday. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay

The family’s sailing adventure began when the Ohana, captained by Kelly, travelled down the east coast of the United States, taking three months to get to Miami, stopping at various ports along the way, such as New York, Annapolis, Norfolk and Daytona Beach, before arriving in Fort Lauderdale.

They then sailed to Bimini, Bahamas, where they stayed for three months, and then on to the Dominican Republic. They left their boat there from May 2019 until November 2019 while they returned to Canada to work to earn money to continue sailing through the Caribbean Sea.

They returned to their boat on 1 Dec. last year. Their plan was to sail to Cuba, Cayman, Belize and Guatemala.

“We were supposed to leave our boat in Guatemala and come back to Canada for the delivery of the baby,” Larouche said. “We had our plane tickets from Guatemala to Montreal for mid-April. I would’ve been 31 weeks pregnant and I was still able to fly back home.”

They arrived in Cayman from Cuba on 12 March after a 24-hour sail. “Our plan was to stay here only a day or two in order to rest before another four-day passage to Belize,” she said.

“We had been hearing of the coronavirus and following the news; however, we had no idea that the virus could change our travelling plans,” said Larouche.

The family has lived for a total of 13 months on board the boat, with a few months off to return home to Canada last year.

“When we arrived in the Cayman Islands, everything in the Caribbean changed very quickly. We were starting to hear rumours that countries were closing theirs borders and that airports were also closing.”

At this point, the Cayman Islands government had already started to refuse entry to some cruise ships. The actual ban on the cruise ships came into effect on 14 March, but even before that restriction became official, Cayman had already turned away three ships.

“One by one, all countries around us started to close their borders,” Larouche said. “We had to make a decision fast.

“Guatemala had not yet closed their borders. However, if we were to leave for Guatemala, there were many things that could change during the five days it would take us to get there. What would happen if they didn’t let us in the country? Could we come back to Cayman? Would they accept us in another country?”

She said she had already heard many stories of boaters being stuck at sea because they could not find a country to accept them, so “we decided we did not want to take a chance to leave [Cayman]”.

“Also, being 29 weeks pregnant and having kids on board, we couldn’t take the chance to be stuck out at sea,” she said.

“In March, we had no clue this crisis would last this long,” she added.

Soon after they made their decision to stay, Cayman announced it would be closing its airports to international flights on 22 March, giving people a few days’ notice if they wanted to leave.

This left the family with another tough decision to make. “We had two days to decide if we would get on the last plane to Canada,” Larouche said.

But that decision was not as simple as just buying a plane ticket.

Marie-Michelle Larouche at the helm of the Ohana.

“Unfortunately, we had nowhere to leave the boat here,” Larouche said. “All the marinas were closed and not accepting new clients because of all the restrictions, so it was impossible to leave the boat here.

“Also, we had a feeling it was not safe to be travelling through airports where it seemed that the virus was speeding like crazy. Again, we took the decision to stay here on the boat where we felt very safe.”

Having been on their sailboat now for more than a year, it is their home, she said.

“Living on a boat almost feels like a quarantine anyways, as we are in a small place; we need to think of our provisions, we sometimes stay on the boat for several days. So, we thought that our family and the baby to come would be very safe here on the boat in the islands.”

As time went by, though, they realised that borders and airports would not be opening up anytime soon and came to terms with the fact that their baby girl would be delivered in the Cayman Islands.

And that’s when they encountered their next obstacles – all the baby stores were closed so they couldn’t prepare for the arrival of their expected newborn. Also, their travel insurance does not cover childbirth costs.

Larouche reached out to the community in Cayman for assistance, sharing her tale with the Facebook group, The Real Women of Cayman.

“The responses were amazing,” Larouche said. “We received lots of donations of clothing and baby stuff from many moms on the island. We couldn’t believe how the women of Cayman decided to welcome us in their community.

“Delivering a baby in your country can be stressful, so having to deliver a baby here is a little overwhelming. However, with the help of the community here and with the help of other boaters here, we have managed to prepare for most of it.”

Their biggest concern, she said, was the payment for the delivery.

They were preparing “to pay between 6,000 to 8,000 Canadian dollars (CI$3,560 and $4,750)”, she said. “However, again with the help of the community here, we were referred to one of the best OB/GYNs of the island, who has agreed to help us for the financial side of the delivery.”

Their experience with CaymanKind is not something that many of their friends travelling by boat, who are stuck in other countries, have seen. Larouche said many are struggling to get food, water and supplies, and are also having difficulties going on shore.

“We are lucky as it’s very easy to provision here in Cayman and we are not missing anything,” she said.

However, the family had budgeted to spend time in countries in South America, where the cost of living is much cheaper than in Cayman, so finances are a worry for them.

On Monday, because the birth of their baby is fast approaching, the family moved their boat to the marina at the Cayman Islands Yacht Club, after they were given special authorisation from the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service and the yacht club to move the Ohana to a dock.

“For now,” Larouche said, “we still feel safe and comfortable and we are preparing for the arrival of our little baby girl.”

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