Clara Carrington flew into Uruguay on March 18 from the Philippines. She had been sailing around the world as part of the Clipper Round the World race.

A day earlier Clipper suspended the race. During the regatta, Clara who is half-Spanish, half-American, had met and fallen in love with a fellow crew member from Punta del Este. When he invited her to accompany him home, she didn’t hesitate. After a hair-raising 18.000 kilometre journey, they arrived in Carrasco, just as the borders closed to non-Uruguayans.

Clara, 47, is originally from Mallorca, though her father is from the US. So she speaks both English and Spanish like a native. She worked for years as a human resources manager with the Volvo Ocean Race, a professional around the world sailing competition. In 2019 she decided to become the first Spanish woman to circumnavigate the globe in the Clipper Round the World race.

Fewer people have sailed around the world than climbed Mount Everest. And, incredibly, anyone can sign up regardless of sailing experience. The yachts make six ocean crossings, covering six continents, testing the crews to their limit. Clara had sailed when she was younger but not as an adult. So it was going to be an experience of a lifetime.

The clipper round the world race adventure

All Clipper crew undergo mandatory four week training and in the last week are assigned and train with the team with whom they will spend, in many cases the next eleven months, on a seventy-foot yacht. As a Spanish speaker, Clara was assigned to Team Punta del Este, sponsored by Punta del Este Yacht Club. During that last week of training, she met Antonio, an Argentine and long-time Punta Del Este resident and they hit it off right away.

The Clipper Round the World 2019-2020 race started in London on September 1. Team Punta del Este got off to an excellent start, placed first in the first leg to Portugal.

I asked Clara about conditions on board. She explained that there were an average of twenty people on the crew plus skipper and first mate who are professional sailors. Though everyone spoke Spanish, practically no-one shared a nationality. As the yacht is just 70-foot long, “space is minimal and you learn to live with basics,” Clara told me. “There’s no shower and you clean yourself with wipes.”

Even sleeping space was limited. Like the rest of the crew, Clara shared a bunk. When she rose to work she’d clear her bunk so that the other (female) crew member jump in—a practice known as ‘hot bunking’. Crew slept and worked in 4-6 hour shifts and carried out all responsibilities—including cooking and cleaning the toilets—in pairs.

Change of plans

There were tough moments in rough weather and tough moments when there was no wind. When it was windy, the crew spent most of their time drenched. Clara recalls on a particularly windy voyage from Punta Del Este to South Africa, her hair never dried out fully.

The entire Clipper Round the World race lasts almost a year. However, most crew members opt to sail particular legs of the race. Clara and Antonio were of the few who committed to the entire voyage. On board they were the consummate professionals, enjoying long conversations. Fortunately, romance had an opportunity to blossom in the days on shore at the end of each leg.

By mid January, a week after the Clipper yachts had set sail from Australia for China, the teams were surprised to be redirected to Subic Bay in the Philippines. China was closed. With no communications on board, it was a shock to land and have their temperatures taken and be restricted to the yacht club. They saw locals wearing face masks. Then they were holed up in the Philippines for ten days as the race organisers considered next moves and the safety of the crews.

They were already half way through February. To make time, the teams sailed to an island in Japan and back without touching land. The next leg was crossing the Pacific Ocean—a demanding journey—and the destination, Seattle, was already entering lockdown. As they figured out what was safest, Clipper kept the teams confined to the Philippines base, until finally they called off the race on March 17.

Sheltering in Uruguay

Clara and Antonio had already decided that they would shelter in place together in Uruguay. But they were 18,0000 kilometres away and the Philippines was giving foreigners 72 hours to leave. It was almost impossible to find a taxi driver willing to drive four hours from the base to Manila airport but they made it.

Their return involved three changes of aircraft between Manila, Sydney, Santiago in Chile and Uruguay. At each airport they were warned that they would be unlikely to be allowed onto their connecting flight. Clara recalled the anguish of watching a young Argentinian woman burst into tears as she was refused entry to her ongoing flight.

Incredibly they reached Carrasco on March 18. I asked Clara if she had any idea how close to the time limit she had come to being allowed entry to Uruguay as a non-resident. So she said she wasn’t worried but “it was a bit of a bubble and surreal”. Antonio kept news that COVID 19 had reached Uruguay to himself. He wanted to save her the worry of thinking what might happen if they didn’t make it to Uruguay in time.

Once on Uruguay soil and having filled out their health declaration Clara said “everything was very clear. Knowing we came from a high-risk country, we went straight into quarantine–we didn’t even question it.” They arrived at Antonio‘s apartment in La Barra and didn’t leave the house for the next 15 days.

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Being in Uruguay felt like home

I asked Clara how she had handled quarantine. She laughed. “We didn’t suffer it at all. When you think about it, we had already been quarantined on board with twenty other people for over 25 days multiple times.”

The second leg of the Clipper Round the World race landed at Punta del Este so Clara had already seen Antonio’s hometown in August 2019. It had been cold and windy. However she said “I felt at home from the beginning. Maybe because I was brought up in Mallorca which is a small city on the ocean. The nature that surrounds people, the warmth and the authenticity of the people. It all feels like home.”

Six months after her unexpected return, Clara feels the same way. She finds Uruguayans, “very warm, very welcoming and very educated”. She praises the “incredible education system” which produces a “very knowledgeable” population. In addition, she appreciates Uruguayan humility and observes that people “know who they are and where they stand. They feel good in their skin.” Also, she loves the sense of humour and how strangers are accustomed to exchanging witty repartee and off the cuff jokes.

Next steps

I asked Clara what she’ll do when the borders open. She says that she’ll probably go to Spain to pick up some of her personal belongings because she came here with two pieces of luggage. “I have fabulous sailing boots and sailing jackets but not much else.“ But she’s in no rush. She’ll decide once the borders open up and that “in the meantime Uruguay has a lot to discover”.

In fact, that’s how I met Clara when she joined Guru’Guay’s Discover Uruguay Facebook group as part of her research to enjoy her adoptive nation to the full. She’s also volunteered in an olla popular and has applied for residency. “I’m very happy about that because it just makes sense. For me residency means you want to stay.”

Her plan is to return to coaching and human resource counselling—but now, based out of Punta. When I asked her what she will say when people ask her in the future about where she was during the pandemic, she told me:

“I will say I was in a piece of paradise. I am so grateful for living in a country which has been extremely responsible and has made me feel taken care of.”

Photos: Rodrigo Moreira Rato and Clipper Round the World Yacht Race

The Guru in El País newspaper

This article was originally published in Spanish in El País, one of the most important newspapers in Uruguay. We recently partnered for creating original content about foreigners traveling or living in Uruguay to inspire the expat community and Uruguayans themselves to explore their country. You can follow Karen's column in El País on Wednesdays, both the digital and printed version. We are also publishing the translated English version of these articles here in guruguay.com.

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