A New Zealand couple who became stranded in March on their honeymoon because of the coronavirus pandemic has finally returned home – after hitching a more than 5,000-mile ride on an Antarctic fishing boat.
Feeonaa Clifton now says she wants to hug her children and have a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate following the monthlong journey she embarked on with her husband Neville, which began in the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina and took them through some of the world’s most forbidding seas.
“The mattresses were surprisingly comfortable,” she told the Associated Press. “I’m going to miss that feeling of being on an ocean, of being swung to sleep like a baby.”
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The Cliftons’ adventure began on Leap Day, Feb. 29, when they were married at their Auckland home. They had been together for 25 years and raised three children, but Feeonaa, a 48-year-old artist, said they hadn’t believed in the idea of marriage.
“We realized, 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.”
Their initial plan was to spend two weeks of their honeymoon on the Falkland Islands, where Neville, a 59-year-old communications engineer, was born but left as a young child. And then from there, a month in South America.
They arrived on the Falklands on March 7, just as the pandemic was worsening. Then their flight back to Brazil was canceled, and they ended up spending 12 weeks in lockdown on the islands with an elderly aunt.
With a population of about 3,000, the Falklands are about 300 miles east of Argentina in the south Atlantic Ocean. The islands have reported 13 cases of the virus, all now recovered.
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With not much to do, the newlyweds passed their time by taking long walks, climbing every hill they could find. They admired the rugged landscapes that were devoid of trees. But with limited human contact, they began to feel that they were living in an eerie alternate reality.
They wanted to return home – yet few of their options for getting there 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 are often sold in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass.
Skipper Shane Cottle said he was a bit nervous at first about taking the couple on his 125-foot vessel San Aotea II, along with the crew of 14.
“I wasn’t sure about their sea legs and that sort of thing,” Cottle told the Associated Press. “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.”
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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 often weren’t allowed on deck because it was too dangerous.
“Walking around without getting injured was our main objective,” she said.
The couple 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. They watched films 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, watched albatrosses follow them, and heard some of the crew had spotted whales spouting in the distance. 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 also said they slept in bunks, rather than the romantic notion of hammocks.
On Tuesday, the couple landed in the port of Timaru and expect to be back in Auckland within a few days.
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In the end, their honeymoon wasn’t what they expected, but Clifton said it was wonderful in many ways.
“We spent an unheard of amount of time together,” she said. “It was frustrating with the restrictions at times, but it also opened up new possibilities in our lives.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.