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Stranded by coronavirus, honeymooners hitch home on Antarctic fishing boat

Nick Perry
Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – A New Zealand honeymoon couple stranded on the remote Falkland Islands in March because of the coronavirus pandemic have managed to return home by hitching a ride of more than 5,000 nautical miles 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 Tuesday.

Their 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, 48, an 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.”

Feeonaa and Neville Clifton, a honeymoon couple who were stranded on the remote Falkland Islands in March because of the coronavirus, managed to get home to New Zealand by hitching a lift of more than 5,000 nautical miles on an Antarctic fishing boat.

The plan was to spend two weeks of their honeymoon on the Falkland Islands, where Neville, 59, a communications engineer, was born but left when he was a 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 canceled, and they ended up spending 12 weeks in lockdown 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.

With not much to do, the newlyweds took long walks, climbing every hill they could find. They admired the rugged landscapes devoid of trees. But with limited human contact, they began to feel as if they were living in an eerie alternate reality.

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 are often sold in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass.

Skipper Shane Cottle said he was nervous at first about taking the couple on his 125-foot vessel, the 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 often weren't allowed on deck because it was too dangerous.

This July 2020 photo supplied by Feeonaa and Neville Clifton, shows the San Aotea II fishing boat in Southern Ocean.

“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 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, 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 hardworking 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.

“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.”

They landed in the port of Timaru and expect to be back in Auckland within a few days. Clifton said the first things she wants to do are to hug her kids and have a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate being home.

This July 2020 photo, supplied by Feeonaa and Neville Clifton, shows the bridge on board the San Aotea II fishing boat in the Southern Ocean.