Islander makes epic journey from Antarctica

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Travel-loving Canadians were off visiting places all over the world last month when the federal government advised people to get home before borders closed, but few of them experienced the global shut-down as comprehensively as Keegan Pearson. 

The Salt Spring-raised man was on his second contract as a polar guide and excursion photographer in Antarctica when the global pandemic was declared. He would spend an entire week moving from country to country just ahead of borders closing in an effort to meet his girlfriend Renée at their current home base, a sailboat moored in Scotland, before arriving home in B.C. 

“It was a little bit of a time,” Pearson said on the phone from Kamloops, where he and Renée are taking their two weeks quarantine at her family’s farm. 

Pearson turned 28 on Feb. 8 while he was heading back to Antarctica for his second contract. He and Renée had made their base in Europe between his contracts. They went to the UK to acquire their sailboat because of the favourable market.

“I had my birthday on the way down [to Antarctica] this year: 40 hours in transit and I thought that was bad at the time,” Pearson said.

That would pale in comparison to the unexpected 11-day journey not far down the road. 

Pearson and his shipmates learned “the world was shutting down” after they had been out of satellite range in the Southern Ocean for several days. They were partway into the 1600-km, four-day trip back to Ushuaia when Argentina announced it was shutting down its ports and borders on the March 17.

“Our ship had already been away for 14 days so we were allowed in on March 16, which was lucky as all the other ships and passengers were stuck at anchor quarantining and not allowed in,” Pearson said.

After disembarking the passengers, the non-crew staff planned to ride the ship back to Chile and their flights home, but were thwarted when Chile shut down all its ports the same day. The 20 employees got in two private vans to drive 12 hours across Tierra del Fuego. They then took a ferry across Magellan Strait, crossed back into southern Chile, and flew to Santiago for their international flights. Just as that was happening, Chile announced it was shutting borders the next day.

Pearson tried to get onto four different flights to the UK in order to meet his girlfriend and get to their sailboat. 

“Naturally none worked out despite the legendary help of Renée and the office. I paid for several flights, but all websites were crashed or call lines were down so final confirmations weren’t being sent out. Which wasn’t great because Chile was shutting down everything at midnight,” Pearson said.

He finally managed to get a flight to Panama, which shut its borders the same day, then connected to New York while the U.S. and Canada were closing their land border, and then on to London. Meeting Renée (who had been in France) at the airport in London, the couple jumped on a train just as all trains were shutting down, and travelled north for eight hours to Oban, where the boat was.

As marinas were also shut down, the two spent just one night on their boat getting it ready for travel before they gave in and headed back to Canada via bus, then train, and then planes out of Glasgow, London and Toronto before finally landing in Vancouver.

“Now we have a boat in Scotland which is our house, and we’re in Canada,” Pearson observed. 

Next steps after their quarantine is over will be to figure out how to make money remotely, and how to eventually get the boat from Scotland to the Mediterranean and keep the adventure going, Pearson said.

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