A Return to Racing After a Pandemic

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No one said racing in the midst of a global pandemic would be easy, but sailors across the country still did their best 

No one said racing in the midst of a global pandemic would be easy, but sailors across the country still did their best 

In the spring of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was just beginning to surge across the country, many municipalities and health departments banned all competitive sailing. This left yacht clubs, sailing schools, non-profits and other sailing organizations nationwide facing the prospect of a long season of strict limitations. At the same time, they couldn’t help but see golfers beginning to return to the links.

Reluctant to see more time pass without either any youth or adult competition, regional sailing communities began searching for ways to get back out on the water and race safely in at least some capacity. Fast forward a year, and scores of regattas put on hold in 2020 are back on for 2021, with fingers crossed and (hopeful) plans underway for a full season of racing. None of this comes by accident. In fact, it has required hard work and plenty of quick thinking on the part of countless sailors across the country—to the benefit of the sport as a whole.

A New Way to Sail

Rhode Island’s maritime industry helps fuel the state’s economy, and when the pandemic struck, those involved with sailing and boating quickly started talking to each other.

“We made a distinction early on between the state of Rhode Island’s rules and their recommendations,” said David Schwartz, president of the Narragansett Bay Yachting Association. “Some of the state’s rules did not make a lot of sense to us. So, being rational adults and knowing more about what it is like being on a boat, we tried to make a clear distinction between what the rule said and what the suggestions were.

“As the regional authority, we started a dialogue with the commodores and race committee chairs of all our clubs and sailing organizations. We were asking them what their ideas were and what made sense, and we came to some conclusion of how we could carry on and do racing in a safe manner. It soon became very clear that we could have senior and junior events if they were conducted with thought and care.”

For many, this meant more singlehanded and doublehanded racing, and more families racing together on Wednesday nights. With no grand prix or national events to attend, local weekend racing was soon full of competitive sailors taking advantage of various coastal, shorthanded events. There was no socializing afterward. But there was still plenty of racing to be had.

Meanwhile, for the Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay, New York, the answer was forming a “bubble” so sailors could continue racing safely throughout: an approach that, all things considered, made for a surprisingly successful 2020 as well as a good jumping off point for 2021.

According to Oakcliff executive director Dawn Riley, a three-time America’s Cup and two-time Whitbread Round-the-World race veteran, at the start of the pandemic, the local fire marshal told Oakcliff it needed to shut down and go home. The idea of closing down a not-for-profit, though, that houses up to 40 sailors and staff and runs varied, intensive sail training was almost unthinkable. So instead, the staff ended up helping the constable, the Coast Guard and state department of public health design and implement a set of safety protocols both for its own benefit and the benefit of sailing in general.

“They adopted our protocols, and we have now become an open source for yacht clubs, groups and governments across the country,” Riley says of the Oakcliff plan, which includes continued mandatory testing and requiring anti-microbial face coverings at all times except when sailors are actually out on their boats.

“We remain completely bubbled and safe,” Riley says, adding the program was successful enough that the team was fully prepared to compete in the 2020 Ida Lewis Long Distance race last summer—at least until Rhode Island suddenly began turning away any car with New York plates, including the ones driven by the Oakcliff crew.

Even this, though, failed to stop staff at Oakcliff, as it simply refocused its training and kept on competing on-site. Ultimately, the center ended up holding no less than 14 regattas, including various offshore, doublehanded, triple crown and match racing events. It even inaugurated a program whereby young sailors living on site can even stay on and finish high school at Oakcliff.

“We now have eight kids here who are in our high-performance school for sailing from as far away as St. Croix, New Jersey and beyond. They will now be able to graduate with their high school diplomas and continue to pursue their racing goals,” Riley says.

As for the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it was initially a scramble to adopt sailing protocols based on state and city guidelines. However, while they were not allowed to host any racing events that might involve other clubs or organizations, they have been able to continue to conduct adult and youth classes.

“The youth programs filled very quickly last summer, and the parents were so glad to get their kids into them,” says sailing center program director Teresa Coronado. She adds, “I learned that separating the siblings was a good idea, as many had been cooped up together at home during the pandemic. By giving them some space, it really kept the peace.”

Financially, Coronado admits, it was a tough year for the center, because classes remained at half capacity and new membership was down 60 percent. However, members “went out sailing in far greater numbers, and we just happened to have had a beautiful summer here last year for sailing...I would love to see these adults back again, and we are planning on all our members using the boats and sailing more again this year.”

By developing its own set of Covid-19 protocols, Oakcliff Sailing was able to keep racing throughout 2020 

By developing its own set of Covid-19 protocols, Oakcliff Sailing was able to keep racing throughout 2020 

Another one of the countless sailing instructors and coaches looking for creative ways to keep sailing accessible this past year was Sammy Hodges, Junior Yacht Sailing Director at the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett, New York. According to Hodges, he and his crew succeeded in coaching 72 young sailors a day from early July through August. To comply with Covid-19 protocols, the club’s boats were cleaned up to four times a day.

Fortunately, Hodges says, it all worked out—in part because the club hired a number of young new sailing coaches in 2020 who, he believes, just “assumed that cleaning boats four times a day was part of coaching.”

“It became a back-to-basics kind of summer,” Devon YC Sailing Director, Alec Weatherseed, says. “We saw more family-oriented sailing, and we had one of the biggest sunfish regattas that we have ever had for just Devon members. We also had a new event called the Challenge Cup. We allowed and encouraged anyone with a boat to sail around the markers using a self-timed, time trials format [with] different courses laid out. This allowed people to go out by themselves or in their bubble and time their race. This ended up being really popular.”

Another club facing its own particular set of challenges was California’s St. Francis Yacht Club on San Francisco Bay. Because the land the club uses is owned by the city, even in a “normal” year the club needs to obtain a permit for its regattas, in particular; which in turn only served to make 2020 that much more problematic. Ultimately, the club was only able to organize a single sailing race, early on in the pandemic. After that, it relied on virtual regattas and some remote-controlled racing with model boats. Fortunately, the club was still able to keep its youth sailing programs going, and its adult members could still sail recreationally with their household.

“We got a third of the junior programs back on the water, and were able to offer single and double-handed training,” says St. Francis commodore Bill Dana. “Because of the safety protocols, the kids were not sailing in the higher-performance boats, but they still wanted to sail. There were no onshore amenities, such as our steam room, which remains closed. The kids remained enthusiastic, however, and sat in the drydock area where it can be pretty cold and less pleasant. They are still coming here, though, because they just want to go sailing.”

Although the past summer was a tough one for the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center, there was still plenty of sailing to be had out on Lake Michigan 

Although the past summer was a tough one for the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center, there was still plenty of sailing to be had out on Lake Michigan 

Looking ahead, Dana says the club is hopeful that its regular slate of regattas will be able to return in 2021, including September’s Rolex Big Boat series. “We’ve already been in touch with Rolex, and we are planning on having the event. If we had to cancel, we would not do so until July. We are optimistic that we will be back running regattas and we will be prepared and do everything we can to make it happen,” Dana says.

Finally, there’s the case of Florida’s Pensacola Yacht Club. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were looking for ways to keep sailing and not shut it down,” says club member Talbot Wilson. “After all, we had the U.S. challenger for the America’s Cup, New York Yacht Club American Magic, based here, and they were training and out in the community and they were careful…We wanted to keep sailing, too.”

Ultimately, as was the case in Newport, working with other area clubs and looking at the protocols of the Gulf Yachting Association (which covers an area from Houston, Texas, to St. Petersburg, Florida) the racing continued this past year. “We continued to offer fun racing on Thursday nights, and we usually have a bay race for the kids. The prizes were awarded on the water, and we continued with regular events without the burgers,” Wilson says.

Looking ahead, Pensacola YC Commodore, Tom Pace, says the intention is to get back on the water as expeditiously as possible, with all 2021 regattas and events back on the schedule as a “qualified maybe.” The key, he says, is to remain flexible. “We will make changes as we go to continue to make sailing fun and safe,” Pace says.

The St. Francis Yacht Club’s Big Boat series is one the many premiere events slated to make a return in 2021 

The St. Francis Yacht Club’s Big Boat series is one the many premiere events slated to make a return in 2021 

Regatta Renaissance

Of course, while clubs and other local organizations were able to keep sailing, at the major-regatta level, 2020 was pretty much a total loss, with everything from regional events to no less than the Cruising Club of America’s biennial Newport to Bermuda race being canceled. Similarly, the Southern California Yachting Association had to cancel its signature boating event, the SCYA Midwinter Regatta, which began in 1928 and prior to the pandemic had only ever been canceled during World War II.

Still, with the 2021 season just around the corner, it looks like racing is back. The 2,225-mile Transpac, for example, which starts off Point Fermin in Los Angeles and finishes at Honolulu’s Diamond Head is all set for its 51st running, starting July 13th, with a strong number of entries ready to take part. Same thing with the Chicago Yacht Club’s annual 333-mile race to Mackinac Island, the oldest and longest annual freshwater race in the world. Because the race begins in one jurisdiction and concludes in another, organizers have spent months working with medical and public health experts, state and local governments and other organizing bodies to ensure the fleet sails safely and in compliance with all governmental mandates. The good news is the extra effort appears to have been more than worth it. Within 48 hours of opening up registration in February, the club had 75 entries, with another 50 coming in the week after that.

“What makes this race special for many of us is the deep history of the competition, the adventure, the camaraderie, the welcome at the iconic lighthouse finish line off of Mackinac Island and, of course, the variable wind conditions,” says Chicago to Mackinac race organizer Martin Sandoval. “Lake Michigan has no true trade winds to rely on, so the course and the competition are vastly different and very tricky each year.”

The response to the news that the Chicago-Mackinac was back on for 2021 was overwhelmingly positive  

The response to the news that the Chicago-Mackinac was back on for 2021 was overwhelmingly positive  

Unfortunately, for those events like the biennial Marion to Bermuda and 363-mile Marblehead-Halifax races, races that cross national boundaries, the situation remains a tough one. In fact, in early May, after striving mightily to somehow make things work, organizers for the Marion-Bermuda event had to finally call the event off [For details click here. The good news is the initial favorable response on the part of sailors to organizers’ early attempts to keep the race on track speaks volumes about the event’s future, which looks to be a strong one.

As for the Marblehead-Halifax race, given the state of the U.S./Canada border a finish in Halifax ultimately proved to be out of the question. Undeterred, though, U.S. organizers have created an alternative 250-mile event it is calling the Michael A. Mentuck Memorial Ocean Race, starting July 8, which looks to be a blast. (The Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron is also working on an alternative event.) Among other things, logistics will be a good deal easier than a race the entire way across the Gulf of Maine, so if you’ve been toying with the idea of trying out offshore racing, this might be the race for you!

“From US Sailing’s perspective, we are planning for a full slate this year with the goal of getting back to full speed,” says US Sailing’s director of sport development John Pearce.

“Everybody has been excited to get out sailing in any capacity and when we can introduce the social aspect again it will be great,” Pearce says. “It will be exciting to see friends and connections and there will hopefully be a big boom in regatta registration to fuel the industry and the clubs. On the youth side of things, the vast majority of sailing programs in 2021 is sold out. The interest in sailing as an activity has been gaining, and I hope that is a net gain in the long run.”

Sounds, good. Here’s to a fun and safe summer of racing for all! 

Get Out and Sail!

If you’ve never raced before, there’s never been a better time to try. As for you race veterans out there, class flags will soon be flying again, which means time to hike—hard! What follows is a sampling of some of the better-known regattas scheduled to return in the coming months, including the 2022 Pineapple Cup and Newport-Bermuda Race. Visit US Sailing website (ussailing.org) or contact your local yacht club, sailing center or class association for more. Rest assured, if people sail in your part of the world, there’s going to be racing going on that’s right for you!

California Offshore Race Week San Diego, CA May 29 – June 5

Block Island Race Week Block Island, RI June 21-25

Annapolis to Newport Race Annapolis, MD June 4-5

167th NYYC Annual Regatta Newport, RI June 11-13

Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race Marblehead, MA July 11

Queen’s Cup Milwaukee, WI June 25

Transpac Race Costa Mesa, CA July 13

Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac: Chicago, IL July 16

Ida Lewis Distance Race Newport, RI  Aug. 19

Rolex Big Boat Series San Francisco, CA September 15-19

Pineapple Cup Race Miami, FL Jan. 22, 2022

Newport to Bermuda Race Newport, RI June 17, 2022

May 2021

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