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The time to sail is coming

2020 July 1

Memories of post-race parties run together, but one stands out, not just for the fun being had (fun was definitely had) but for the shocking dockside news that awaited the unknowing fleet.

After three days on the water in a time before ubiquitous cell phones, racers tossed lines to earlier finishers and were greeted by stories that a psychopathic cannibal—the infamous monster Jeffrey Dahmer—had been discovered and arrested after a grotesque killing spree. On the water we had been naively going about the joys of sail trim, tactics and weather, but the rest of the nation was glued to their televisions as footage of the horror scene at Dahmer’s apartment was played in a cable news loop. The main lesson many of us took from the experience is that it’s good to be offshore and even better to be disconnected, even if it means missing a headline.

As the world went into lockdown to try to contain Covid-19, it seemed logical that some offshore sailors also might be oblivious—as we were about Dahmer—to the pandemic. Indeed, in the later stages of quarantine, a few headlines appeared about unknowing solo sailors landing in a different world from the one they had departed. In one case, singlehander Bill Norrie radioed a harbormaster for a place to tie up after almost three months offshore. He was allowed by the New Zealand authorities (after all, singlehanded ocean sailing is the ultimate in social distancing), soaked in the news, refreshed his supplies and then headed back offshore, like the Bernard Moitessier of 2020. Due to the miracle of global communication, most world cruisers were watching Covid-19 news in real time and teleconferencing with their kids and parents just like the rest of us.

Sailing isn’t immune to the communication contagion. If we want to ignore the hyperbole, we have to actually turn it off. 

But Covid-19 isn’t just news. It’s dangerous, and it requires that we be apart for a time to get it under control. If you left the dock before it started, luckily, you don’t have it now. However, social distancing and sailing aren’t the twin siblings that we thought they might be. Since there are so many sailors now living aboard, on sabbatical cruises, sailing south in retirement and hopping between and packing into idyllic but busy anchorages, managers at destination harbors and ports all over the world rightly worried that cruising sailors might become virus transmitters. Many harbors closed to any new visitors and some prevented sailors from casting off. World cruisers were forced to anchor in place. If you happened to be caught with dwindling provisions, or a non-working watermaker, or a full head, quarantining aboard wasn’t fun. One couple told me that paradise doesn’t feel like paradise when it is all you have. As I write this, lockdowns are unlocking but the future remains uncertain. Locally, races are being canceled and boats aren’t being launched.

So what will be the longer term impact on sailing from Covid-19? Certainly, as long as there is risk of a second peak, we’re not going to be packing the rail with 15 friends. But call me an optimist; I think the future of sailing has never been brighter. If the virus taught us anything, it’s that to be healthy and remain so, we need to be social, we need to be active, we need to be with family, and we need to be outside. Sailing nails all four. So when the vaccine arrives, I predict a resurgence of interest and investment in learn-to-sail programming and parks-based ride-sharing fleets. I anticipate new energy to rethink the formats of racing to make it simpler, fairer and more accessible to small boats and family groups. I see clubs becoming more inclusive and re-organizing around sailing education, potlucks and volunteerism. I see the price of boats and gear coming down with deflation, which seems all but certain. And I see a new and urgent interest from a nation of Covid survivors to reprioritize what’s important in life; extended off-grid outdoor play.

Crisis begets reinvention. Sailors are not about to waste this one.