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Let’s hope a newfound kind of sailing sticks around

2021 January 1

Before Covid-19, sailing seemed stuck in place: it was the same boats moored in the same marina sailing to the same destination or starting on the same line and racing the same course against the same competitors on the same nights and weekends. Sure, women were (and still are) embracing the avocation and breathing life into the routine, but the routine wasn’t changing. And of course, the pros all went foiling. For most of us, change has been molasses slow. As it did with almost all other aspects of our lives, Covid-19 stirred the sailing pot with such vigor that the pot has broken into pieces and its contents spilled out on the floor. As it recombobulates, sailing is changing faster now than we have seen in generations. Gosh, it’s exciting.

Take for example, the explosion of wing surfing. Or wing foiling. Or foil surfing. It’s so new that it doesn’t have a name yet, but it has erupted in popularity during Covid-19. This is a wakeboard outfitted with a winged foil that lifts the board and the boarder out of the water like Jesus standing on Luke Skywalker’s land speeder, combined with a mastless inflatable wing/sail contraption that looks like a cartoon NASA prototype. Since foiling reduces friction and therefore loads, the person can be the mast. Traditional windsurfers hope for upwards of 20 knots of breeze to make adrenaline. Wing surfers effortlessly hit straight-line speeds well over 25 knots with everyday breeze. Footage of wing surfing—or whatever it’s called—landed on YouTube in the spring and manufacturers couldn’t make them fast enough.

On the other end of the spectrum, consider a more utilitarian Covid-inspired development: the refitting of castaway sailboats to make new fun from 50-year old thrift. For decades, thousands of fiberglass boats have been mildewing in yards all over the country and many found new life in 2020. A boat with decent bones could be had for pennies and often landed as the prized possession of a do-it-yourselfer who studied online videos to learn re-coring, glassing, sanding and painting skills. As evidence, consider that the “Restoring Fiberglass Sailboats” Facebook group has 16,000 members. In the spring and summer, members shared their progress towards launch, and many splashed, explaining the happy swarms of threadbare sails seen on American bays and coastal waters in late summer and fall of 2020. There are simply many more boats in play today than there were a year ago and they are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Beyond boats and gear, our sailing expectations had to shift to pandemic realities, so the activity morphed and grew in novel ways.

Since they could promise safety outside, sailing schools and sailing centers packed full with new students and members looking to take classes or reserve time on shared fleets for distance dating or an afternoon away from Zoom calls.

Social distancing guidelines meant that sailing could not be about intense competition or partying and it became a way to reset, and for some, rehab. Racing teams shrunk and raced less often and more informally, but still sailed. One racing program I follow called their core group the “quaranteam” and for the first time ever, they were seen cruising their sled, not as part of a post-race delivery, but for the sake of cruising; of getting to a place to anchor and go swimming and grill hotdogs. 

Time on the water increased substantially; especially inter-generational time. Since there wasn’t much else to do, many parents and kids packed meals and spent a day, a weekend, or a long week bombing around. We pulled into a remote anchorage in mid-July with three other sailboats all crewed by large young families. My log entry reports 14 offspring and eight parents and grandparents at anchor that night, so the bay bubbled with the giddy laughter that comes from a headfirst cannonball drenching the deck. One couple was rehearsing to boat-school their six kids under age 10 in the fall.

Underpinning every one of these developments was the gift of time; the silver lining that Covid-19 pushed us out of stores, cars, airplanes and sometimes jobs and into summer days needing filling. So the sailing got better because it was more organic, more free, more empowering, more intentional and we did more of it.

In hindsight, while 2020 sailing was completely different from any other year, it was the only thing that felt normal. I hope the change is permanent.