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Pandemic Perseverance

Not to be deterred from getting out on the racecourse, the clubs and regattas adapted to shifting COVID-19 restrictions to get sailors on the water safely.

Updated:

January 21, 2021

In June 2020, Michigan sailors were starting to emerge from early COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. With the promise of summer and hopes for some return to normalcy along the waterfronts on the Great Lakes, volunteers of Little Traverse YC, in Harbor Springs, Michigan, were preparing to host their annual July Ugotta Regatta, a local tradition that was set to celebrate its 60th edition. Guidelines for holding on-water events were in place and announced to competitors, but on July 22, two days before the start of race weekend, the club pulled the plug on account of one staff team testing positive with the virus. It was a signal to clubs around the country, that reopening sailing would be a bigger challenge to overcome.

J/70 Sailboats lining up to start on a blue sky summer day with a yellow buoy in the foreground.
Remote-controlled MarkSet Bots helped to allow Little Traverse YC to—unofficially—continue its July Ugotta Regatta during the pandemic of 2020. Gretchen Dorian

Little Traverse YC Commodore, Tom Trautman, recalled that the staff member was initially exposed to COVID on July 12. The staff member was asymptomatic, but the person they were in contact with tested positive on July 15. The staffer went for testing that day and immediately quarantined. “The one-week wait to get test results was really frustrating,” Trautman says. “In the meantime, we closed the club to do a deep cleaning, started contact tracing and made sure that the staff person had the help they needed to recover. And we also started discussions about whether to hold or cancel the Ugotta Regatta and, if we held it, what it would look like in the COVID world-order.”

The LTYC Board held two emergency meetings and decided, that only if the test results came back negative they would proceed with the Ugotta Regatta. The test result came back positive two days before the regatta was to start, so they pulled the plug.

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While the Ugotta Regatta didn’t take place, a practice sailing series was held that weekend instead (referred to as the “2020 Un-Ugotta”), adhering to Michigan’s outdoor pandemic guidelines. Trautman says he was moved by the support from the sailing community reaction to the Ugotta Regatta postponement. “Most entrants either asked to have their fee rolled over to 2021 or offered the fees as a donation to support the club’s sailing programs,” he says. “People were very understanding that sailing was just a game compared to what people with COVID were going through.”

Little Traverse is not alone in its challenge as sailing events, regattas and so many other activities have been put cancelled, postponed indefinitely, or conducted under extreme cautionary measures.

As the world’s population enters the second year of the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to impact all aspects of daily living, from work to family to recreational activities like sailing. While some restrictions have been relaxed enough to conduct racing in different manners, and vaccine distribution increases, sailing and related events like post-race parties and in-person programs at yacht clubs continue to be curtailed or abandoned altogether. The knock-on effect is far reaching: from marine businesses to fundraising organizations that have had to be resilient and creative to survive.

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One year ago, Paul Callahan, chief executive officer of Sail To Prevail, was preparing the organization’s modified Catalina 20s and ramping up operations for a typical summer of providing access to more than 1,000 individuals with disabilities. As a former investment banker, Callahan’s radar was already tuned into global news, so the updates in February about rising COVID-19 cases in Asia and Europe concerned him enough to start preparing backup plans for Sail To Prevail’s summer 2020 programs.

“We normally start prepping our boats in March, with a goal of getting them in the water at the end of April for a May 15 start date,” said Callahan. With his two full-time staff members, he spent the initial days during Rhode Island’s initial shutdown reaching out to supporters. “We sent handwritten notes to 906 supporters in March to ask how they were doing,” says Callahan. “In deference to what everyone was going through with COVID, we felt that asking for donations at that time was not appropriate. Surprisingly, we received a number of unsolicited donations. That was really heartwarming.”

Next was trying to prepare for their summer sailing program, not knowing when restrictions would be relaxed or what guidelines the organization would have to follow. “We would prepare internally for an opening date and protocols, but as COVID-19 got to be more of an issue, the goalposts and timelines kept getting changed and moved further out,” Callahan says. “At the same time, we normally bring on sailing instructors in mid-May and felt an obligation to pay them even if we couldn’t take people out on the water.”

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Callahan decided to bring instructors onboard in mid-May, with plans to start sailing at the end of that month. COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed around that time and Sail To Prevail was able to take more than 600 participants on the water this past summer, fewer than prior years due to social distancing requirements. “The lower number actually ended up being somewhat of a blessing, since it meant we could spend more one-on-one time with each participant,” Callahan says. “We felt a huge social responsibility to provide a safe and much-needed experience for the population we serve.”

In hindsight, Callahan says, 2020 was his most gratifying year leading Sail To Prevail. “To provide people with an opportunity to leave their worries about COVID-19 back on the dock—if only for a couple of hours—made this past year one of the most gratifying for me and the staff. “Disabled kids’ lives are already limited and the virus made it even more so. Giving them the opportunity to be on the water last summer resulted in a paradoxically successful season.”

Winter and springtime are normally busy times for Offshore Sailing School, based in Fort Myers, Florida, but not so with the pandemic. “We had gangbuster bookings in January and February 2020 for our spring and summer programs for Florida and the BVI, and we were on track to have our most successful Performance Race Week [scheduled for April],” says Doris Colgate, OSS president and CEO. “In early March, it quickly became clear that we were facing serious challenges, as Florida and other states issued shelter-in-place orders.”

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As customers called to reschedule their lessons to later in the year or to 2021, the sailing school’s popular Performance Race Weekend was postponed to 2021.

With customers reluctant to travel to Florida and then having to self-quarantine either upon their Florida arrival or the return to their home states, Offshore Sailing School quickly pivoted to marketing their programs to people within driving distance of their Fort Myers location. They also started youth sailing programs as an alternative to the summer camp programs that were cancelled in the Fort Myers area. “We picked up some business, but it wasn’t enough to keep all of our employees,” Colgate says. “Having to furlough staff was the most heartbreaking and gut-wrenching thing I’ve had to do in the 56 years of running the school.”

Offshore also started a daily web series of “Dockside Chats with Steve” featuring the company’s chairman Steve Colgate, who was elected to the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2015. The series was originally set to run for three weeks, but it has been extended to 70 episodes. “It helped in some small way to keep in touch with our customers, particularly since some of the in-person outreach we love to do at events like the Annapolis Boat Show did not take place in 2020,” says Doris Colgate. “Throughout the pandemic, interest in Offshore’s sailing and powerboating certification courses has remained on par with pre-pandemic levels.

Our private course enrollments for couples and families definitely increased, and we are seeing a lot of inquiries from people who are feeling ‘cabin fever’ from COVID-19, and are looking for a safe and relaxing escape. There’s nothing like sailing to get an escape from it all.”

When COVID-19 gripped the world in March, Patrick Shannon, the president of the Harbor 20 Class Association and co-chair of the Annapolis Leukemia Cup Regatta, knew immediately that 2020 would not be a normal year to hold a charity fundraising event that had been a mainstay of the Chesapeake sailing community for 31 years.

“I knew there wasn’t any time to waste,” Shannon recalls. He, along with co-chair Chris Munson and staff from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, discussed a number of options, including delaying or cancelling the June 2020 event, and presenting the post-race party and fundraising gala online versus in-person.

“When we made the decision in April to postpone the June event, we were facing two big uncertainties,” Shannon says. “First: would the pandemic be under control enough to have a regatta later in the year? And, second, how would we find a date later in the year to hold a regatta with 100 boats? It’s incredibly hard to plan a regatta under normal circumstances and rescheduling it is even harder. We had concerns, but our volunteers were unanimous in saying we should try our best because the lives of cancer patients depended on our help. So, we adopted the mantra to focus on what we could influence and control and make a plan for the rest, with the flexibility to change as needed.”

With the assistance of Annapolis and Eastport yacht clubs, sailing took place in September 2020, with the post-race party/auction held online. While the expectations for fundraising were scaled back to reflect the economic climate, the results surprised and surpassed Shannon’s expectations.

“We had 108 boats, more than we have in the last eight years, and the overall weekend and fundraising activities raised over $150,000—well over what we were hoping to raise in a best-case scenario,” Shannon says. “Cancer patients have it tough enough, and with COVID-19 they have even more challenges. Our ultimate goal was to make sure LLS was able to fund its patient service programs and continue its advancement towards cures.”

Oakcliff Sailing Center was among the first businesses on New York’s Long Island to implement an aggressive quarantine bubble, with the hope that sailing would be open in mid-April. “We felt with that optimistic timeline, our prep work of getting nearly 100 boats launched was too tight to shut down and wait,” says Dawn Riley, Oakcliff’s Executive Director.


RELATED: Around the Sailing World, Episode 12


Trips outside of the Oakcliff bubble, which was first set up on March 5, 2020, was limited to one staff member going to the supermarket every two weeks, and 11 staff living and working inside the bubble.

When summer came and students wanted to enter the bubble they were required to quarantine at home or locally for 10 days, then have a negative COVID-19 test. Getting access to test sites in the beginning of the pandemic was a challenge, Riley says. “We were relentless in getting access to tests in the early days of the pandemic because that was going to be one of the key factors in the success of the bubble.”

While Oakcliff prepared for a limited in-person spring and summer sailing schedule, they produced a series of online sailing training programs, and posted all of their bubble protocols and resources online for any organization to access and use. Oakcliff also developed a race umpiring system using Bluetooth technology and placed race officials in separate boats 40 feet apart in order to minimize close in-person contacts while still offering competitive racing.

While there were some pandemic-related inconveniences, there were also many highlights, Riley says. “We got creative for those quarantining on site, and one of the 15-year-old sailors got to stay on a 104-year old classic yacht during his stay. That had to be a highlight for that young man’s summer!”

As the pandemic eased during the summer, Riley and the Oakcliff team moved many of their week-night sailing sessions to Saturdays and encouraged racers to bring their families so that more could enjoy time on the water.

Oakcliff plans to continue many of the bubble protocols through 2021. “This is the best plan to advance our mission to build America’s leaders through sailing,” Riley says, “and for all to enjoy the freedom and peace associated with the sport we all love.”

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