Do we sail, or not sail, during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ros de Vries
Apr 7, 2020 · 4 min read

My position on sailing during the shelter-in-place? No sailing.

For the first few weeks of the SIP, I believed it to be okay to sail with people in your household. After all, sailing is a healthy activity, and the risk of exposure to anything more than bright sunshine and sea breezes is highly unlikely.

Since then, my position has changed.

First of all, there’s the easy reason — the City and County of San Francisco have strongly discouraged non-essential travel, to maintain the shelter-in-place and control the spread of the virus. Unless you live on your boat, or you’re lucky enough to have a marina down the street, you likely will use some form of transport to get to the dock. Say what you will, but this is non-essential travel.

The more complex reason(s) come from personal experience.

As a still-active, volunteer member of the American Red Cross, I had the happy duty of training an officer from the US Coast Guard Reserve in blood transportation procedures. What he had to tell me about the role of USCG volunteers meshed with me — and ultimately reversed my view on what is not just safe, but responsible behavior.

Like many organizations, the USCG’s programs and response have been scaled back for the duration of the shelter-in-place. Also, like the Red Cross, a significant portion of their workforce has been reassigned to non-frontline tasks, to limit the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

To people outside of the “essential worker” camp, it may be surprising how much work is performed by volunteers — including my new friend at the USCG. Volunteers conduct search-and-rescue operations and support roles with the same commitment and training as active staff— and pass on a wealth of knowledge to others in their sphere. Once you remove people like this from the equation, you end up with rescue teams that may be less experienced, less ready to mobilize at short notice, simply less able to respond.

I see this also with volunteer nurses and biomedical staff at the Red Cross. They are the best on-scene disaster responders, the grittiest shelter workers, the most available and reliable people. Unfortunately, many of them are older and/or due to their risk profile, can no longer serve in frontline roles, nor pass on their knowledge in-person to others.

This is a world without elders. Frankly, it’s a more dangerous place.

So, back to sailing. We enjoy sailing, in part because it is a sport in which our will can work both in harmony and opposition to nature. We want to travel to point X, but the wind direction won’t let us go there — so we must decide how to use this wind and our sails to efficiently and safely travel a circuitous route to our destination. This makes sailing mentally challenging and fun.

There are days when nature is in total opposition to our will — and anyone who has been in a squall can relate to how the shift from pleasure to danger can happen very quickly. We are not immune from mistakes, malicious weather, miscommunication, or sheer bad luck.

Yes, Channel 16 (emergency) still operates. But can a professional — volunteer, or otherwise — rapidly come to your aid? Will they want to come to your aid, given their desire to maintain social distancing? Often, the critical first responders to boating failures and accidents are fellow recreational boaters or race committee — they no longer exist.

Finally, my husband — an experienced outdoorsman — raised an interesting point. By being a liability on the water, you are taking the decision away from the managing agency to ramp down, or reallocate their resources elsewhere. It’s a bit like being the indignant last shopper in a store after closing time. The store security and cashiers may have timed out of their shifts, but you’re there… So they have to be there. They’re not getting paid, they likely have other things to do, but heck, they have to manage your selfishness.

That all said, I am still sailing. I am spending this time better understanding the “mental challenges” of the sport, by using an online simulation game to guide my interest in racing tactics. It sounds silly, but when I compete in a realistic setting and see others sail more efficiently — and with the same conditions and equipment, I feel compelled to read my textbooks and understand how to achieve the same. The advantage to “e-sailing” is that you can doggedly compete in countless races — and the humiliation of missing a start doesn’t last long at all.

This is a time when our personal free will, or feelings don’t matter. Coronavirus doesn’t care about your summer racing buddies, your Instagram or heck, that you can’t think of another damn way to spend this time making yourself a better person. What matters is that we work together as crew, locally and globally, each of us doing our bit to get through this crisis. And the skipper’s mandate is thus — if you’re not out there for an essential reason, you shouldn’t be out there at all.

Don’t be a liability. Don’t sail.

Update 04/13/20: The base commander at the Sausalito Coast Guard Station said they are requesting all ‘non-essential’ boating activities to be suspended. They have cut their staffing by 50% to avoid close contact among themselves, and are restricting interfacing with the public.

At Close Quarters

True sailing stories and salty tales by Ros de Vries