Will post-lockdown sailing ever be the same again? Elaine Bunting and Helen Fretter investigate how coronavirus will change how we sail

Getting the knowledge

Once seen as inferior to face-to-face learning, online courses, webinars and coaching have been transformed by the pandemic into a necessary alternative. From school and university teaching to business training, every area has had to adapt – and rapidly.

For sailing tuition, this has accelerated a move towards more shore-based learning and online examination. Sailing schools are quickly refocussing; those accredited with the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) can already take advantage of the interactive tools available through its support hub RYA Interactive.

“We started RYA eLearning courses ten years ago and steadily increased that, and the next move for us is blended learning – some online and some in person. We have seen another step forward with substituting face-to-face-classroom learning with the use of online conferencing platforms such as Zoom and GoToMeeting,” says Richard Falk, the RYA’s training manager.

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It’s uncertain whether any ‘real’ boat shows will take place this year. Photo: C Tillmann/Messe Düsseldorf

“And we are seeing with the regulator a very rapid shift towards the acceptance of online oral examination. We are hopeful that we will be able to offer it for certain exams, for example the Yachtmaster Ocean.”

The UKSA training centre in Cowes provides dozens of courses, including RYA and commercial training. After the pandemic forced the closure of the site, it moved swiftly to adapt to an online format. “Within a week we started getting lots of enquiries from existing and new students to see whether or not we could continue with some of our training online,” CEO Ben Willows explains.

“With the RYA courses you’ve been able to do remote distance learning for quite some time, but that’s not really who we are. So we thought it would be better to speak to the RYA about effectively running a virtual classroom and see if we could get recognition to run a course in a virtual classroom with an instructor and do it that way.”

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Old style socialising at Cowes Week before COVID-19

The format has worked so successfully they are looking to expand the programme to include some professional ship qualifications. “We have managed to get accreditation for some of our MCA Officer of the Watch modules to be run online. So many people in that area would already be out on ships working and would traditionally have to travel back to the UK to do the course, [and] if we can deliver some of those things remotely, that would be game-changing,” adds Willows.

The RYA’s Richard Falk is optimistic that digital learning options will drive a change in how accessible learning sailing skills becomes. “The situation will force many people delivering courses to think a bit open-mindedly to provide as much flexibility as possible – training needn’t be five days in a row, two days at a weekend, or 25 evenings,” he comments.

Professional sailors whose work was expunged by the crisis have also offered up specialist expertise in the form of courses and webinars. The Marine Weather University, set up by top US sailors Peter Isler and David Bedford offers a summer-long curriculum of live webinars, lectures and course content designed for a group of 100. This will allow students, Isler says, “to go as deep as they want while getting a well-rounded foundation in the field of marine weather”.

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The problem for racing events is not the demand but the practicalities of running them safely. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Racing and cruising

Races and rallies have ground to a halt, and there is huge uncertainty about when – and how – these will run while COVID-19 is a risk. The World ARC just made it into French Polynesia in March before the lockdown and has had to be postponed to 2021 as weather windows through the Pacific closed. Similarly, the entire Clipper Round the World Race fleet is grounded in the Philippines for at least ten months. For now, the plan for the 2020 ARC in November is parked.

The problem for the bigger events is not demand – which is still there – but the practicalities of running them. ARC organiser Andrew Bishop of World Cruising Club (pictured below) says that he has seen “a turnover in ARC entries. Overall, slightly more are leaving, but we have been surprised.” Yet it’s not yet clear whether countries will welcome events such as the ARC, which normally has well over 1,000 crew.

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Photo: James Mitchell

“We are desperate to run it, and we are extremely hopeful, but we are reliant on the support of the host ports to make it happen, and we can’t make a decision until we have clarity as to how they are opening up to international visitors,” says Bishop.

He points to an issue all long-distance voyagers are going to have to face for some time. “Islands are opening up at different rates. Some are COVID-free, so are being very sensitive.

There are differences in attitude to the yachting sector between Caribbean countries. Their health systems are not as good as we enjoy and they are fearful of introducing cases and having a wave – and not a second wave, because they haven’t had a first wave.”

He adds: “People need to have a more global outlook and appreciate that the rate of spread around the world has been very different and affected places in different ways, and just because it’s OK at home doesn’t mean it’s all right where you want to go.”

Similar issues affect transocean racing. Eddie Warden-Owen, CEO of the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC), is considering options for its Transatlantic Race next January. “The islands of Lanzarote, Grenada and Antigua are either COVID-free, or close to it. So the transatlantic race might be a great opportunity for a group of people to sail across the Atlantic, getting away from this rubbish that we’ve been through.

“By the time they’ve crossed the Atlantic, they’ll have spent 14 days together. If nobody’s got the virus, they’ll be happy to enter Grenada.

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Eddie Warden-Owen, CEO of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, is confident about offshore racing’s future. Photo: Paul Wyeth

“But what happens if we run a race and somebody gets COVID-19 while they are sailing? There’s a huge amount to think about.”
But Warden-Owen is confident about offshore racing’s future, and believes that racing yacht owners will want to resume a normal schedule as soon as legislation allows.

“We’re crystal ball gazing here, but where will it be in the long term? I can only see it getting back to where it was. The last time we had a huge recession, offshore racing grew. After the financial crisis, we saw inshore racing reduced slightly, regattas got smaller, whereas offshore racing grew in popularity, especially iconic races like the Rolex Fastnet.”

Regattas and club racing

Club events and regattas have also largely been canned for the season. So for owners of racing designs, 2020 will be a year of little value. This has got some organisers wondering whether a change to how we race is overdue, and what might fit into a world in which frequent travel is no longer appealing or even as acceptable.

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Rubicon3 is investigating the possibility of rapid COVID-19 tests before allowing crew aboard its yachts

Over the past decade, top-end racing has become more international and costly, as owners and skippers gravitated towards high-status races around the world. Will these peripatetic circuits bounce back? Should they?

“When I started sailing it was about who was the best sailor. Now a world championship is about who is the best process manager, can train the most for a specific scenario,” comments Laurence Mead, regatta director of Cowes Week and chairman of the Solent Cruiser Racing Association.

“I really think we need to re-localise sailing. Over-professionalism is killing it. It really needs to be cost-effective and something you can do as a family. You have to ask if it is right and sustainable to keep two or three boats around the world and every few weeks you fly to San Remo to sail. I race in an Etchells, and people fly to Miami for two days’ sailing. It’s great – it’s warm and it’s sunny – but it is madness.”

Local club racing is more rooted in community, and dependent on volunteers – forces for good the pandemic has underscored. Mead thinks club racing and local open meetings could enjoy a resurgence, and deserve to.

“They provide the kind of thinking races that challenge people to be great sailors,” he says. “In the old days [by which he means his and mine! – Ed] people got their heads round the idea that one end of the line had a flood tide and the other end an ebb tide.
“But most important is that racing is fun; it’s not about getting a Gold medal or being a Ben Ainslie.”

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Easing of restrictions after lockdown may encourage people to take those longer trips and adventures they’ve always dreamed of. Photo: Will Ellison / Kraken Travel

Rebooting charter

With international travel heavily restricted, the charter market has been completely paused. However, some UK charter companies were reporting large numbers of enquiries and advance bookings for as soon as overnight stays were allowed.
“We’re seeing a big immediate increase in activity,” reports Chris Warwick of Universal Yachting.

“We’re getting a lot more enquiries from people who have got their own yacht stuck abroad that they can’t get to. There’s a sort of knee-jerk reaction: I can’t get my boat to the Med this summer, but I still want to go sailing, so let’s charter in the UK.

“Then we’ve also seen people who would ordinarily charter abroad and don’t have an appetite for flying right now. So the UK charter market is benefitting as people are exploring more locally-based options.”

The customer demographic has changed significantly: previously their core business was groups of friends taking a boat for a weekend, but they are now seeing more families booking a week or two-week trips.

“I think the reality is [the lockdown] is rebooting everyone’s concept of what sailing is. People have got so fixated on ‘I must go abroad. I must go to the sun for two weeks’, and I think one effect of this whole situation is that people are reassessing what they want to do. Do they really want to travel?” wonders Warwick.

For adventure cruising, the pandemic is forcing a complete rethink. Skip Novak, who runs expedition yachts plying the most remote areas of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, with long periods of complete self-sufficiency, says it seems like an insuperable hurdle for now.

“We start again in September in South Georgia and, going forward, it’s going to be challenging unless international travel restrictions are relaxed. And of course we won’t have a vaccine by then, if ever, so there will have to be some system of rigorous testing before they embark on a yacht. We will have to make some contingency plans, definitely – but I don’t know what they are yet!”

Rubicon3, which runs adventure sailing trips, usually sold on a single-berth basis, is facing similarly enormous challenges. Boss Bruce Jacobs says they have been investigating purchasing an instant COVID-19 testing machine to check crews before they get on board, as used by professional football teams. Other options they are exploring include running more family trips in the UK, for those wanting Swallows and Amazons-style adventures.

“But interestingly, we’ve had more enquiries for transatlantics in the last three months than we have had in the last two years,” he adds. “There are huge numbers of people thinking: ‘I want to start ticking off some bucket list items and living my life!’ Certainly in the short-term I think there’s going to be a shift towards more extreme, but more serious adventures.”

coronavirus-sailing-Kraken-Travel-Henry-BurkittKraken Travel offers sailing adventure trips run by different operators. Founder Henry Burkitt (pictured right) also believes clients are going to change their travel habits once restrictions are eased.

“Because this year has been such a write-off, it seems like people may well say: ‘Right, I’m going to have a sabbatical!’ If they’ve accrued time and cash, I think you’re going to be seeing people taking those longer trips.

“We’ve previously seen time as more of a limiting factor than money, and I think maybe next year people are going to take a bigger picture view and spend more time doing things that are important to them.”

Part of that may be a change towards more sustainable travel. “During lockdown people have been seeing that if you’re not flying planes, driving cars, ordering all your produce from the other side of the world, the world suddenly improves. People don’t want to go back, so travel in general and sailing will potentially begin to focus on those core sustainability issues.”

The controlled environment of a whole boat charter may even make sailing holidays appealing to a new customer base. Sunsail’s global head of marketing, Josie Tucci, reports that the company has seen increased enquiries for skippered trips from travellers who’ve previously booked on cruise ships.

Sailing and working

One of the most significant permanent changes we may see post-pandemic is agile working – the ability to work in desk-based roles in any location.

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Former ocean racer Pete Goss working from his yacht

Remote working has been possible for years, but the lockdown has made it a rule rather than an exception. This clearly has lasting repercussions for commercial property, and where we might live. For sailors, it opens up the possibility of longer periods on board, mixing work with pleasure. It has never been easier to combine working with cruising.

Andrew Bishop of World Cruising has seen the trend play out already in the World ARC, where “about 10% of skippers are keeping in touch [with work] on a regular basis”, even in very remote locations. Is it possible to keep a business running while cruising?

“Oh, very much so,” says Bishop, “and quite a few do. Our participants are very tech-savvy and make remote working work for them. Maybe there’s a new group of people who will emerge who realise it is possible.”

Having a boat closer to home may begin to make increasing sense, reversing the trend of buying a boat to base in the Mediterranean or a sunnier location. The combination of a warm, sunny spring and early summer in the UK, and the shutdown of international travel had people beating the doors of brokers, looking for a boat to use as a holiday cottage afloat.

This presages something of a return, just possibly, to the days when sailors had a family yacht based within striking distance of home and spent weekends and holidays on board pootling round the coast.

Work hours and travel patterns made life too much of a fast lane to enjoy that until recently. Now many people are saying they took pleasure from a less frenetic life during lockdown. For anyone yearning to spend more time on board, or on the water, this could be a moment to seize.

First published in the August 2020 edition of Yachting World.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Getting the knowledge
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