THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS AFFECTED THE BOATING INDUSTRY AND THE SPORT OF SAILING IN A BIG WAY... BUT IT'S NOT ALL BAD NEWS
As we make our way back from a summer of staycations, and contemplate a winter back at home workstations, the reality of the ‘new normal’ comes into focus again. Many of us saw our sailing seasons reduced significantly or, in the case of the racing circuit, all but disappear. And while the shutdown of our sport has been very frustrating, I can’t help thinking that among the sustained stream of grim news there are pointers to some positive outcomes in the future.
As an example, sailing clubs in the UK, like so many around the world, were forced to close their doors. While they waited for the national restrictions to be lifted, many tried to figure out how they could resume activities while complying with government requirements. It was a huge task, yet despite the difficulties and anxiety, when sailing did resume many clubs saw bigger fleets on the water than they’d seen for years.
With open meetings cancelled and international travel all but banned, members played at home instead. Just as many of us have discovered how much more money and time we have if we don’t commute every day, it looks like 2020 has reminded us that we don’t have to charge around the country or the world to get a good sailing fix. I hesitate to say ‘like the old days,’ but…
Short-handed sailing was also given a boost as only those that could sail with family or crew members in their ‘bubble’ could get out onto the water, leaving boats that required full crews sitting on their moorings. This has doubtless led some who have embraced the short-handed scene to consider whether they really want to go back to organising a crew of ten. In the sub-40ft range there has been a steady trend developing over recent years towards boats designed for more modest numbers of crew anyway – 2020 will surely have boosted interest.
Then there is the racing itself. Do we really need to be using committee boats, fixed or laid marks and all the usual event infrastructure? Why can’t we set courses online using real and/or virtual marks and adopt Strava app-type tracking for race declarations? The start itself could be a specific time, the tracking app would know if you were OCS or not and could apply a time penalty when you declare your finish. Alternatively, time trial-type racing could see starts happen within a time frame taking the last crossing of the line as your start time – being over the line would then become irrelevant.
We’ve been racing like this for years in cross country gliding competitions – it’s become a sport in itself with pilots competing against others in different parts of the country and posting results on a national ladder.
But it’s not just racing that could see change as a result of COVID-19; boat shows and exhibitions look set for some big changes too. For many organisers the prospect of creating a safe, socially distanced environment for the thousands of people that will visit the festival atmosphere of a modern boat show was simply not possible.
But there were a few examples of shows that were confident they could adapt. The Ocean Village Boat Show and Boats2020, both in Southampton, were cancelled at the 11th hour, but did provide a pointer to how shows might work in the future.
For the Ocean Village show there were never any plans for marquees, stands, ice cream or beer tents, just around 80 boats in the marina, waiting to greet visitors who'd booked ahead for appointments.
The unforeseen benefit was that once the show had been cancelled, exhibitors used the contacts and schedules to offer private views.
Given how a number of the world’s established shows have been struggling to pull in exhibitors and visitors, perhaps this format could help to focus on the main purpose of a show: to sell boats. I accept that such a setup is likely to lack the buzz of the shows we know and love, but the reality is that boat sales are needed to support the marine industry, not to put on a day out for the public, nice as that is.
Braced for what looks like a second wave of COVID-19 it seems there are going to be plenty more hurdles along the way, but with any change comes opportunity.
The one thing that hasn’t changed for now is the number of people that want to sail. We just need to find new ways of making
'With any change comes opportunity'