How to sail in a coronavirus pandemic

Published on July 13th, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has touched us all, but in these challenging times comes opportunity. Bob Johnstone shares his story:

This pandemic opened my eyes to a vision that could double participation in all sailboat racing… at both ends of the age spectrum…. and the middle.

Mary and I have a cottage on the Bishop Gadsden campus – a continuing care senior community here in Charleston SC – with a 120’x200’ pond. Our informal yacht club, BGYC, has conducted, COVID-compliant racing for a new fleet of 17 radio-controlled DF95s, 3 days/week since February.

Imagine this happening in thousands of 55+ and senior residential communities with ponds across America.

At the entry level with kids, I remember building a model sailboat in “shop” at school. Imagine radio-controlled DF95s as the cornerstone of an elementary school (or community boating) curriculum for ALL kids that teaches the physics of what makes a boat go, electronics and assembly skills… while at the same time instilling judgment, self-confidence, and sportsmanship.

These boats can motivate video game fanatics with a sport where they can learn to play by a set of rules when racing their completed project level against teachers and parents, putting in place a lifetime recreation and not just populating larger craft in Newports and San Diegos, but with RC boats in any town in America where there’s a pond.

As for the middle-aged: RC sailboat racing is truly leveling. ALL sailors have a chance to win. Last week, Sail To Prevail’s Paul Callahan became one of 22 founding members of Newport’s colorful new DF95 Fleet, modeled on the BGYC pandemic model: Competitors with masks, seated in portable chairs, spaced 6 feet apart.

Approval is sought to conduct races 3 days/week at Sail Newport, Newport Shipyard, and the New York Yacht Club where pandemic rules are in place. Can’t wait to see Paul’s bright yellow #44 cross the line ahead of fellow fleet members Jerry Kirby, Brad Read (above), Mike Toppa, and Anthony Kotoun! It’s going to be great FUN.

But, to succeed: our RC racing had to overcome a problem dampening that fun and participation. Experienced racers objected to bumper car disregard for the rules while novice/cruising sailors were turned off by sea lawyer shouts of “Protest!” Sailboat racing is meant to be fun, not a life and death matter. To lighten things up and gain the support that doubled the size of the BGYC Fleet, 3 steps were taken:

1. Each of the 6 races during a 1 hour session stands alone for the fun of it. There’s no official scoring or results. Finish places are recorded to later mention top performers, sailor progress or amusing incidents of the day in a follow up email.

2. It’s okay to hit marks and bump into one other (DF95s have rubber bows) so long as you don’t gain an advantage, changing RRS Rules 14 and 31.

3. BGYC SI’s and RC Pond Racing Rules delete the words “and enforce” from the opening paragraph of the RRS. “SPORTSMANSHIP AND THE RULES Competitors in the sport of sailing are governed by a body of rules that they are expected to follow (and enforce). A fundamental principle of sportsmanship is that when competitors break a rule they will promptly take a penalty, which may be to retire.” Experienced racers are asked to: (a) be a role model/teacher, not policeman, by doing their turns unprompted by others (explaining why) and (b) tolerate being fouled by novices, who are doing their best, without using the word, “Protest!”.

It’s a new world. Mark rounding jam-ups are now cause for laughter and good-natured whining… not anger and shouting.

Scuttlebutt is eager to share stories for how people have turned the challenges relating to COVID-19 into opportunities. And to stoke your interest, we will be randomly selecting submissions and awarding free stuff from the Scuttlebutt Store.

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