Creating opportunities in Newport

Published on July 28th, 2020

Fun is not cancelled. Sail Newport’s Regatta Director Matt Duggan on the state of regattas in Newport amid COVID-19…


How did COVID-19 effect the 2020 Sail Newport summer so far?
The beginning of the summer definitely brought a lot of uncertainty about what the summer was going to look like. COVID-19 impacted our early season and will have lasting impacts throughout the summer.

We worked closely with Department of Environmental Management, the State of RI and the Governor’s office to get clarity on what we’d be able to do. Early on it looked like small regattas with single-handed boats or same-household crews only.

We staggered arrival times for rental boats, staggered launching times with social distancing of six feet while on land to ensure that our people were safe for our regattas. We have 16 race days in June, which is incredible considering what everything looked like.

Once we got word that we could expand racing outside of same-household competitors, then crews up to 15 people were allowed. That ease of restrictions opened up what types of boats we can include. We can’t have a traditional Newport Regatta where we traditionally have 600 people on-site, so we came up with the plan to schedule the regatta into three events over three different weekends.

The new plan allows us to get almost all Newport Regatta classes racing on one weekend, but with a different look. The most significant change is the restriction on social events. For competitors, this means arriving at the dock, getting on the boat, and then going racing. After racing, all competitors then go home.

We understand we can’t make things happen the way we used to, but we want to give sailors as much opportunity to get out on the water to go racing. On August 1 and 2, we have invited the Melges 20 and Melges 24 classes. A few weeks later, on August 29 and 30, we will run the last weekend of the regatta for dinghies and sport boat classes including VX One, Lasers, F-18s, Thistles, and 505s.

We are excited and thrilled that we can create opportunities to race this year. We wish it could be more, but we have to continue to work responsibly within the rules to make sure that every little bit that we’re doing isn’t stepping too far forward in the grand scheme of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with that said, it could all change tomorrow.

The early sailing season at Sail Newport was significantly impacted by COVID-19, what were you able to host?

The first regatta we held in June was Monday Night Madness single-handed Laser racing with 24 boats. Sail Newport has a large fleet of Laser sailors with Fleet 413. They keep their boats here all winter and spring for frostbiting. In the summer, those sailors usually move on and sail other boats, but there wasn’t much opportunity because of so many regattas and sailing series cancelled.

We proposed a Monday Night racing series, and the sailors embraced it quickly. The first night we had 24 boats on the start line. Participation grew to the mid-thirties the next night. On the last night in June we had a fleet of 30 plus. So it’s been really fun and popular. We do three races a night, and it’s a total blast.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights in June we held same-household only crewed J/22s with both spinnaker and non-spinnaker classes. All sorts of people who wouldn’t usually come out during the week joined the fleet on weeknights.

Our sailors we psyched to be out there on the water finally after winter and a COVID-19 spring. Getting to race with their families was a huge plus to just have fun without so much the focus on standings.

We also hosted a Club 420 household-only racing on a couple of June Saturdays. It was really cool. Many parents were sailing with their kids. Hannah Swett and Tom Burnham got back into a Club 420 with their children. But champion youth Club 420 sailors Justin, and Mitchell Callahan sweeped. They were so incredibly fast, and they sail the boats year-round.

The volunteer race committee was also same-household members only. My parents Tom and Beth Duggan, were on the signal boat. Low pressure, low key and a lot of laughs.

How have you adapted the race committee to a new environment?
We’ve been very careful. The most significant change made was that we eliminated aspects of routine race management that are normal. For example, we’re not using flag starting systems, and instead, use “Appendix U” (“Racing Rules of Sailing”) three-minute starts. Also, we use government marks for the J/22 weeknight racing.

Basically, we’re working to simplify racing as much as possible with as few volunteers as possible. I do a couple Monday nights by myself with one person on the mark boat. Some of our sailing families have stepped forward to help with mark boat work.

If sailors can’t gather, how are you doing with regatta socials, the notice board, and sailor gatherings?
Everything is online, we use the new Phlotilla platform to communicate through competitors’ phones. We will probably go forward with a lot of these new procedures, such as using an online notice board only. People don’t gather around like they used to since scores are all available online.

As far as the socials go, a lot of what we have been pushing for at Sail Newport is quality racing first. By eliminating the socials, we’re giving people the opportunity to spend how they want and enjoy Newport. Events were so time-consuming for participants-event after racing Friday night, Saturday night, then awards ceremonies on Sunday nights. We felt like we were losing the group with young families whose time was limited to spend at regattas. It’s a little unfortunate, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker, people come to regattas to race, and we want to prioritize the water anyway.

How does 2021 Look?
Hopefully, better than 2020! Sail Newport is scheduled to host the Opti New England Championship next summer. It will be the biggest external event that’s coming in. I think all of our events will be back in the schedule. Hopefully, a vaccine will be available so we can resume our regular regatta season. We will schedule 2021 as if we’re doing everything, and we can always roll it back if necessary. It’s easier to roll back than to ramp up.

Newport is a sailing-centric harbor. How have you worked with the sailing community to bring sailing back?
I think it’s important to know who we are in the scheme of the bay. I see us as a venue that can do everything from a small youth regatta to an Ocean Race Stopover. We have the unique ability and large site to host a lot more and larger-scale youth events. While we love the keelboat events and will continue to bring in big events like the J/80 Worlds and many others.

The greatest factor in our success is that we have a unique harbor and close relationships with New York Yacht Club, Ida Lewis Yacht Club, and Newport Yacht Clubs. We’re always checking with each other to make sure our schedule gybe with each other, which was much harder this year of course. We also share assets as much as possible.

We’re all in it for the same reason. We just wanted to get people out on the water and racing. More so this year than any other summer!

Source: Sail Newport

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