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How Will COVID-19 Affect Yacht Racing in 2021?

30th October 2020
IRC yachts start a race on Dublin Bay, Ireland's largest sailing centre is among the many harbours where racing has been heavily curtailed by COVID-19 IRC yachts start a race on Dublin Bay, Ireland's largest sailing centre is among the many harbours where racing has been heavily curtailed by COVID-19 Photo: Afloat

Four-time Olympic keelboat helmsman Mark Mansfield, a regular competitor at Irish IRC and one-design regattas and Irish agent for some well-known sailing brands, reviews how the 2020 sailing season 'happened' in pandemic and considers what could be done to keep the scene alive in 2021

2020 will likely go down as one of the strangest ever yacht racing seasons. It started back in January with great optimism, looking forward to such events as the Round Ireland Race, The 300th Anniversary Cork Week Regatta, Bangor Regatta on Belfast Lough and Wave Regatta in Howth. In the end, though some regattas were rescheduled for later in the year, all foundered with the ups and downs of the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic.

In the few months from May to August, some reasonable racing was allowed to be had at club level around the country, including a decent number of DBSC races on Dublin Bay and a revamped ISORA series from Dun Laoghaire Harbour.

Article author Mark Mansfield believes reduced crew numbers and coastal courses can help to keep cruiser-racer going in pandemicArticle author Mark Mansfield suggests reduced crew numbers and an emphasis on coastal course racing can help to keep cruiser-racer going in 2021

One of the highlights was a pop up offshore fixture, the inaugural 260-mile Fastnet 450 Race, which involved a race from Dun Laoghaire on the East Coast around the Fastnet Rock on the South Coast and into Cork Harbour, all held under strict no contact Covid regulations with an online briefing and prizegiving.

The winner of the Fastnet 450 Race was Royal Cork yacht Nieulargo (Denis and Annamarie Murphy Photo: AfloatThe winner of the Fastnet 450 Race was Royal Cork yacht Nieulargo (Denis and Annamarie Murphy Photo: Afloat

Clearly, the lessons learned in 2020 will need to be brought into 2021 to see what was successful, and what was not.

Going forward, large onshore events which involve a lot of socialising and shoreside entertainments will not likely be a runner again in 2021. So how should we be preparing to ensure 2021 allows decent racing and allows owners to get good use out of their boats? Here are some suggestions and thoughts on this.

Boat crew numbers

When Afloat published my thoughts on the 12th of May about how keelboat racing work can with social distancing, I suggested that reducing cruiser crew numbers while racing would assist in social distancing and project the right image.

This article was picked up by the international sailing media and carried by websites around the world. I got a lot of positive feedback.

Mark Mansfield's May article in Afloat was well received across the racing worldA screenshot of Mark Mansfield's May article in Afloat setting out how keelboat racing can be kept going in pandemic

In Ireland, Irish Sailing, the national governing body, decided to effectively open up to full crews on yachts, after initially being ultra-cautious and allowing no cruiser-racing apart from same household crews. Then, when Level 3 came in, all racing was closed down again, despite other sports continuing to compete. This course of action and the zig-zag nature of their direction has led to a lot of disquiet and it continues.

In the UK, when they allowed cruiser racing to open up, it initially was with household crews, then when this was extended it was with limited numbers while racing.

80% of a boats IRC crew number rounded to the nearest whole number was the norm with events such as the RORC IRC National Championships and the J Cup, both held under these restrictions.

I appreciate sailing happens in the open air and it has been rare to find anyone being infected with Covid-19 while sailing, however, reducing crew numbers shows the sport is making the effort and the optics are much better. Eight bodies sitting out shoulder to shoulder on a 35-footer does not give the right impression.

Joker 2 going upwind in Kinsale 2017 ICRA Nationals—which she wonBefore COVID - The successful Dublin Bay J109 Joker II going upwind in Kinsale at the 2017 ICRA Nationals – which she won

With many owners struggling to fill full crew positions on their boats anyway, restricting all boat crew numbers could also help level the playing field. Maybe Irish Sailing and the Clubs it represents could look at this as an option to allow racing to continue next year?

2021 Irish Sailing Calendar

2021 is scheduled to be another big year if Covid allows it. For cruiser-racers around the country, you have, in addition to DBSC, ISORA and other club racing, the following big events.

Add to this WIORA in Tralee, and perhaps another Fastnet 450 Race and this could be a really great season—if it all goes ahead. So how does sailing position itself to be able to complete these larger regattas in what will likely still be a Summer of Covid restrictions? The answer has to be:

Good PR – Highlighting the Covid restrictions to make everyone safe—no gatherings, no briefings, no in-person prizegivings. Highlight the sailing, not the shore activities.

Reduce crew numbers  see above

Provide more coastal and longer races – rather than the three races a day that is the norm. Shorter races with more turning marks need more crew aboard and all the crew end up coming ashore at the same time. Longer Coastal races need fewer people and the boats come back home on a staggered basis.

Prepare a strong 'Plan B'  for having no onshore events or contact. July's Dun Laoghaire Regatta with four clubs to dissipate people, an on-site marina and a large town just behind, are already anticipating this by separating the event into one designs one weekend and IRC racing the next.

More offshore racing

Offshore and long coastal racing needs to be included more in boat owners plans if they are to get value from their investment. As the Fastnet 450 Race showed, there is an increasing appetite for this form of the sport, and in these Covid times, that interest has grown further. Offshore racing, with limits on crew numbers, allows for relatively safe sailing with crews being able to stay apart easier and boats arriving back to port looking for rest rather than social interaction.

ISORA managed to run eight coastal races off Dun Laoghaire Harbour this season keeping the Irish Sea offshore scene very much alive despite the pandemic Photo: AfloatISORA managed to run eight coastal races off Dun Laoghaire Harbour this season keeping the Irish Sea offshore scene very much alive despite the pandemic Photo: Afloat

ISORA can be congratulated for growing this form of the sport in Ireland and Wales and even in this difficult year, they were able to get in a range of races, all be it without being able to mix the Irish and welsh boats. The combination of shortish offshore races and long coastal racing has been very popular in 2020 and I expect you will see a few more boats join their ranks in 2021.

On the South Coast, there is a move afoot to come up with a similar series to link the Fastnet 450 race with the Kinsale/Fastnet/Kinsale race and then add some coastal day races to form a series. More to follow on this.

ISORA Champion Rockabill VI (Paul O'Higgins) from the Royal Irish Yacht ClubISORA Champion Rockabill VI (Paul O'Higgins) from the Royal Irish Yacht Club

Fingers crossed a vaccine or better treatments for Covid will come quickly, but it is doubtful that they will come quickly enough to mean our 2021 season will be back to normal. We have to expect that 2021 will be disrupted again, and now it the time to plan for this. With some small changes, a bit of luck and a bit of goodwill all or most of these big events above can happen and be a great success. Let's plan for the worst but hope for the best.

Mark Mansfield is an Irish agent for Quantum Sails and J Boats/Grand Soleil in Ireland. More details below.

Mark Mansfield

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Mark Mansfield

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Four-time Olympian Mark Mansfield is a Professional Sailor. He is Irish Agent for Key Yachting Ltd, the sole U.K. and Irish agent for J Boats, Grand Soleil, Nautitech Catamarans and the Tofinou range of boats. More on Mark here

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