The Covid-19-related cancellation of the pillar events planned for July in the Royal Cork Yacht Club’s Tricentenary Celebrations has had an inexorable inevitability about it for the last ten days and more.
But a decision of such magnitude needed to be allowed a reasonable time for its scale and significance to be fully appreciated before the momentous announcement was actually made. While there is an understandable numbness at realising that it should have come to this, there is no doubting that the right decision has been arrived at in a timely manner.
It is a reminder, too, that important and all as the 300th Anniversary of such a remarkable organisation had become in the global context, in the final analysis, it was only another number in an extraordinary succession of annual numbers during which, through times good and bad, the unique sailing spirit of Cork has been kept alive and thriving. So much so, in fact, that today in Crosshaven we look at a modern sailing club which happens to have a very special and unprecedentedly long history which it has faithfully recorded over the centuries in its art and memorabilia, its historical artefacts, its magnum opus of a history published in 2005, and the ever-contemporary sailing enthusiasm of its members.
The thoughts of sailors everywhere and particularly in Ireland will be with them this weekend. And as it is, this weekend will test us as we’ve never really been tested before in the current crisis and its tragedies. The weather is good, and the clocks are going forward to emphasise the rapid progress of spring. While the statistics of illness are daunting and rising rapidly, most of us feel well – we feel very well indeed. Yet in every hoped-for aspect of a typical Irish weekend on the threshold of April – whether it be in sporting, cultural, social, family or just plain everyday life – we are going to be frustrated.
We are going to be frustrated in simply letting off energy or keeping ourselves happily absorbed in our many interests, however odd they may seem to others. And for sailors, our frustration is compounded by the fact that the prospects and planned programme for the summer of 2020 – which in Irish sailing, in particular, were promising to produce the greatest and most historic season ever – are either going to be severely postponed, put on hold, or simply not staged at all.
Naturally our first thoughts - indeed nearly all our thoughts - are firmly and sincerely with those who are in the front line of battle against this disease plague. Yet in our highly-structured but normally tolerant and civilised society, in the lock-down situation which now obtains the best that most of us can do to help the situation is to allow the health professionals the space, time, and moral support to get on with their vital jobs.
As for those whose task it has been to decide on the major cancellations, our thoughts are also very much with you. We can only dimly imagine the pain this has caused. The rest of us meanwhile have to somehow get on with living our lives and fulfilling our interests as best we can, in ways which somehow take account of what is effectively the cancellation of the main part of the 2020 sailing programme. We do this while complying with health and safety directives on behaviour and social distancing and – if need be – self-isolation, while somehow burning off or absorbing that extra energy which becomes so abundantly evident at this time of year.
So far, as the crisis has developed, our society in almost all its aspects has dealt well with a situation in which day-to-day life has been changing with mind-boggling rapidity. Yet in sport in general and in sailing in particular, we must be aware of the new problems brought by the accelerated change from long winter nights, with their natural restriction on outdoor and waterborne activity.
By Sunday with the clocks changed, we are into the time of evenings of springtime and early summer when each day’s daylight is clearly sensed as longer than its predecessor, and people’s restless desire to go sailing grows ever stronger. Under present regulations, it is possible to get afloat while remaining compliant, but it will be sailing in a very narrow and defined way, a whole world away from the traditional convivial boat world of sport afloat and lively sociability ashore.
With annual lift-ins now postponed at many clubs, the opportunities to go sailing in keelboats are obviously only available to those who can access boats which have wintered afloat. While many will do this when possible, it will be done in a muted way for the very human reason that it somehow doesn’t seem quite fair to enjoy sailing when so many others are deprived of it.
In time, the immediate crisis will end, though some of its longterm effects could be permanent. But as of this weekend in particular, when the time of crisis conclusion is anybody’s guess. Yet while the heroic health professionals are absorbed in their struggle, it is surely vitally important for the rest of society to be at least partially pre-occupied by the reassurance that some semblance of normality will return in due course, and in order to keep ourselves even half sane, we must be allowed to think of a future when Covid-19 no longer dominates every waking moment.
But how do you fit day-to-day life with a Fast Forward control? Let us fantasise for a while, as that in itself helps to pass the time. For even as this morning’s virtual column spins into cyberspace, our team of top scientists in Sailing on Saturday’s Einstein Research & Development Laboratory is working day and night on how best to shift the entire Irish sailing community at least four months forward through the curves of time and space to a day when Covid-19 has been safely moved into becoming history, and something resembling our normal summer sailing is at least showing little green shoots of recovery.
For although re-growth may well be a slow progress with small green shoots playing a prominent role, the sudden gaps, stops, postponements and cancellations for what had promised to be the greatest sailing season ever in Ireland have been like mighty oaks crashing down in the forest. The forest itself may remain, and in time some nighty oaks will assert themselves as pillars of the programme. But for the moment with what is effectively national lock-down, there’s inevitably some flailing around in working out how best to cope with re-aligning the season.
The Global Programme Pecking Order soon asserts itself. The Olympics may have dithered about when and how to change. For what it’s worth, my own feeling was that a move from July to October might have been a viable solution, particularly remembering that when Irish sailing first got involved in a Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the entire programme was in late October when conditions in Tokyo are much less oppressively humid.
But whatever your own feelings, there’s no escaping the Olympic’s pinnacle position at the top of the international sports food chain, and when they finally decided to shift it all into the future by twelve clear months, everything else in the big league has to adjust accordingly.
However, compact events with a local flavour can be more nimble in their movements. The organizing committee for the three day Wave Regatta at Howth at the end of May were incisive in their early decision to shift from May to mid-September, and now with the big-fleet Round the Island Race in the south of England given the same time treatment, we can only hope that September 2020 is a time of benevolent Indian summer.
In trying to get a perspective on what it all means, we’ve been thinking back to other years when external events significantly changed our sailing way of life. It took world wars to remind people of how the freedom to go sailing as you wished was the very essence of peacetime, and in World War I from 1914-1918, some Irish sailing continued determinedly into 1915 before the U Boat threat brought it to a sudden halt.
In World War 2 from 1939 to 1945, the Irish Free State was neutral, and sailing continued whenever possible in a narrow coastal strip, for in the complete absence of private motoring, there was energy available for it. Then too, many who were serving in the Allied Forces came home with enthusiasm when on leave to sail as much as possible. As for Northern Ireland, recreational sailing was banned only in 1940 – with Belfast’s vast industrial resources switched over to war production, many people were in reserved occupations rather than on active service, and the Government decided that being able to take part in sport if at all possible was useful for their health and dedication to the war effort, so limited sailing was permitted.
An interesting angle was that the neutrality of Sweden was scrupulously upheld by World War 2’s international combatants, and as the clouds of war finally receded, it was revealed that sailing had been going merrily along in the Swedish summers for the duration, and some interesting boat and rig design developments had emerged as a result.
While it may be stretching it to compare the effects of almost total war to the disruption of a pandemic, there’s no escaping the fact that the Spanish flu of 1919 actually killed more than all of World War 1. Yet in looking at recent instances of social disruption, we desperately seek some guidance as to how things might be managed in the weeks and months ahead.
The foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 saw Ireland north and south kept safely isolated from disease-ridden Britain at a time when agriculture was rated as extremely important in the Irish economy, so the closing down of just about everything else was accepted as the only way to go. But among the casualties was what had promised to be the biggest ever Irish Boat Show in Dublin in March 2001, and who knows how much that contributed to the inexorable movement towards today’s Irish Boat shows being in effect in Dusseldorf, Paris and Southampton.
Then back in the first half of 1970, we had a total bank strike in Ireland for six months. Nowadays when there’s a failure of the banking system for even half a day, chaos soon breaks out. Yet fifty years ago, everyone quickly got used to it, other arrangements were made, and though when it finally ended the gently whirring sound made by bouncing cheques went on for some time, the conclusion of the experts was that the unexpected investment of unregulated funds into the financial system had been good for the Irish economy.
Who knows, but maybe it was an early experiment in helicopter money. Before that, perhaps most bizarrely of all, Ireland was cut off by a seven weeks seamen’s strike in May, June and July of 1966. In that remote era before universal air travel, it meant there wasn’t a tourist about the place, and in making a cruise to West Cork from Belfast Lough in the old 9-ton yawl Ainmara in June, it was like visiting a ghost coast.
Admittedly West Cork wasn’t the trendy place it is nowadays, but as we were absolutely the only boat in the anchorage at Glandore, our every movement was watched, and when we came ashore in the dinghy and strolled up the road above the harbour, the two pubs opened their doors for business as we approached, and then closed again as we moved on. Service was instant and friendly, and when we sailed on to Castlehaven, getting a table for supper in Mary Anne’s in Castletownshend took no more than a nano-second.
Heaven only knows what stories will emerge at the end from the Covid-19 experience, and many of them won’t be happy ones, but meanwhile, people are coping as best they can. Here in Howth we’re in a port which has been described as the sort of place where you’ll see someone in sailing gear mowing their mini-lawn in an awful hurry before going down to race the boat. But in these changed times, the word is that the more switched on - having provided themselves with tiny minimum-maintenance ornamental gardens at home - have now secured allotments to see the summer through in growing their own vegetables and re-communing with nature for some much-needed assurance.
As for this business of working from home, as I’ve always done it I have to confess to a sense of a strange new unease, as Skype is – well, it’s skyping along, and this isn’t good news at all. It’s an intrusion into the profound privacy of one’s innermost sanctum, which in my case is a classic example of Rat’s Nest Chic. And you even have to think about what you might be wearing, and how you look generally.
This is an accepted matter of special concern in Finland, where working from home is highly developed and has its own etiquette. It can involve being in a very relaxed frame of mind, and they even have a special word for it. They call it kalsarikanit. Basically, it means remaining in your pyjamas or underwear throughout the day, while expecting to consume a beer or two along with the work. With Finland often being held up as the ideal way to organise a society to suit the modern world, we may be hearing more of kalsarikanet……