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Ireland's Coronavirus Cancellations? Healthy Club Sailors Have Had To Accept It With Good Grace

10th October 2020
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"Your Health Treatment Starts Here". Paul Tingle's Alpaca sailing in bracing conditions in the first race of the Royal Cork Yacht Club's truncated 2020 season on Thursday 9th July. Until the COVID-19 shutters came down again this week, sailors throughout Ireland had come to cherish their limited local sailing as a really positive health benefit in building up natural resistance to coronavirus "Your Health Treatment Starts Here". Paul Tingle's Alpaca sailing in bracing conditions in the first race of the Royal Cork Yacht Club's truncated 2020 season on Thursday 9th July. Until the COVID-19 shutters came down again this week, sailors throughout Ireland had come to cherish their limited local sailing as a really positive health benefit in building up natural resistance to coronavirus Photo: Robert Bateman

"I just want to go sailing and racing. Until we had to slam down the shutters this week, I didn't really realise just how much the ordinary club sailing programme and a special local annual series like the Autumn League means to me and people like me, and to sailing families throughout Ireland."

"I don't think those who advocate such across-the-board moves realise what a damaging effect stopping us going racing has on the physical and mental well-being of Ireland's grass-roots sailors. We never needed our sailing more than we do now."

The speaker is lifetime sailor Darragh Connolly, Rear Admiral (Keelboats) of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, and we were talking a couple of days after he'd had to announce that the remaining races of the Club's popular AIB Autumn League had been cancelled in compliance with Irish Sailing's directive, in light of our National Authority's interpretation of the Government's imposition of Level 3 in the COVID-19 Combat Programme.

Darragh Connolly, Rear Admiral (Keelboats) of the Royal Cork Yacht ClubDarragh Connolly, Rear Admiral (Keelboats) of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, this week had the unenviable task of calling an early close to the RCYC AIB Autumn League. Photo: Robert Bateman

It is clearly arguable that the Government Directive, as interpreted by Irish Sailing, is actually preventing people from doing something which is beneficial to their overall physical and mental health, an activity which in turn is very positive in enhancing their ability to reinforce their natural resistance to contracting COVID-19.

And for Ireland's many club sailors, it is particularly bewildering to have arrived at this situation in this week of all weeks, when Irish Sailing will have played the key role in having our Laser Performance Group and other top potential Olympians taking part (with laudable success) in major events in places like Poland and Austria, countries which - like Ireland - are currently coping with a rising coronavirus rate.

Busy start line in this week's Laser Senior Europeans in GdanskWho's for racing? The busy start line in this week's Laser Senior Europeans in Gdansk

The infection risk which our athletes are taking in travelling across Europe, and then competing in an event which will have numerous supporting officials, is surely significantly greater than a local club sailor has in joining her or his boat in its familiar berth for another two or three hours of healthy racing in a successfully-proven socially-distanced setup.

KNIFE-EDGE DECISION?

There are those of wide experience in sailing administration who reckon that it was actually a knife-edge choice as to whether or not Level 3 means that local sailing races were now off-limits. But being a minority sport like sailing, with a possibly problematic image of affluence and elitism, when the directives come down from above our national officialdom has to toe the official line, keeping the head down to go along with the mantra that we're all in this together.

Inevitably in such a situation, the simple hopes of the grassroots get trampled under foot. Yet if we stand back and take a cold hard look at the situation, the variations in the situation between those who would be actively racing in boats afloat if they could, and those who are most at risk ashore, is an enormous chasm. Applying a "one size fits all" approach to the crisis situation may help in terms of a benign public perception of different sports and activities and shared risk, but it flies in the face of reality. And in terms of the well-being of this clearly identifiable sector of the population who want to go sailing, it's actively harmful.

"Once upon a time in West Cork". In order to keep their sport going, the Irish sailing community have had to become accustomed to doing entirely without carefree assemblies like this one in Baltimore."Once upon a time in West Cork". In order to keep their sport going, the Irish sailing community have had to become accustomed to doing entirely without carefree assemblies like this one in Baltimore.

Put crudely, "We're all in this together" is a denial of the facts of the situation. Certainly, we're in the same storm, but we're in some very different boats. The incidence of coronavirus among those who would be regularly sailing actively - if they were allowed - appears to be vanishingly small.

We've been taking an admittedly random sample from a small population, but we know of only two sailors who came down with the bug (and both have recovered). One case is a fearless bow-man (of course) who was right in the thick of it in January on a hectic ski-ing holiday to Coronavirus Central – otherwise Ischgl in Austria - while the other got it on a group golf outing to Spain.

COASTAL LIVING IS GOOD FOR YOU

Shoot us down in flames by all means if you have knowledge of significant occurrences of COVID-19 in the sailing population as a result of being sailing. But the fact is that everything in our sport militates against it. For a start, though you can sail almost anywhere in Ireland, the majority of the sailing population lives in coastal districts. And the health benefits of this have been clearly demonstrated with brutal clarity in the Dublin area.

There, the lowest occurrence is in Blackrock in its breezy ozone-filled location on the shores of Dublin Bay, where the level of infection is only a fraction of the levels away up in the crowded northwest of the city, where it's about as far from the sea as you can get within city limits.

Seaside township of Blackrock has the lowest incidence of coronavirus in Dublin"Healthsville, Ireland" – the seaside township of Blackrock has the lowest incidence of coronavirus in Dublin.

Admittedly that's a rather vague and generalising analysis, but this week, much more specific figured were published comparing coronavirus incidence in coastal towns with that of inland towns in England and Wales. As many of the coastal towns have a notably older population than the inland centres, you'd expect a disease-favouring bias in the seaside retirement region. But even with that, the difference in the opposite direction is very marked. 

STAY ALIVE – STAY BY THE SEA

It's complex to make a full analysis, as the older demographic of most English coastal towns may mean less active socialising, and a greater readiness to cocoon completely. But nevertheless, the figures are quite stark - at this stage of the Pandemic, the COVID-19 death rate in England's large coastal towns is 63 per 100,000, while in inland towns of comparable size, the death rate is 102 per 100,000.

Of course, you can get some benefit from coastal living simply by throwing open the window from time to time (mock not, it is extremely important to do so), and getting outside and absorbing as much Vitamin D as possible in that ozone-laden air, for enclosed spaces are the virus's accomplice, and Vitamin D deficiency - a significant problem in Ireland – is offering Mr COVID-19 a welcoming open door.

You can meet some of the health requirements by taking a solitary or socially-distanced walk down Dun Laoghaire pier. But if you really want to find the optimal conditions for building up resistance to coronavirus, you'll find them as a member of the crew pod aboard a sailing boat racing in an Irish club event.

a busy Water Wag race in the harbourBetter than a spa treatment. While a walk down one of Dun Laoghaire's pier has enormous health benefits, even better for overall physical and mental health is having a busy Water Wag race in the harbour. Photo: W M Nixon

There's social stimulation, mental alertness, thinking and problem-solving of a kind totally different to what's required ashore, and there's exercise, team effort, very fresh air, and the effortless absorption of Vit D.

NO SPECTATOR CROWD PROBLEMS

And we're not a spectator sport. Nobody would pay to watch ordinary sailing, for the only worthwhile way to do so is by actively taking part. Thus sailing does not have crowds of undisciplined supporters and spectators who flout every social-distancing rule and mask-wearing requirements with total abandon when their team has won. In sailing by contrast, while clubs have been taking heroic steps to provide outdoor catering and space to maintain social distance, the reality is that many sailors have simply tidied up their boats at race's end, and gone straight home, having long since become accustomed to doing without the traditional après sailing.

Now all this is denied to us, even with the compliance with all rules, and the extremely low – if at all – incidence of coronavirus in the sailing population. In this situation, sailing administrators have been between a rock and a hard place in the face of the one-size-fits-all restrictions being imposed in pursuit of COVID-19 clamp-down.

BOATS SIT UNUSED, GOOD SAILING DAYS GO TO WASTE

The grass-roots sailors want to go sailing and particularly club racing. They know it is good for them. They can see elite international athletes getting in their sailing. They can see people who are learning to sail being allowed to go sailing. Yet in the face of this very blunt instrument, a blanket ban which covers activities of many very different kinds, boats sit unused. Good sailing days go to waste. Sailors go to seed. And our clubs, our remarkable clubs that are Ireland's greatest contribution to the development of sailing worldwide as we know it today, are facing a crisis situation.

You're not only having fun – it's actually very good for you. Paul Reilly and Dave Howard sucking up the Vitamin D and all the right kinds of ions as they race one of Howth YC's J/80s in the annual Aqua Restaurant Two-Handed Race in July. 2020's staging had an entry of 38 boats, the winners were Diane Kissane and Graham Curran in another J/80, and in a compressed season the memories of this special event – which was raced round Lambay – will become ever more preciousYou're not only having fun – it's actually very good for you. Paul Reilly and Dave Howard sucking up the Vitamin D and all the right kinds of ions as they race one of Howth YC's J/80s in the annual Aqua Restaurant Two-Handed Race in July. 2020's staging had an entry of 38 boats, the winners were Diane Kissane and Graham Curran in another J/80, and in a compressed season the memories of this special event – which was raced round Lambay – will become ever more precious. Photo: Lynne Reilly

In the seeming dead-end of this rock-and-hard-place situation, the good news is that Ireland's club administrators – the real backbone of our national sailing infrastructure – have been closely conferring of late to see if they can come up with a more imaginative and visionary way of dealing with the situation in order to get people sailing within sensible limits which takes account of the fact that in face of the virus incidence continuing to rise, the relative death rate continues to fall, or it does as long as supplies of the new medications continue to meet demand.

If all this seems a slightly selfish approach by a relatively fortunate sector of the population, nothing could be further from the truth. If the sailing community thought for a moment that totally giving up sailing would make a real difference to the spread of COVID-19, then they'd stop it today.

But instead, one of those trying to get sailing going again says that much of his motivation has come from meeting people in the front line of the battle against coronavirus who also happen to be keen sailors. He says their shared opinion is that being able to go sailing and get in a spot of racing even once a week is a real morale booster and a fabulous energiser after hours of working in ICU.

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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