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High Profile Sailing Events like the Rolex Middle Sea Race Need to Become Invisible if Sailing is to Continue Through Pandemic

17th October 2020
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Handsome is as handsome does – the uncompromising Lombard 45 Pata Negra – used for several Howth YC successes – has been chartered by ISORA's Andrew Hall of Pwllheli for today's (Saturday) 41st Rolex Middle Sea Race from Malta Handsome is as handsome does – the uncompromising Lombard 45 Pata Negra – used for several Howth YC successes – has been chartered by ISORA's Andrew Hall of Pwllheli for today's (Saturday) 41st Rolex Middle Sea Race from Malta

People have been unobtrusively getting on with sailing in many places during the pandemic, determinedly maintaining social distance afloat and ashore, reducing their interaction with outsiders to such a minimum it's almost non-existent, and doing it all thoughtfully, with properly-located face coverings.

Where racing has been held, it has been kept low key, and the traditional après sailing became so restrained that many folk, having got in their evening race or mini-cruise or whatever, simply decided to go straight home rather than use the carefully-planned compliant catering which the clubs have worked determinedly and with vision to provide.

Amongst club officials meanwhile, the central thinking is that each club should keep to itself, each boat should keep to itself, and each sailing family should stay within family limits. It's the complete opposite, in other words, of the Hockey Union, which seems to have been penalising clubs because some team members have refused for health reasons to travel to matches at other clubs.

Michael McCann's Etchells 22 on her way to winning the Royal Cork's evening raceThe sense of well-being and feelings of good health induced by evening racing like this is beyond measure. Michael McCann's Etchells 22 on her way to winning the Royal Cork's evening race of Thursday, July 9th 2020. Photo: Robert Bateman

Who got Covid-19 through sailing?

Fortunately, the nature of our sailing is such that a comparable situation doesn't arise. The result is that the sailing community has managed to maintain such a high level of good health that incidences of COVID-19 within it seem very rare indeed, often to the point of non-existence. But instead of making such sweeping assessments based on personal observation and hearsay, Afloat.ie would like to put the record on a more substantial footing, so if you know of anyone in sailing who currently has, or has experienced, COVID-19, then please let us know.

Of course, we don't want names – that would be a gross intrusion on privacy, and probably illegal. But if we could get some sort of ballpark figure (if it exists), it would give substance to the arguments of many club officers, who feel that the National Authority has gone too far in declaring that even the humblest club racing is now verboten, and who feel instead that our beloved and exceptionally healthy sport – of which club sailors are the backbone – deserves much the same treatment as that meted out to golf.

The problem, of course, is that while sailing is a peaceful and often solitary pursuit without paying spectators, it is a high visibility activity. Even the smallest boats popping out for a quick race in the bay will be seen – albeit with scant genuine attention – by very many people. And if one sector of the population is finding its activities restricted in the severest possible way, it's only human to strike out and make sure that everyone else has to endure the same restrictions, and preferably worse.

Dun Laoghaire Water Wags on Lough ReeDun Laoghaire Water Wags on Lough Ree. Casual observers will not be aware of the details of sailing, but they'll certainly know it's going on. Photo: Cathy Mac Aleavey

Despite all this, we've had a truncated but interesting sailing season in Ireland in 2020, and at the time of writing this it's still developing, with Pam Lee and Cat Hunt in the process of setting a new women's two-handed round Ireland record (Record established in a time of 3 days 3d 20h 29m 28s subject to ratification - Web editor). Looking ahead, if allowed there are also prospects of late Autumn and early Winter leagues among people who have come to a fresh realisation of just how much sailing means to them.

It's all controllable within a very defined club bubble, but special challenges arise when a major international event comes up on the agenda, and those involved think they can just about run it provided the countdown and the participants have all been careful beyond diligent in preparing themselves and their crews.

Middle Sea Race's impressive turnout

Today's Royal Malta Rolex Middle Sea Race really has bent over backwards to be pandemic-fit. But even in Malta, there are Middle Sea-proven boats and crews who wouldn't dream of taking part. Despite that, the entry of 71 boats with crews from 21 countries is an impressive turnout, and there seems to be a basic underlying feeling that the race must take place as scheduled at 11 o'clock local time today (Saturday), not least for the morale of Malta and the good of world sailing.

This may all sound a bit high-flown for a specialised sporting event, but the Middle Sea Race can happen with no detrimental effect on preventing the spread of COVID-19, it will further improve the health of those taking part, and it will do us all no end of good simply to know it's taking place.

The Podesta family's First 45 Elusive 2The Podesta family's First 45 Elusive 2 on her way to winning the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2019. Photo Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

So we find every bit of Irish interest that's going. Even the defending champion. the Podesta family's First 45 Elusive 2, has a tenuous connection to us. The late Arthur Podesta, the father of the remarkable Podesta siblings Maya, Christoph and Aaron, took a best result of third overall in the Middle Sea Race with the first Elusive, which was an earlier First 45 – a sister-ship of Cormac Twomey's Sarah J which won the Dingle Race in 1997 and 1999 – which had originally been taken out to the Mediterranean by John Sisk of Dun Laoghaire.

Thus we need to claim a bit of Elusive 2, as our key offshore sailors in Malta - Barry Hurley and Brian Flahive who have many outstanding offshore achievements between them - are sitting this one out, though they have been getting in a spot of sailing by both being at the sharp end of SB20 racing in Malta.

Another serious contender that rings a bell is the hugely individualistic Lombard 45 Pata Negra, the vehicle of dreams for many Irish offshore successes. She's chartered this time round by Andrew Hall of Pwllheli and the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association.

Jean-Pierre Dick's JP 54 The Kid took line honours in the Malta Coastal Race on Wednesday, and placed third overall Jean-Pierre Dick's JP 54 The Kid took line honours in the Malta Coastal Race on Wednesday and placed third overall

And though Honorary Irish Sailor Jean-Pierre Dick (he was up at The Park, don't y'know) put down a marker for line honours with his JP54 The Kid in Wednesday's 30-mile Malta Coastal Race, the formidable talents of Nin O'Leary of Crosshaven have been shipped aboard the Dutch-owned Maxi 72 Aragon, a Reichel-Pugh design. And there's nothing Nin enjoys more than making a luxury performance cruiser sail much faster than anyone thought possible.

So there's an Irish lineup of sorts, and doubtless once the fleet finally crosses the start line, we'll find that there are others of us among the crews, for there's also representation in the multi-hulls with northerner Mikey Ferguson crewing on the MOD 70 Mana

Nin O'Leary's Middle Sea contender AragonNin O'Leary's Middle Sea contender Aragon - her CV already includes winning the RORC Transatlantic race.

Vendee Globe in November

The pace is then ratcheted with the Vendee Globe getting underway in November. Theoretically, it’s the perfect lockdown event, as it's all about isolation. But there is the problem that if anything happens to one of the contenders, they might have to put into some remote little island which would be just rife for infection from all sorts of novel viruses and bacteria. But that’s an unlikely enough scenario, and either way we can be sure that Marcus Hutchinson, much involved in recent days with the Magenta Project Female Two-Handed Round Ireland Record, will be right in the thick of things in Les Sables d’Olonne, even if they are going to try and run the legendary village oo socially distanced lines.

 The hundred footers make their start in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race. Until the pandemic struck, three of them had hoped to be racing in European waters this summer. Photo: Rolex/Carlo BorlenghiThe hundred footers make their start in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race. Until the pandemic struck, three of them had hoped to be racing in European waters this summer. Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

Sydney Hobart holds out

Beyond that, the focus will swing to the southern hemisphere, where the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia are determinedly holding out on being able to stage the annual Sydney-Hobart race on December 26th. If it does happen, defending overall ace is our own Gordon Maguire, and the likelihood of top navigator-tactician Adrienne Cahalane – originally of Offaly – being in some key role in the fleet can be taken as read.

America's Cup selection stages

Meanwhile, December will see the first selection stages of next year's America's Cup being raced in New Zealand. New Zealand has of course been the poster-girl for national avoidance of COVID-19, so the anti-viral tests which boats and crews being shipped out to Auckland have had to pass are of the most demanding and rigorous type.

New Zealand has been under almost total outsider-exclusion for quite some time now. Thus the chink of light which may be allowed in by the America's Cup is surely welcome, as the prolonged period of virtually total isolation seems to have resulted in the distinctive Kiwi accent becoming even more different from English as she is spoken elsewhere than it was already. Unless some outsiders get in there quite soon, it's only a matter of time before there won't be anybody who can understand a word they say……..

Auckland, the City of a Thousand SailsAuckland, the City of a Thousand Sails, where the total pandemic isolation of New Zealand is resulting in the development of a strange new dialect of English

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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