• Richard Murff

Sailing Away From COVID

After a lot of howling they let us actually play football. Perhaps that was a bad idea, it certainly a tricky one. In the South at least, it comes dangerously close to separation of Church and State. The debate over football, though, never really seemed to be about public health but one group of spectators wanting their favorite pastime and damn the consequences versus a tribe who’d love to see some people they don’t generally like get robbed of something they love.

For my part I’ve always been a bit too much of a spaz to get too much into spectator sports, and sailing isn’t much of a spectator sport. Our football enthusiast may be on Row 15 on the 50 yard line, but there is no real danger of his getting pulled into the game and pummeled. Hang around a yacht club during a regatta and you have a fair chance into being press-ganged someone’s sporting little navy when their number two bails with an epic hangover. Personal danger aside, a spectator standing on a dock is a) very far away from the action and b) very close to the bar. And there you really might run into a plague hot spot because drunken sailors talk loud and, unlike the wind, they rarely stop blowing.

Most of the spring and summer 2020 regattas were canceled due to COVID, which left me with a nonrefundable ticket to St. Petersburg, Florida. With the coming of fall, the clubs began to hold the regattas sans the after party. Which seemed like a sensible enough compromise until Mother nature stepped in with a series of hurricane smack-downs along the Gulf Coast making the whole COVID question was moot. So it was that I sat through this lockdown as my topsiders dried out for a year without setting foot on a boat.

With the latest hurricane bouncing off Cuba towards Mexico and Texas, there was a break in the weather in Lower Alabama for the Wadewitz Regatta held at the Fairhope Yacht Club. And they put on a good show even in these weird circumstances ranging from the whole plague issue to the damage done to the club by Hurricane Sally on the original Wadewitz weekend.

I’ve raced for years but have never owned a boat – usually because a seasoned boat owner talks me out of it when I start sniffing around some old bucket. So, I crew on a Lightning where the skipper swears that sailing is a COVID friendly sport. First of all, there whole point of the race is to pull away from the pack – in sailing there is no scrum (theoretically, I’ve been in some hairy starts). If you are within six feet of another crew then you are dangerously close to either an infraction of the rules or an expensive “whoopsie.” Then there is all that fresh air and a spanking dose of Vitamin D in that tan you’re getting.

The other side of the coin, of course is that a Lightning is only 19 feet long and a lot of that is hull. A regulation team is a captain and two crew so you’d better hope that none of you have the crud because there is no way to social distance. Here the fail safe for wonky test results is rum. Of course you need to be careful with the dosage, as a side-affect is the aforementioned “whoopsie.”

If you are going to sail away from the COVID, the weather or, in the case of Wadewitz, the carnival hilarity of a presidential election, you are going to have some wind. A race, at least in a small boat like a Lightning, doesn’t require too much planning – the course is laid out by a racing committee that morning and then it’s a matter of getting around it the quickest under wind while the rest of the fleet does the exact same thing. In that sense, it isn’t too much different from Indy Car racing. Where things get weird is the “under wind” part. In Indy Car, the position of other cars has some bearing on your car, but not its fuel system. In sailing, all the boats jockeying for the same wind radically changes the wind.

Think of the wind like a river. You can only built one hydroelectric dam on a river and have it generate power – a second one would be pointless because the water is already dammed up. With sailing though, things aren’t nearly so straightforward. To visualize what I’m getting at now picture that dam not as a gigantic concrete monolith, but an epic picket fence or slat wall. It’s holds some water back, but then it flows around the barrier in unpredictable ways. Even this ignores the fact that our River Simile is invisible and changes course without any warning. Or becomes a stagnant pond. It’s really a grab bag.

And you think that this sounds like an interesting way to burn an afternoon, without cell coverage, no plague or a bathroom, then sailing just might be the sport for you.