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A conversation with Meghan O'Rourke about the 2020 Lake Max Vanguard 15 Series

by David Schmidt 2 Jun 08:00 PDT May 23-June 6, 2020
Racecourse action at the 2020 Lake Max Vanguard 15 Series © Image courtesy of the 2020 Lake Max Vanguard 15 Series

Late May and early June might still technically belong to spring, but for most North American sailors these weeks spell the start to a long and rewarding summer sailing season. But, as everyone knows, 2020 is no normal year for sailing (or for anything) “thanks” to the global scourge known as the novel coronavirus. While there’s no doubt that humanity will eventually beat this pandemic, those of us who are living through these dark days know that any return to normalcy is highly welcomed, especially if it involves sailboat racing.

The good news is that organized sailing is also starting to resume as cities and states slowly start to come back online. One such example was the three-weekend 2020 Lake Max Vanguard 15 Series, which was presented by Sail22 (www.sail22.com) and was contested on the waters of Lake Maxinkuckee in Culver, Indiana, aboard Vanguard 15s. The first event unfurled on Saturday, May 16, and the following two regattas took place the following two weekends (May 23 and May 30).

Not surprisingly, sailors were motivated to get behind this regatta series and to get back to the activity that we all love best. All races counted in this no-drop series, and 15 teams participated.

But beyond creating an opportunity to go racing, this event series also served as a template for how other regattas can responsibly take place amidst fears of COVID-19. For example, the 2020 Lake Max Vanguard 15 Series employed MarkSetBots and virtual skipper’s meetings, and the event took other smart steps to help ensure the health of all competitors and organizers.

I checked in with Meghan O’Rourke, president of the Vanguard 15 class, via email, to learn more about this exciting regatta series.

What was the inspiration for this regatta series?

The want/ need to sail. Personally, when I am on the water, I forget about all my land problems. I use sailing as a way to take a moment to myself. Some people do yoga, sing, or paint. For us it’s sailing. During a time full of uncertainties, we need that moment to get away.

It was the first hot day in Culver Indiana, Ed Furry, Sean Wilson, and myself were talking about the need to sail. It quickly became a Captain Planet moment “All our powers combined” we can make this happen and so we did. (Ed being the owner of Sail22, Sean Wilson’s extensive rigging and fiberglass knowledge, and myself being the V15 class president/Chicago Fleet captain.)

Where did most of the sailors and boats come from? Chicago specifically, or were there also local and out-of-town teams/boats involved?

All sailors are from the Chicago area. Majority of the competitors are from Chicago Vanguard 15 Fleet 67 out of Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club. We invited the V15 Nashville Fleet 77 but they are back to [their own] sailing. We [didn't] turn away any V15 sailors looking to get on the water.

What kinds of onshore social-distancing practices did the event employ? Also, how did you enforce these policies?

There were many practices put in place for onshore social distancing. To start, we decided to have a virtual skippers meeting. We recorded a video and sent it to all participants the night before arrival. We asked participants to 'reply all' if they had any questions, in doing so we created a conversation as if we were all together.

On the day of the event we divided participants into two groups. This allowed less congestion at the launch ramp. Once the first group was launched, they ran drills with Ed Furry. Then the second group began to rig and prepare to launch. When returning to the launch ramp the second group would stay out post racing and run the drills, while the first group went in. Once your boat was de-rigged all participants were requested to leave the launch ramp or head up to Sail22 where there is more space to spread out. With the large influx of participants between event one and two we decided to not have a debrief on the property, day of. A virtual debrief was held the following Tuesday via zoom.

In addition to having a specific schedule we requested all participants to bring their own food, water, and a reusable water bottle. This includes a personal beer cooler. We did not have a community beer cooler, food, or water to avoid the spread of germs. We did have water standing by in case of an emergency. We provided a hand-sanitizing station at the launch ramp and at Sail22, where the second group waited to rig. We required all boats to carry a VHF. This allowed us to stay distant while communicating. There was no need to get close to another boat in order to communicate.

We asked all participants to stay six feet apart. We realized the during first event that it is VERY easy for us to slip into our old habits. Everyone needed to be aware of the six-foot rule. We added a diagram on the side of the van showing all participants what six feet looks like. We also asked specific participants to be a "lookout". If they [saw] participants, other then skipper and crew, less then six feet apart to kindly remind them we need to be socially distant. We understand that sometimes while rigging another participant might need assistance, we requested all to have a mask/Buff/Gaiter for times [they] needed to be closer [than six feet] when rigging or helping someone else.

All of this information was included in an amendment added to the SIs, which also included a detailed schedule for the day.

As for enforcing these expectations, all sailors were very grateful to be able to sail. Everyone participating [was] willing to follow expectations because they [understood] the seriousness of the pandemic and the [collective] eagerness to sail.

What kinds of safe-play tactics did you expect from the racers on the water? Are we talking about standard-issue things like face masks and hand sanitizer, or did you also expect that sailors would employ more distanced/cordial tactics at mark roundings? Also, did you expect that sailors would bring their usual levels of competitiveness, or was the spirit of this series more about getting out on the water for some friendly racing than about winning?

We [didn't ask] sailors to employ more distanced/cordial tactics at mark roundings. We based this off what we saw in the first race and knowing our fleet. There wasn’t enough congestion at the mark where we felt that was warranted.

That being said, we mentioned to skippers [that] if they would rather take wider mark roundings to play it safe that [was] fine. It’s about what they [wanted] to accomplish and what they [felt] safe doing.

As for competitiveness, it [was] a wide range. Some sailors [were] happy to get out on the water, others [were] here to win. It [was] a good balance.

Was the RC physically on the water in a boat together, or did they run things from ashore?

We have teamed up with MarkSetBot. Which limits the amount of people needed for RC. We [had] one RC boat with two people.

The windward mark [was] an orange MarkSetBot. Leeward marks [served] as both the start/finish line as well as leeward gate. One mark [was]an anchored ball, the other [was] a MarkSetBot.

Including two MarkSetBots enabled race committees to keep the course square without having to touch a mark all day. This limited the amount of people needed. It also allowed RC to support on the water coaching. Indiana guidelines allow two people on the boat. The RC was also composed of family members.

How were protests be handled? Were all involved competitors be “in the room”, or were red flags be handled via video conference?

[We didn't have] any protests. If we [did] have a protest it would [have been] handled outside on the back patio of one of the barns. Sail22 is located on six acres of land, allowing us to spread out. This specific regatta is small. We [would have been] able to handle protests on the property. If it was a larger regatta with multiple judges, a form would be submitted and the hearing would [have been] held via Zoom.

What was the hardest challenge about organizing a regatta series during a major pandemic lockdown? Any advice for other organizers who are interested in trying to set up similar events?

One of the biggest challenges was ensuring that the sailors will be safe. Some sailors were apprehensive about participating in this regatta. Once they saw all the procedures that have been put into place they were more at ease.

The other big challenge was creating procedures. We had to walk through the regatta as a competitor and [as] a RC volunteer. We had to think about everything that was touched, how much space each boat would need to rig and launch, and—if the six-foot rule had to be broken to support someone—what that would look like.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

I truly feel with a growth mindset and a collaborative group of individuals there is never a task that is too daunting to handle. This regatta would not have happened if we did not have those two things.

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