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A conversation with Francis George on Oakcliff's Quaranteam Regatta

by David Schmidt 12 Jun 08:00 PDT June 6-7, 2020
Racecourse action at the 2020 Quaranteam Regatta © Francis George/Oackcliff Sailing

As late spring prepares to roll into early summer, many of us are seriously missing sailing, racing, and simply being on the water with our friends as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hammer communities large and small all around our lonely planet. More than one of us has lamented something along the lines of, 'there's got to be a safe way to get out sailboat racing'. Luckily, the folks at Oakcliff Sailing in Oyster Bay, NY, have been putting serious thought into how races can be responsibly run during this turbulent time, and they have come up with a protocol that clubs of all sizes can consider adopting and implementing.

Better still, Oakcliff test-flighted this protocol (available here: www.oakcliffsailing.org/about-oakcliff/where-to-stay) at their Quaranteam Regatta, which unfurled on the waters off their facility during the weekend of June 6 and 7. Teams of five or six sailors, each consisting of a household or a "quaranteam", competed. If you're not familiar with the term "quaranteam", Oakcliff defines it as a group of sailors who "attest to one another that they have been safely and strictly quarantined for at least two weeks prior" to racing (read: affidavits were involved).

Face-mask-clad teams were transported from Oakcliff's facility to their boats on a per-boat basis, thus limiting possible exposure from other crews, and all participating sailors honored a six-foot separation between their team and their launch driver.

After racing, Oakcliff organized delivery of victuals and libations to each boat, thus allowing teams to safely enjoy an après scene in a beautiful setting. Smarter still, Oakcliff created "party buff" facemasks with drinking-straw ports (available here: squareup.com/store/oakcliff-sailing-center), which allowed sailors to be simultaneously social and safe.

I checked in with Francis George, Oakcliff's communications manager, via email, to learn more about Oakcliff's socially distanced Quaranteam Regatta.

Can you tell us about how Oakcliff determined their "COVID-19 Boating Safety Protocol"? Who did you consult with to determine your protocol?

The protocol was a group effort with the whole team here at Oakcliff, but we also consulted with local politicians so they could share their concerns from a public standpoint.

We used this feedback to create the best possible protocol that can be copied and pasted to different regions around the country (and world) where there are varying degrees of safety measures being implemented by the government and community leaders.

An affidavit sounds kind of intense—has there been any pushback from the sailors on this, or do they accept it as a necessary step to enjoy sailing and racing?

We felt an affidavit was more important than any waiver. It is a way for the internal team who has done so much work to be safe and get our assets ready to legitimately assess people requesting to come into the bubble.

COVID-19 is life and death and everyone understands that. The teams are using it as a bit of a road map to become comfortable with each other.

Can you tell us about the face coverings? What material are they made out of and what level of protection do they provide?

They are Poly Spandex produced by Gillford Mills, with UV protection, anti-microbial and moisture-wicking for the performance. This is a face covering, not an N-95 mask.

We tried about 30 different materials for athletic performance and chose four. We then tried to test them by using alcohol and a breathalyzer, which was fun but ethanol particles are way smaller than spit.

We resorted to a basic to flame-blow test, which involves blowing out a flame at different distances. We could blow it out at six feet with no face covering, it was reduced to under three feet with one layer of material and if we folded it over then it was under two feet. If someone wanted further safety they could insert a charcoal PM2.5 mask into the fold and come very close to the N-95 Mask.

One note, the casinos in Connecticut are opening but don't allow smoking because you can't do it with a mask on. It was suggested that our Performance Party Buffs would be good but we do not condone this due to a fire hazard amongst other things that are bad for you.

Great idea about the après sailing food and beverage delivery—do you see this as something that's germane to Oakcliff, or can other regattas also implement this step?

We actually think it is an excellent idea for clubs to try new things and have launch service deliver meals to boats. Oakcliff knows that this has been a really difficult time but on most days we balance the stress with an optimism that if we are smart and nimble we will come out different and hopefully better.

The food delivery went great and was well-received by all competitors. Some of them actually would like to do an on-the-water regatta party with food-and-drink delivery for some regattas even when this [pandemic] is over.

It was also an opportunity to stimulate the local restaurant community. For example, a local bar and restaurant called the Coach Meeting House has been making headlines with their curbside spiked slushees, so we took orders from all the boats halfway through the regatta and put in a big order with them.

Do you guys use fixed marks, or do you reposition them depending on wind direction? If it's the latter, how do you deal with racecourse management without risking exposure to the people on the mark-tending boats?

We have excellent BIMBOS (Brotherhood of International Mark Boat Operators) who do our mark set solo most of the time anyway. This is possible because ten years ago we already pioneered a different mark system.

Because Oyster Bay winds are notoriously shifty and match racing has up to five races on the same 12-18-minute course going on at any one time we lay three different colored weather marks and the P-flag to indicate which mark that race is going to. We do use white as the default but also have red and green that we can change to with multiple horns.

The MarkSetBots are another great option especially if you are dealing with deep water.

Let's talk about the Quaranteam Regatta. How do you and the other Oakcliff event organizers feel the protocol held up to the scrutiny of an actual regatta? Also, do you plan to make any changes to the protocol based on your recent experiences?

Our protocol worked great and proved to be effective as well as practical, which was a big priority for us (if it's not practical people won't do it.) As far as we know there were no breaches in exposure, and all of the teams remained safe and socially distanced from one another.

What was the general vibe like at the Quaranteam Regatta? Do you feel that most sailors felt safe and secure in terms of COVID-19 exposure thanks to the protocol?

Yes, our feedback from all of the sailors was very positive. They were ecstatic to be out sailing, but they also they felt safe and had a lot of fun. I'd say the general vibe was thankfulness because many other organizations have either stopped hosting regattas completely or have pushed them back to much farther in the summer.

The on-the-water regatta party got great feedback too and, as we mentioned earlier, some of the sailors even asked if we could do that in the future just because it was more fun.

The CDC has recently said that they think that contaminated surfaces pose far less of an exposure risk for transmission than person-to-person contact. Do you plan to revise your protocol at all based on this new wisdom? I understand that you are approaching COVID-19 with an abundance of caution, as you of course should, but—at a certain point—what's the risk/reward ratio like for worrying about sanitized winch handles and other surfaces if they don't pose as much of a risk as say, a coughing/sneezing sailor?

A chance is a chance and taking an unseeded chance is just plain stupid. Would you run forward in the Southern Ocean without your safety harness on just because there was only a five percent chance you might fall over and die? Nope!

Even if this [pandemic] goes away we will still ask the competitors to wash the boats and equipment with soap and water and do a freshwater rinse. This is a bonus!

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