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Gladwell's Line: Kiwis struggling to ride out a series of lockdown squalls

by Richard Gladwell/ 9 Nov 2021 05:39 PST 10 November 2021
New Zealand 470 crew caught in a squall and trying to make the gybe mark - Race 1 - 2012 Olympic Regatta © Richard Gladwell -

The cancellation announcement of the SailGP NZ regatta, due to have been held in Christchurch in January 2022, was one of the first inklings that New Zealand sailing will be embattled for the coming season or three, internationally and maybe domestically.

Hardly a week goes by without the news of a major event being cancelled, often for the second successive year. The Coastal Classic was not run this year for the first time in its 39yr history. Another institution, the Sir Peter Blake Regatta, has also been cancelled. Two Auckland Boat shows have been cancelled, as were many class national championships in 2020 and 2021.

Latest is the announcement that The Ocean Race would bypass Auckland, with organisers explaining that the "event has been rationalised in response to the logistical realities of an around the world race in a COVID-19 environment."

Yet to come is the America's Cup venue decision which is expected to add to the Kiwi sailors' anguish.

What will happen with local sailing events this coming season is still unclear, given that New Zealand is very much in a "COVID-19 environment" and with a government that is taking quite a different approach from the rest of the world. A Government directive banning sailing runs out last night - to be replaced with what?

A flurry of national contents took place once the February/March lockdowns were eased, but compliance with a myriad of changing rules makes a repeat of that exercise unlikely.

Back in mid-July, Yachting New Zealand announced that it would not send a team to the 2021 Youth World Sailing Championship in Oman next month, citing "MIQ requirements which would have been both expensive and over Christmas."

The previous Youth Worlds, set down for Brazil, was cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country.

With the next Youth Worlds scheduled for July 2022 in The Hague (NED), there is no certainty that the Kiwi Government will allow the sailors and coaches to re-enter Fortress New Zealand.

The loss of two successive cycles of Youth Worlds, and potentially three, puts a significant dent in New Zealand's opportunity to pull new sailing talent into the Olympic development program. The situation is now more acute with Paris2024 being a short three years distant thanks to the postponement of Tokyo2020 for 12 months - compounding an already difficult changing events situation.

North/South disparity

With air routes opening fast in Europe, accompanied by a resumption of borderless travel, there is a growing disparity between the European resident sailors for whom regatta competition is a drive-up exercise and non-EU countries who have to fly and have been required to quarantine on entry and re-entry.

Currently, Kiwi sailors must fly to the venue and then are required to undergo a seven-day quarantine on their return. That assumes they can get a place after standing in the waiting room of 25,000, hoping for a MIQ spot that matches their flight arrival, and dovetails with their regatta schedule.

The Olympic performance gap between the European countries and the rest of the world already exists and looks likely to worsen. The gap is not sailing skills-based, but rather controlling the regatta program to load the European bases.

Northern hemisphere sailors won 24 of the 30 medals on offer atTokyo2020. The Antipodean nations won just three Medals at Enoshima - Australia won two Gold and NZ one Silver. That was a marked turnaround from Rio 2016, where the SW Pacific countries won eight Medals and the European nations 17 Medals.

Yachting NZ is usually running on empty at this stage of the Olympic cycle, using any leftover funding from the previous campaign, while funding for the 2024 cycle is yet to be approved.

If New Zealand's strict border controls remain in place, then Yachting NZ may have to promote the concept of developing a base in Marseille, as has been done on an informal basis at other Olympiads. But instead of being able to fly home after a competition and training block, the Kiwi Olympic sailors may have to relocate to Europe for a couple of years, training locally as well as driving to regattas like the European teams.

However, that option means support has to be provided online from Auckland, or by hiring French-based resources or basing Kiwi performance analysis staff at Marseille along with the sailors. The first option is probably not practical in the medium to long term, and the other two are expensive.

Funding questions

Regardless of where the team is based, a below-par performance at Tokyo2020 has not made Yachting New Zealand's funding quest any easier.

There are some good excuses - which despite a medal-focus - must be given some weight.

New Zealand was hit hard by the loss of the Tokyo2020 preliminary regatta scheduled as a practice run-up to the Olympics. The pre-Olympic event at Enoshima was first postponed and re-scheduled a week or so before the Olympics and then cancelled as COVID Delta swept across Asia.

In the Olympics proper, early racing for each class, the NZ team were not race sharp – in four of the six events, the Kiwis scored one of their discard races on the first day. The mantra "you can't win the Olympics on the first day, but can lose it" played out for many sailors of all nationalities, as well as several Down-Under crews, in the mostly, and unexpectedly, light conditions at Enoshima.

The European nations were able to take advantage of their geography and put together a replacement program with competitors from different countries working in squads, and being able to drive, towing second boats to an arranged training venue

The Kiwis Tokyo2020 scorecard will be a hard sell to their apex funders and others who don't understand the sport's nuances.

Sailing is quite different from the stopwatch sports - where it is relatively easy to compare time benchmarks across local and international performance matrices and then have a reasonably strong indicator of Olympic performance, with a high degree of confidence in that call.

The combination of underperformance (Sailing's target was probably two or three medals from the six events contested) and the change of 50% of the events is a double whammy for YNZ's funding prospects .

For Paris 2024, the Olympic sailing horizon is more obscured than usual, with five of the ten events are being changed out. Two classes that performed reasonably well for the Kiwi team at Tokyo2020 – the Men's 470 (4th overall) and the Men's singlehanded Finn class (5th overall) - have been dropped for Marseille.

There are five new Olympic events, none of which have yet achieved a required pinnacle event benchmark for funding or ranking purposes. In the circumstances, NZ sailors showed promise in the just-concluded Women's and Men's Formula Kite Worlds - finishing 25th of 99 riders and 18th of 47 riders, respectively. Usually, a top ten in the overall standings is the funding/Olympic selection benchmark.

The last NZ Windfoiling Nationals attracted a fleet of 32 New Zealand sailors, with another 10 representing Australia, Noumea and France. For an Olympic class, that is a very strong local fleet, which should be on the pace internationally. Triple gold medal-winning coach Aaron McIntosh is close to the action in NZ – as both a competitor and mentor.

The recent world championships in Silvaplana (SUI) attracted 160 competitors in the Men's and U21 divisions, with 72 in the Women's and U21 events. There were no New Zealand entries, presumably because no one was prepared to take their chances in the MIQ lottery, to be allowed back into Fortress New Zealand.

At the 470 Worlds last March, there were 20 teams in the new Mixed crew event –a new event for Paris2024 - but no entries from New Zealand.

In all five new events, the issue for New Zealand will be getting to world championships and reaching the required standard of a top 10 placing in the overall standings. As a backstop, an interim standard could be imposed to let the first Olympic cycle competitors get some traction for LA28.

By taking a hard line on the Tokyo2020 sailing performance and suppressing talent development across five new classes, the apex funders risk locking in the Kiwi's Enoshima performance for several Olympiads instead of effecting a one-cycle recovery.

The five established Olympic classes have similar issues, except for the 49er, which has a long history of success - which will probably override any issues associated with running in and out of Europe. By sailing as one fleet, they can both get strong local competition. Similarly, but less so with the 49erFX, and bringing other crews up to the level of the 2016 Silver medalists would be a good insurance policy for 2024 and 2028.

The Nacra 17 also has a strong local fleet, but after the crew changes that occurred a year out from the original date for Tokyo2020, they will have to work as a squad and get up to the level of the 49er fleet to regain credibility.

Getting the women's singlehander up to standard will be very challenging. Despite qualifying for both, New Zealand hasn't been represented at the past two Olympics in this event. There is a solid core of very experienced competitors at the top of the class, and breaking into that group will take a lot of hard work by Kiwi sailors and coaches.

In normal Olympic cycles, YNZ would launch an intense Year 1 program. Previously, this has got traction for the classes in the easiest year of the Olympic cycle, providing a solid foundation for the remaining three years. But that is all dependent on funding and program approval.

The campaigns of Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie in the Women's 470, along with Peter Burling and Blair Tuke in the Men's 49er, were launched this way straight off the back of the 2008 Olympics where Aleh sailed in the Laser Radial and Burling in the Men's 470. They went on to win Gold and Silver medals in the following Olympics.

Kiwi bid

The fact that the main qualifying regatta for Paris 2024 has been pushed back a year doesn't make the Kiwi Olympic equation any easier. In effect, it will be a near-sudden death qualification round at the Sailing World Championships to be held at The Hague in August 2023.

New Zealand bid against The Hague for the right to stage the then 2022 Sailing World Championships – with the regatta to have been based at the Royal Akarana YC and sailed on the same waters as the America's Cup and 2019 49er, 49erFX and Nacra 17 World Championships.

Since their inception in 1999, seven of the combined Olympic class world championship have been stage, all have been in Europe, with two being held in Australia, the inaugural event in 1999 in Melbourne and the 2011 regatta in Fremantle.

Had New Zealand's bid for the Olympic Qualifier been accepted, Kiwi sailors would have been in quite a different position for Paris 2024, with a home Olympic qualification event and "no excuse to lose".

Of course, the elephant in the room on any international event scheduled to be staged in New Zealand is how the current COVID-19 response regime will be applied to the international entry of competitors, officials, and fans.

As one leading sports official told Sail-World in the context of this story, when politicians are announcing new "freedoms", "they always talk about returning NZ residents but never about the transition of international athletes in and out of New Zealand."

The reality of the current Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) rules, and how they have been applied, means that there is little prospect of international sailing resuming in the foreseeable future for New Zealand sailors. Also caught are international sailors who in the past have come to New Zealand to train in their off-season, often purchasing new gear while they are in Aotearoa.

Although the Government announcements have been made on reducing the stay in quarantine, other policies and processes are, at best, likely to see only an easing of the situation instead of effecting a resolution. In fact, yesterday's MIQ lottery attracted 24,000 Kiwis wanting to be allowed back into their country, from 120 nations, trying for just 4,000 spots. The trend is that despite changes in policy, they are having no real effect on the problem.

The current MIQ regime also impacts NZ-resident professional sailors and coaches outside the Olympic arena, who regularly travel to compete and coach at international regattas. Similarly, the NZ marine industry professionals who need to travel internationally to secure build contracts which can result in tens of millions of dollars of business being repatriated in New Zealand.

Having been through the MIQ process once, most would think long and hard before travelling a second time unless there was no alternative and you were relaxed about being marooned in a foreign location.

Over-complicated process

Regardless of whether you are an individual or team, just getting out of New Zealand is a major logistical and very time-consuming exercise and is downplayed by most commentators, very few if any of whom have run the MIQ gauntlet.

The requirement to have a COVID test 72 hours before returning/boarding a flight sounds simple – it's not. The potential forgery of documents and results means that the test must be conducted at an authorised facility. And undertaken within a time frame that juggles available testing appointments to coordinate with flight departure times.

To leave Auckland for Tokyo2020 required a three hour round trip for two tests 24 hrs apart, and a cost of $250 each –and a third trip to pick up embossed test certificates as well as digital copies.

Similarly, in Japan, getting one 72hr pre-flight test involved over four hours of travel by train, and a walk-through downtown Tokyo, with 15,000 reported cases a day - to undergo a two-minute test – and a cost of $330.

Within Government circles, there finally seems to be the realisation that there is a myriad of issues with the MIQ system - beyond just that of demand far outstripping available hotel space.

Ostensibly a reduction in days required in MIQ from 14 to seven will ease some of the pressure. However, it is not certain that there is an accurate count of the total of Kiwis wanting to return home, let alone those who are tourists and the like. The system doesn't work for Olympic campaigners, professional sailors, marine industry professionals and those wanting to make multiple trips to international regattas, who are fully vaccinated and pre-tested using a reasonable process. The current process is not reasonable.

Even the home isolation pilot being trialled is impractical. Self-isolation means just that - more extreme than being under house arrest - with the rest of the family having to move out for the week or some similar arrangement.

The mental toll of isolation on individuals of different age groups can be significant. Often people, particularly young sailors, need friends, partners and family around them when they are going through what can be a challenging time at the end of a championship – particularly where performance has not met the sailor's expectations.

Being alone for 22-23 hours a day for even seven days in a MIQ hotel is potentially very damaging mentally. The first few days when you are not allowed out of your room for exercise are the worst. MIQ is a circumstance in which people do not know how they will react until they have been placed in that situation.

The problem is exacerbated by the authorities running MIQ refusing to allow athletes or coaches and athletes to room together, even though they may have been with each other for the past 6-8 weeks on the regatta circuit. Only family or a partner are allowed to co-habit in MIQ.

While there is plenty of talk at a Governmental level around concepts that could apply, the actions and detail are somewhat different.

Great reliance is now being placed on so-called vaccination certificates. But back in July, going into Tokyo2020 and for return, neither Japanese nor NZ authorities were particularly interested in sighting these documents. The focus was on 72hr test results.

Like test results, paper certificates are easily forged. There is also the complication that each country has its own set of procedures, which significantly increases compliance – both in finding out what the procedure is and the compliance time involved – usually working with a foreign language, or ambiguous official translation.

Much of the technology used to drive COVID testing and control at Tokyo2020 seems to be regarded as too difficult or complex for the NZ Government bodies to implement.

The Tokyo2020 Olympic family of some 80,000 were tested, mostly on a daily basis, using saliva testing.

But flick on the TV news back in MIQ in New Zealand, and the politicians and their advisers claim that the method we'd just been using at Tokyo2020 had significant issues. Of course, they have changed their tune since always NZ seems to be in catch-up mode with the rest of the world.

Some statistics. More than 675,000 tests of accredited personnel were conducted at Tokyo2020 from July 1 to August 10 - with a positivity rate of around 0.02% - slightly higher than New Zealand's 0.17%. 80% of the athletes from 206 countries in Tokyo were double vaccinated. All testing was done, unless otherwise required, by a self-collected saliva test, with the test sample dropped off at the venue.

Similarly, there's some discussion in New Zealand occurring around a mobile phone app. Yet again, we are told how complex and complicated it is. But the app has already been invented - several times over, by other countries.

A multi-functional mobile phone app was used at Tokyo2020, which showed the person's quarantine status using a red or green-rimmed message. In addition to the overall quarantine status, it tracked the holder's movement using GPS; it ran a daily health check questionnaire; it required the daily taking and entry of the holder's body temperature; it showed the holder via blue tooth if they had been a close contact of someone who had tested COVID positive.

The system was all under central computer control. The health check took 20secs per day. Miss filing a daily check, and you'd receive an email at noon and then three-hourly. Its effect made the user primarily responsible for their health protection rather than the state.

While it all sounds very big brotherish, the app wasn't particularly intrusive. It allowed people to get on with their lives while providing the Government of Japan with some very comprehensive information.

The Japanese app was hard to get running outside of Japan - depending on the device used - highlighting the need for an international app.

The EU countries have already implemented a mobile phone app used inside and beyond the EU membership. A total of 48 countries have joined and have the system running. It is hard to understand why a small country like NZ can't use an app that is already part of an international network. Equally, when tourists come into New Zealand from Europe, they will be using the same app as Kiwis. Compliance is a major time-consumer now with overseas travel. As well as being very stressful, it can result in missed flights and connections.

In Japan (with 15,000 positive tests per day at the time), the only external signs of the declared "state of emergency" were people wearing facemasks and hand cleansing devices (foot-operated) inside every entrance door. We certainly weren't stepping over bodies in the streets, as some would have you believe.

There was no scanning of QR codes or signing onto a paper register. While Japan was in a so-called "state of emergency" during the Olympics, it was about the equivalent of Alert level 1-2 in NZ.

While international sailing, as we knew it, looks to be a tough call for NZ sailors for the next six months. The counter seems to be a big pick-up in club sailing, particularly those who want to escape state-control for a few hours. However, gathering limits inside clubrooms for weekend and other racing remains an issue.

Quite how competition outside provincial borders will operate is yet to be announced, with crowd sizes being the issue, and even a limit of 100 people is not particularly workable. Hopefully the government directive prohibiting yacht racing, in Auckland, will be lifted with the drop to the lower Alert level

However, the situation is more positive on the domestic scene, than it is for international competition and marine business travel.

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