Sailing clubs across the North East have created innovative new opportunities for racing during the Coronavirus pandemic to encourage members back onto the water.

Many have been developing a vibrant and inclusive racing scene alongside a resurgence in singlehanded sailing emerging from the need for social distancing.

With clubs having to adapt or change their usual racing format, lots have been enjoying more informal racing which has been proving popular with members.

Derwent Reservoir, South Shields and Tynemouth sailing clubs are among those now considering what can be learned for the future.

Gate starts

The Laser fleet at Derwent Reservoir SC would usually take part in handicap round-the-cans club racing but during the Covid-19 period has been getting together to run simple fleet races using rabbit run/gate starts without a committee boat.

David Schilling, Laser fleet captain and youth coordinator, says: “What we’ve done is facilitate and adapt what could do. We keep apart on the slipway and if we have an hour on a Wednesday evening we’ll have three or four races, all gates starts, and might be altogether or have Radials and 4.7s off first along with the slower full rigs. The format is fantastic. No results are recorded so we’re not doing it for anything other than enjoying the race, and people are taking part just for the fun of it.”

The Lasers at the club have been seeing new people coming in the fleet, including those who were not able to go doublehanded sailing, parents taking part because their kids are doing it, and those who have simply jumped into a Laser to get in on the action.

“We’ve always had a core group and the situation we’re in has built on that,” says David. “The strength of the racing has seen 20 boats out every week, and every week we have a couple of new faces. I think having a little briefing before we go out on the water helps. We come together in the dinghy park, spaced out, and have a shout to each other about what we’re going to do, and that in itself is sociable, then we have a quick chat after. I also think the racing is better.”

While the Laser fleet would have previously taken part in club racing based on slow and fast handicap fleets using a one-hour long course, its informal fleet racing format is allowing faster turnaround short-course racing, and going forward the fleet may investigate the idea of developing personal handicaps.

The fleet has seen its informal format and pre-race ‘briefings’ making racing more inclusive and accessible for members, while the lack of any recorded results has avoided the pressure and potential frustration of having each week count towards an overall series.

The focus on finding new ways to engage sailors has also seen youth Laser sailor Oscar Schilling helping to galvanise interest in the Laser fleet with post-race reports and ‘feature sailor’ video interviews shared on the club’s Facebook group.

As well as the Lasers, the club has had bubbles of Musto skiffs and handicap sailors out racing too, and it is now looking at what ideas might be taken forward from the less structured racing which has been taking place during the pandemic.

Wednesday evening Laser racing at Derwent Reservoir SC, credit David SchillingPursuit racing

At South Shields SC the committee took time to reintroduce sailing after completing full risk assessments following RYA and government guidance and putting measures in place such as external sinks, using surveys to gauge members’ thoughts while keeping them fully informed and involved.

Sailing was reintroduced on Sunday 21st June, comprising two sessions of free sailing, with limited numbers for each and an online registration system using MyClubhouse to ensure social distancing when rigging and launching. After a few weeks of this being successful, the club introduced pursuit racing on Wednesday evenings and then Sundays. As Commodore Niall Graham explains: “Pursuit racing being ideal due to staggered launching, we were able to increase the numbers of boats.”

A key concern was the provision of rescue cover: where the club would normally require two persons per RIB, it has been using two RIBs, each single manned unless crewed by same household, and has limited racing to a wind strength of 15 gusting 20 knots, reducing the likelihood of rescues being needed and asking all participants to sign that they can self rescue from a capsize.

The wind strength restriction has seen the club sometimes changing the day sailed at the weekend in response to the forecast: if the weather forecast is looking too breezy on the Sunday but better on the Saturday, the sailing day has been moved.

“The flexible weekend is proving pretty popular,” says Niall. “Given the choice of no sailing if the wind forecast is high or a change to Saturday, most members are very happy to swap. It's just to minimise the risk of the rescue being required. Long term I am not sure if this will continue after Covid but we just want to offer maximum opportunity to members.”

The club has seen many of its members seizing the opportunity to get out racing on whatever day is available, and is looking forward to more boats being able to take part following the latest RYA guidance signalling a return to doublehanded sailing.

As Niall sums up: “We feel that our members have been extremely appreciative and supportive of the measures that the club have put in place and we are having some great sailing now.”

Pursuit racing at South Shields SC, credit Nick NickFlights

At Tynemouth SC members have been racing in two flights - initially with up to six boats in each (mostly Lasers) to comply with earlier return-to-boating and Covid-19 guidance – with a committee boat running a 3,2,1 start sequence with a one minute gap between flights.

Nathan Batchelor from the club explains: “The less experienced sailors go off first, so a personal handicap of sorts. Rather than doing a traditional one hour round-the-cans race on a Wednesday night we’ve managed three or four shorter 15-20 minute races. Sailors from all across the ability spectrum seem to prefer this format and people learn a lot more.

“For the less experience sailors they get to lead races - and sometimes win. Also, they get overtaken during the race so there are lots more learning/discussion points when sat on the beach with a beer after. Typically the good sailors would be ahead from the starting gun never to been seen again.

“We’re discussing how to carry on with this format when more doublehanders come back out. We’re fortunate in that 90% of the boats sailing normally are Lasers or 400s; equally fortunate in that over the winter the club did a winter series at a small lake (in Durridge Bay country park) so a number of people had acquired Lasers for that.”

No results are recorded and the success of the Tynemouth’s return to racing is perhaps best summed up by club member Francesco Ferretti, who commented on Facebook after one of the racing days: “Thank you for arranging racing and safety cover today.  Although I did only manage a couple of races, it was a good practice... for a new member like me, the format this year so far has been a good opportunity to enter into racing more quickly than I would have thought and also to experience singlehanding! Many lessons learnt every time.”

Lots of boats racing at Tynemouth SC, credit Neil SchofieldFurther information

If your club is looking to restart activities or return to racing, the RYA’s Return to Boating hub is regularly updated, including with specific Guidance on Restarting Racing. The RYA recently announced a return to play for crews from different households and the guidance for this can be found here.

RYA North East is keen to hear from any clubs in the region which have developed new ways of encouraging members onto the water during the challenging times of the Coronavirus pandemic. Please get in touch with RYA North East Regional Development Officer Sam Usher if your club has discovered innovative ways of delivering activities and would like to share its ideas.