At Highland Yacht Club in Toronto, two of the last three years’ sailing seasons were cut short by months due to high water levels. It was the same for all Lake Ontario sailors.
Docks were underwater (and growth making them slipperier by the day), fenders slid over docks (leaving hulls unprotected), shorepower was cut (because outlets were underwater), and clubs were turning away visitors (due to liability concerns). In short, Mother Nature—or was it the International Joint Commission that controlled the outflow of water down the St. Lawrence?— was keeping us from sailing. At least temporarily.
For our club, founded by thrifty old Scots, the solution was an amendment to our fixed pylon docks that allowed them to be adjusted to various heights depending on the water levels. After a few seasons of defeat, we felt triumphant; during 2020 we would be able to adjust our docks to accommodate whatever Mother Nature or the International Joint Commission threw at us.
No one saw COVID-19 coming. Our adjustable docks were no match for a pandemic.
As the season began, we were told to stay home and isolate, to leave the house only to buy essentials. We needed to keep six feet from others and wear a mask in public.
We wondered what that meant for our boats. We had to prepare them for launch. With all our questions and the uncertainty, like the rest of the world we learned to attend our Committee of Management meetings on Zoom to keep up with it all. Eventually, the committee developed rules to comply with ever-shifting government regulations. We had to self-assess before we went down to our boats. Make sure we kept our distance when in the workshop or clubhouse. Always wear a mask if we were close to someone else.
That made things difficult, but we’d hired a crane for our launch day at the end of April. We were still optimistic that this COVID thing would soon go away, and our docks were adjustable!
Instead, it got worse. The government soon closed down all non-essential services. Yacht clubs are not essential. We canceled the crane and launch day. None of us could get to our boats.
Come mid-June, certain businesses and facilities began to open, but with restrictions. We developed a schedule for members to limit the number of people on site on any day. The workshop, clubhouse, and washrooms were closed.
And, as we played with the idea of another launch day, it dawned on all of us that sailing is social. Why launch if social distancing rules prevented us from having friends aboard? We couldn’t have meals at the picnic tables. We couldn’t cook meals in the clubhouse kitchen, we couldn’t go upstairs to the bar with friends. No races. No short cruises to visit other Lake Ontario clubs and harbors. We all realized that all of that was as much a part of sailing as tacking and jibing.
As for launch day, our club gave each member the option: splash or stay on the hard. The majority chose to put their boats in the water, even though many did so without plans to raise the mast and go sailing. It just seemed like the easiest thing to do.
And so, the 2020 sailing season has become an exercise in perseverance and adapting, the world over. For us singlehanding sailors lucky enough to get to our boats, there’s little change to our on-the-water activities. For those who require crew, everyone wears masks, or crew members become part of the boat owner’s “bubble” of 10 friends in their social circle.
“Fun races” have been organized, but they’re not the same, absent the post-race socials where everyone boasts or laments what could have been had they not tacked or had they set the spinnaker. Evenings are quiet without the music, dark without the fire in the pit, dry without the chest full of cold beverages. The washrooms are open for one-at-a-time use, but for the clubhouse, bar, and kitchen, the best we can do is hope for an opening next season.
For now, people back away from each other when converging on the docks. Lips move behind masks. The many mast-less boats don’t dance to the breezes in sync with their stepped dockmates.
It’s strange, and we’re all wondering whether this is the new normal.
Of course, there’s no answer to that question yet, but there is one profound takeaway from all of this. Every one of us now knows, feels, and appreciates just how good we had it. Everything that was expected and taken for granted—we had it all, and it was wonderful.
And, we wait to see what comes. Whatever it is, we will adapt, because that is what we do. When the wind picks up, we reef. When the rains start, we put on foul weather gear. When a storm is ahead, we secure the hatches or alter course. When the water rises, we make our docks adjustable. We persevere and we adapt. We are sailors.