East End Sailing Clubs Slowly Resume Summer Programs Amid Pandemic

Sailing clubs have slowly resumed their summer programming. COURTESY SAIL MONTAUK

By Gabriela Carroll

As Long Island continues into phase three of its reopening, sailing clubs have slowly resumed their summer programming. During typical summers, clubs host regattas and large camps, but COVID-19 has led to a variety of different alternatives.

At the Breakwater Yacht Club in Sag Harbor, the junior sailing program is still on for the summer. Junior sailing is a fundamental piece of the club’s mission, according to Luke Babcock, Commodore at Breakwater, and finding a way to make camp happen and to keep kids engaged with sailing was one of their top priorities for the summer.

“We’ve had more interest than we’ve ever had in our 30 years of existence,” Babcock said. “We actually had to close admission for the first three weeks just because we want to make sure we don’t have too many kids, because we want to execute well. In about a month, we’ve gone from really big concern about the existence of the camp and its importance to the mission of our club to suddenly an incredibly popular camp.”

Westhampton’s Yacht Squadron is bringing its camp back as well, but not every club made the decision to return. Sail Montauk postponed its annual camp to 2021, and is offering private lessons in its stead. Club officials said they couldn’t find a safe way to conduct the camp and still make it the fun, social experience that it is for the kids that attend every summer.

Smaller private lessons presented an easier opportunity for Sail Montauk to engage with the young sailors at the club while minimizing the risks to the kids and instructors. Many of the kids that normally come to camp have signed up for lessons, and they’ve also had increased interest from adults looking to get into the hobby as well.

“We decided to postpone the camp,” said Sail Montauk employee Alexandra Ali, “because we couldn’t find a way that we could safely run the camp. There’s just so much sharing, it’s very social, which makes it so much fun. But it’s very social, so by limiting it just to one boat with one to two kids, we don’t have to interact with as many people and can keep it more separate which is really nice.”

For the camps that are reopening, they are enacting new restrictions to make the environment as safe as possible. Yacht Squadron limited enrollment, and is staggering start times to keep the number of kids on land at a time at a minimum.

Both Yacht Squadron and Breakwater said sanitizing the boats between uses is their normal protocol, and that they will be even more diligent about sanitizing boats this summer. Babcock said the club will have campers wear a mask and gloves while at camp for additional safety.

“Sailing is unlike a lot of other sports in that it’s a very rules-based and equipment-based sport,” Babcock said. “So the extra level of equipment of having a mask and gloves is really not asking too much. It’s sort of the discipline of our sport.”

Racing is another essential part of the sailing season. Breakwater and Yacht Squadron sailors usually compete in regattas against other sailors from the area, but due to COVID, many events have been canceled.

Yacht Squadron competes within the Great South Bay Yacht Racing Association, but all events were canceled this summer. Their sailing director, John Sheehan, is looking for ways to supplement that racing, but since racing different clubs will be challenging, there are few options.

The Peconic Gardiners Junior Sailing Association, which Breakwater is a part of, also canceled regattas this summer, including one the club was supposed to host. The club also had to postpone a charity regatta, the Sag Harbor Cup, which would have taken place in early June. The regatta raises money for scholarships for young sailors to sail at Breakwater.

At the junior level, the members will race amongst one another frequently to keep them in the pattern of racing, but at the adult level, the club has races every Wednesday for members.

“A typical year they start at the beginning of May and go to the end of October, every Wednesday,” Babcock said. “We started a month late, being cautious and following guidelines, but we were able to do our first race at the beginning of June, and fortunately we have this regular group that is able to race together safely.”

After every Wednesday race, Gordon Ryan, Breakwater’s race officer, sends commentary to the entire club membership. Babcock said Ryan has been writing recaps for a long time, but since the pandemic started, they’ve become even more valuable, since the Wednesday races get very few spectators.

Sailing is almost an ideal sport to social distance during — it’s easy to do alone or with a small group. For those learning sailing, the lower risk factor of sailing alone or with just an instructor provides a big incentive to develop and try their hand at sailing on their own.

“Our goal is for you to be able to get a boat on your own and sail. You don’t have to be around anybody to do that, you can get on a boat or on the water and be miles from anybody,” Ali said.

The clubs said they have all seen similar enrollment this year as in past years, illustrating how much people want to sail and are turning to it as a form of fun and escape.

Though deciding how to move forward with programming was difficult, at Yacht Squadron, Sail Montauk, and Breakwater, educating new and young sailors is one of the primary tenets of their mission and something they knew they needed to incorporate into their summer.

“My sailing director Sean said something I’ll always remember,” Babcock said. “He goes, ‘If we teach one kid to sail, the summer is worth it.’”