Sailing and the Coronavirus

an article by Jean-Pierre Kiekens, Oxford educated development economist, former lecturer at the University of Brussels, and sailor.

Note: There are key references at the end of the article, which I recommend you to read. They are presented in a easily readable format. Even if you think this article goes too far, asks too much, please check these references, and inform yourself as much as you can. This is critical. Probably the best, highly credible, and most practical information can be found on the podcast of Dr John Campbell, from the UK. You will find a wealth of information there, that will help you understand what is going on and take the best action possible for you, your relatives and acquaintances. We are entering very difficult times. As I argue in this article, let's be smart to avoid contracting the disease, and avoid spreading it. And please share the article, as it will likely be helpful to others.

Now, let's turn to the substance...

You will all agree. Sailing is an amazing sport. Yet it’s just a sport.

With the growing coronavirus pandemic, what are the implications for our sport?

And what are the implications for you, for your relatives, for your friends, for the sailing community?

Let’s discuss how to mitigate the risk of infection and propagation of the disease. And how to continue practicing our beloved sport.

But first, let me emphasize that this pandemic will be global and incredibly deadly. There is no way around it.

As estimated by scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the number of infected people grows extremely rapidly at the onset of the epidemic: it doubles every 2.4 days!

Infected people can be asymptomatic and contagious at the same time, this for several weeks. This is extremely important to understand. This is how the disease is rapidly spreading all over the world in a mostly stealthy way.

The number of affected countries and territories is growing by the day - 48 at the time of writing this. Today's official figures put the total number of cases at 82,166 and of deaths so far at 2,800, but the actual numbers may be much higher.

Within a year, leading scientists such as Harvard Professor Marc Lipsitch foresee that between 40 and 70% of the world population will be infected. Yes, billions of people may contract the virus within a year.

Based on the current science, death rates are expected to be at least 1% of those infected. There is no vaccine or effective cure at this time. It's estimated that it will take at least 18 months before a vaccine is available on a wide-scale basis.

The coronavirus is much much more deadly than the flu. It may dramatically increase the annual mortality rate in many countries.

We don’t know yet how bad it will be, but it will be bad. A lot will depend on the response by governments and the population.

We need to hope for the best, yet realize the pandemic could be even worse than the Spanish flu, that happened a century ago, and that killed more people than World War 1 and World War 2 combined.

I wrote a week ago an in-depth article about the virus and its implications, in a public policy perspective. Here, I will focus on the implications for the sailing community, with particular emphasis on those attending regattas.

What’s critical here is to do all we can to avoid contracting the virus, and to avoid spreading it.

Let’s take an example of a single-handed sailor who participates in regattas, in the Optimist, in the Laser or another type of dinghy.

Of course, on the race course, the risks of contamination are expected to be about zero. The actual risks originate from all what is involved in attending a regatta: travel, social events, meetings, meals, housing, etc.

To attend a regatta, travelling is typically involved. And if the travelling is by air, you will be in a risky situation.

Presently, airlines are taking barely any precautionary measures. I travelled yesterday from Europe to North America. There was no screening whatsoever in Europe, at check-in or before boarding the plane.

In the plane, there were people sneezing, coughing, and possibly coming from zones that are now at high risk (China, Iran, Italy, South Korea and the list will grow).

In the plane, out of some 200 passengers, there were only 4 people wearing masks, including myself. Most people were totally unaware of the risks.

In a plane, you don’t control who will sit next to you, or in front of you, or behind you. The onboard personnel - hostesses and stewards - were not taking any forms of precaution, despite the fact that they are at high risk of contracting, and then propagating, the virus.

Airlines already foresee that they will lose some US$ 29 billion because of the outbreak. The numbers will likely be much higher, because only the Asia air travel downfall was taken into account in this estimate.

There are huge economic pressures on governments not to take too drastic measures to restrict travel. Except from China, most air travel continues as usual, without any form of screening or restrictions, which obviously contributes to spreading the disease.

As an individual, you have to ask yourself: is it worth the risk?

Obviously, one is much safer if one does not contract the virus. The virus is killing people of all ages, even if the elderly is much more vulnerable.

So the question to ask is whether it’s worth taking a plane to attend a regatta, which obviously is to be considered as unnecessary travel.

Actually, you may ask yourself right now: is it worth doing any unnecessary air travel? Including for work or for anything.

My suggestion to you is that it’s not worth taking the risk of travelling by air to attend a regatta.

The virus is spreading everywhere, including Europe, North America, Asia, Oceania. There is no safe place. Air travel, except maybe in a private plane, is not a safe means of transportation if you seek to avoid contracting the virus.

Regarding road travel, the situation is different. If you travel on your own, or with a family member, then your risks are limited. But you need to be aware that at road stops, or restaurants, you could be exposed.

But if you travel with a group of team mates, like it’s done a lot in youth sailing, then you are exposing yourself to a somewhat higher risk, as one of your teammates may be infected, and contagious, without even knowing it.

Actually, the reverse needs also to be considered. You may yourself be infected and contagious, without knowing it, and pass on the virus to your teammates.

And if you sail a boat with several crew members, then your risk logically increases too, as there is close proximity on the boat.

In the context of regattas, it’s not only the travelling that creates an environment that is  favorable to the spread of the virus, but it’s also all the other aspects where one is in contact with others.

This includes shared accommodation, on shore meals, team meetings, skipper meetings, prize giving ceremonies, and so on. All these aspects of regattas constitute additional transmission risks.

So there are clear risks of contracting the virus that are associated with regattas.

The situation will rapidly worsen, as the number of infected people is estimated to double every 2.4 days. There are therefore exponentially growing numbers of people spreading the disease, even if they don’t know they are infected.

All of this should not prevent you from training if you live nearby your sailing venue. You can get there by car, by foot or by bicycle. If you take normal precautionary measures such as washing your hands, and avoid contact with people (no shaking of hands, no hugs, etc.) or even close proximity of people (2 meters is usually considered safe), then your sailing related risks of contracting the disease will be minimal.

As long as you take all the required precautions, it should also be ok to train in small groups, with a coach.

So most sailors should not stop sailing. But it would be much safer to put on hold the regatta part until the situation becomes safer.

Now what are the implications of all of this for regatta organizers? Here is my take.

For youth sailing, with minors, I think that all regattas, beyond the club level, should simply be cancelled.

Organizers bear a huge responsibility. Of course, many youth sailors want to attend regattas, including international ones such as the Europeans and the Worlds.

But this typically involves air travel, shared accommodation, shared meals, various gatherings and social activities. And this is not safe any longer, and it is getting less and less safe by the day.

An event to cancel in priority is the 2020 Optimist Garda meeting that is due to take place on April 9-12 2020, for which there are already over 1200 registrations.

Running such an event would be highly risky and spread the disease, especially as the situation in Northern Italy is already extremely serious. Riva del Garda is in the immediate vicinity of the Lombardy region.

The Garda Optimist Meeting is the most urgent example of events to cancel.

But, as there is a rapid spread of the virus, all major youth events, including in countries where no or just a few infection cases have so far been reported, should be cancelled. It’s just too risky, and the risk will dramatically grow with time.

Regarding the Laser, European and World youth championships, both in the 4.7 and the Radial should be cancelled. Why take the risk? With some 400 youth sailors typically in attendance, the risk of exposure will be substantial.

And this analysis applies to all other youth classes. It’s just not worth taking the risk of unnecessarily exposing youth sailors to this deadly virus.

There are also risks of the sailors getting stuck in a location, similarly as it recently happened for citizens in a dozen of locked down towns in Northern Italy and for hundreds of tourists in a hotel in the Canary Islands.

It’s just not worth the risk to expose youth sailors to the disease and to situations that will be extremely difficult to handle.

Regarding senior and master sailing. The situation may be a bit different, as adults are involved.

If these are relatively small events, and travelling by road is possible, the case for cancelling may be a bit lower. Yet there are clear risks involved.

It’s a tough call for organizers of such events. For example, the 2020  Laser Master European championships are scheduled to take place on April 3-9 in Monaco. Should the organizers keep the event or cancel it?

My take is that they should cancel, because it’s not only about the sailors, about the athletes, but also about the regatta organizers, about the staff at the club and all the volunteers involved.

For them also, there are risks associated with travelling and all the social interactions at the event.

And there are obviously significant risks of transmission due to people being close together on race committee boats.

All this analysis is also applicable for senior sailing, including Olympic level sailing.

Regarding the Tokyo Olympics, it’s pretty obvious that the situation will soon be such that the Olympics will be cancelled.

Or maybe spectatorless Olympics would be maintained, but all the travelling, shared accommodation, social interactions among sailors, as already discussed, would still constitute a considerable infection and propagation risk.

And there will be risks for all involved in the organization of the event: officials, judges, TV crews, etc. Very unlikely the IOC would take such risks. They may take a few months to decide, but the conclusion is pretty ineluctable.

This analysis is largely applicable to other sailing events, and to sporting events in general.

Of course, there are substantial commercial interests at stake. For this, and other reasons, the best decisions, from a prevention perspective, may not come soon enough.

Let's hope that those in charge of the sport will act responsibly, and pro-actively.

So my fellow sailors, this is the time for showing that we are smart, and that we can avoid contracting and spreading this disease.

And yes, we should continue to sail, as long as we do it very safely, mostly at the club level.

Let me conclude with a quote of Bill Gates:

« The worst pandemic in modern history was the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people. Today, with how interconnected the world is, it would spread faster. »

Numerous sailors on war ships died with the Spanish flu, and these war ships were a key reason for the global spread of the pandemic.

We sailors should do our best, and help each other, and help our friends, our relatives, and the community, to confront this virus, to confront this pandemic.

And in some time, maybe a couple of years, when this is over, we will again be able to practice our sport in a normal way, as we love it so much.

Be safe. God bless.


About the Author Jean-Pierre Kiekens

I am an Oxford trained development economist - a topic I lectured for a few years at the University of Brussels. I also worked in development aid for various national and international agencies. This piece represents my current thoughts about the coronavirus and its implications in the context of sailing. For sure, these thoughts will evolve with the availability of new information. The piece is aimed at helping sailors, parents, and people in general, to connect the dots, to reflect about the significance of what is happening, and to take action.

Here are some sources of information.

Major Sailing Events under Pressure - article in SegelReporter (in German)

What will be the spread of the virus within a year?

« I think it is likely we will see a global pandemic. If a pandemic happens, 40% to 70% of people world-wide are likely to be infected in the coming year. »
Prof. Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Head, Harvard Ctr. Communicable Disease Dynamics, Feb. 14, 2020

The latest research by scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, about how fast the virus is spreading.

"The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a recently emerged human pathogen that has spread widely since January 2020. Initially, the basic reproductive number, R0, was estimated to be 2.2 to 2.7. Here we provide a new estimate of this quantity. We collected extensive individual case reports and estimated key epidemiology parameters, including the incubation period. Integrating these estimates and high-resolution real-time human travel and infection data with mathematical models, we estimated that the number of infected individuals during early epidemic double every 2.4 days, and the R0 value is likely to be between 4.7 and 6.6. We further show that quarantine and contact tracing of symptomatic individuals alone may not be effective and early, strong control measures are needed to stop transmission of the virus."

About the coronavirus gathering steam, an interview of Harvard Epidemiology Professor Marc Lipsitch

Comparison: About the flu in France

« Chaque année, la grippe saisonnière touche 2 à 6 millions de personnes. Elle entraîne des dizaines de milliers de passages aux urgences et fait 10.000 morts en moyenne. »

About the Evolution of the Disease

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Autopsy Report by Dr. Mike Hansen

About the spread of the virus through contaminated surfaces

About Preventative Measures Taken in China

Wuhan, China, and at least 15 other cities have been quarantined as China attempts to halt the spread of the coronavirus. That's about 50 million people on lockdown.

Most Recent Findings by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention

"More than 80% of patients have mild disease and will recover. In about 14% of cases, the virus causes severe diseases including pneumonia and shortness of breath. And about 5% of patients have critical diseases including respiratory failure, septic shock and multiorgan failure," he said. "In 2% of reported cases, the virus is fatal, and the risk of death increases the older you are."

About the Time Needed for a Vaccine

The World Health Organisation said this week it may be 18 months before a vaccine against the coronavirus is publicly available. Let's explore why, even with global efforts, it might take this long.

Doctors look to HIV and Ebola drugs for coronavirus cure

Doctors are likely to know within two to three weeks whether drugs being used to treat patients infected with the new coronavirus are working, according to the World Health Organization.

US CDC Website on the virus

Expert Recommendations for US and Global Preparedness for COVID-19 - by The Center for Global Development

Two documentaries about the Spanish flu pandemic

The Spanish flu pandemic killed more people than World War 1 & 2 combined. Here are two excellent documentaries. Of course, today, the world population is much larger, and, with air travel, the spread of the disease is much faster. Yet, in terms of means to contain the disease and to cure it, we are barely more advanced than a century ago.

Dr John Campbell Youtube Podcast

Dr. John Campbell provides excellent daily updates about the coronavirus.

A must watch video is about how to protect oneself and one’s family

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