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Off Watch: Covid Blues

Looking back, a visit to St. Maarten to cover the Heineken Regatta in early March now seems like a surreal experience in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

July 24, 2020
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close-quarters racing
In this era of social distancing, it might be some time ­before close-quarters racing, and crew work, resumes. Laurens Morel/Salty Colours

There are several things I have in common with our distinguished regular columnist, one Capt. Gary M. “Fatty” Goodlander. We’re both lifelong nautical scribes; have published thousands of magazine articles, and several marine books; and have a deep, abiding love for sailing. But for the purposes of this little essay, I’ll point to one other experience Fatty and I have shared: We’ve both served as the press officer of the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta.

There are a lot of fantastic perks to a career in sailing journalism—I’d venture to say that Fatty’s and my collective passport entries over the years are far more extensive and unusual than the average bear’s. But getting rich, alas, is most certainly not one of them. Which is why side gigs—such as books, freelance work, or working for regattas—are very welcome tasks indeed. And that brings me to my most recent visit to St. Maarten, late this past winter, for the 40th edition of that crazy, wonderful event. (It was actually my second swing to the island in recent months.)

Looking back, I think it’s safe to say that the Heineken Regatta—which drew sailors from Europe, Russia, the US, Australia, South Africa and many Caribbean islands, competing on just under 150 yachts, and which took place from March 5 to 8—was likely the last international sailing event to take place before the planet basically closed for business later that month due to the onset of the novel coronavirus. It’s hard to believe, just that short time ago, that few of us had any clue that before long we’d all be donning Jesse James-type bandannas for the ever-infrequent dashes to the supermarket.

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Was it a surreal experience? In retrospect, indeed. But at the time, there was no real sense that we were all clueless spring breakers, or that we were pushing some irresponsible envelope to have a bit of fun at the world’s expense before it all went sideways. Who knew that all our lives would soon be governed by some bizarre concept known as “social distancing?” Life on the island, in the bars and restaurants—and yes, out on the racecourses—carried forth very much as usual. On the day that the regatta started, the first positive case of COVID-19 on the island was still nearly two weeks away. Of course, once that happened, St. Maarten quickly went on lockdown, and before the month was over, the international airport was basically closed to passengers. The wagons had been circled.

Meanwhile, in harbors and marinas the world over, the basic premise that governs the joy of owning and sailing a cruising boat—pure, unfettered freedom to go whenever and wherever we wish—had also come to a screeching halt. Plans were put on hold. With no real endgame in sight, there was no timetable to even plan when we could make a plan.

Full. Stop.

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I wrapped up my duties on the last night of the regatta and was on a plane hours later, with a stop in Newark before my second flight back to New England. The usually busy airport was a ghost town. I washed my hands, had a beer, and washed my hands again. Then I flew home, suddenly aware of how things had already changed.

About a week later, I felt terrible. I’m generally a pretty healthy dude (touch wood), but I went down hard. There was no testing available in Rhode Island at that point, and I might never know for sure if I had the virus. After a long week, I got better, but at the time, I sure as hell knew I wasn’t in St. Maarten anymore, figuratively or literally.

I was sitting in my kitchen at some point during my illness, whatever the hell it was, listening to WMVY radio from Martha’s Vineyard, usually a bastion of good-time James Taylor tunes and the like. Over the years, the sunny station had provided the soundtrack on my boat for many a pleasant summer cruise. But for the second or third time over the course of a few hours, they were spinning R.E.M.‘s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” And I thought about who I’d hung out with in St. Maarten; and the bar I’d leaned on in Newark; and my poor daughter down the hall (whose highly anticipated senior year of college had just been zapped), who I might be infecting with my crud.

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And I did not feel fine.

Of course, we’ve all got our stories about this mess…that’s mine. But I’ll conclude this little lament with a sunnier thought. Smooth sailing lies ahead. Stay safe, mates.

Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.

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