How to keep your crew and yourself safe while out on the water

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

By now most of us think we know how to beat the novel coronavirus: wear a mask, keep at least six feet away from others and wash our hands frequently, but is it feasible to do this on a watercraft? The beaches may be closed this Fourth of July holiday weekend, but if you’re lucky enough to have access to a boat and follow the rules responsibly, you can still get out on the water. According to LA County officials, the operation of dinner cruises, large charter operations, sports fishing charters, the WaterBus and even parasailing have not been impacted by the beach closures.

So, what can we boaters do to make sure that we survive a killer that has taken out more than 127,000 Americans?

Let’s start with how the virus spreads: recent research shows that COVID-19 travels in aerosolized moisture along with bigger drops that people release when they cough, sneeze, sing or speak. Just the simple act of saying something nice to another person can propel a virus more than six feet, according to one study. Singing spreads the virus further. In a March 10 choir practice in Skagit County, Washington, one member of the choir infected 52 of 60 other members, leading to two deaths; one reason why in-person religious services were banned in several states, and why, in the near term, you won’t hear anybody singing “What Do We Do with a Drunken Sailor” on any boat I skipper, but face masks might become a regular part of a sailor’s uniform. Remember that face masks (aside from particle-filtering N95s) are mainly intended to block the spread of infection out from behind a mask.

The county draws a clear distinction between people who live together in the same household and friends. People who live together are allowed free reign on a boat neither wearing masks nor worrying about getting too close to other crew members. According to Carol Baker, Division Chief of Community & Marketing Services for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches & Harbors, “Boat and watercraft rentals to individuals and [members of] the same household are permitted. Six-pack and 12-pack [fishing] charters are permitted, but are still limited to individual households.”

For these people Fairwind Yacht Club Fleet Surgeon Kenneth Murray, MD emphasized, “Wear a mask if you leave the boat, if you interact at the fuel dock, if the authorities board for a safety check, if you pump out.”

On its own boats, as of June 30, Fairwind is finally allowing people from different households to sail together again, with strict limits involving crew size while it mandates constant mask wearing by all. “If you are in a high-risk category by age or medical condition, be exceedingly careful to maintain distance from people,” Dr. Murray said.

Although social distancing could work on a boat if you were to go to the bow and hang out there for an entire sail, most of the crew could not get away with that. Dr. Murray continued, “I recently convened a committee of skippers who are medical experts.  All five of us agreed that it is not possible to maintain social distancing on sailboats, nor small or medium motor-driven boats. In theory you could, if everyone stuck in one spot, but in reality, they don’t.”

This is a major reason why “all-hands-on-deck” sailboat racing probably won’t be coming back any time soon, but for day sailors and cruisers it’s essential for us to rethink how we sail. Nicole Mooradian, Public Information Officer of the County of Los Angeles’ Department of Beaches and Harbors, told The Argonaut in May “Boats with six or fewer passengers all from the same household are now allowed, provided that [each] crew member onboard is strictly complying with all health mandates, including physical distancing and use of cloth face coverings.” She reminds again that passengers should be from the same household.

In June, Ms. Baker opened the door a crack for those of us who live alone. “With regard to folks who are using their own boats or those of friends/acquaintances, household limits still apply unless social distancing can be implemented,” she said.

However on Wednesday when Governor Gavin Newsom doubled down on COVID-19 precautions, county official Kristin Friedrich reminded that per the state’s stay-at-home order “gatherings of any size, for any purpose, that include non-household members are not allowed.”

When it comes to cleaning, stock up and frequently use hand sanitizer, a better option than using rubber gloves, “because you are more likely to spread virus around from other surfaces,” said Dr. Murray. “If there’s more than one skipper, additionally the boat should be scrubbed with soap and water in cockpit, and cleaned with approved wet-wipes below deck, following use.”

Never ever go below deck without wearing a mask. Remember the number of infections on cruise ships? Below deck, COVID-19 can linger in the air. Help it dissipate by opening a porthole, or hatch.

“Boats should be preferably left to sit for a day between uses, to allow the environment to sterilize,” said Dr. Murray. “All of the above is not a guarantee of safety, it only reduces risk from COVID-19.”

Considering the airflow on a sailboat, I see nothing wrong with an asymptomatic sailor sitting on the bow of a boat and having a mask-free good time. But when it comes to the almost inevitable close proximity of being in the cockpit, science and medical advice seem to err on the side of face masks.

Unfortunately, mask wearing has become politicized.

“Masks in public are subjugation, not science. They acclimatize you to uncritical obedience. Far worse mandates will follow,” said Skipper Glenn Damato, author of “Breaking Seas” and the “The Far Shore” in a recent Facebook Post. He told The Argonaut “I don’t believe any restrictions should be enforced at this point, based on the data we have. … However, the caveat is we are relying on people to behave as responsible adults – which is something we rely on in a free country not under the control of an authoritarian government. The price of that liberty will be a marginal increase in risk. These masks will be distant history quite shortly. In a little while, we’ll be like, ‘Face masks are so April.’”

But Dr. Murray gets the last word, “Considering that the consequence could be death of yourself or a family member, at this time people should not do things that have any chance of exposing them to increased risk. Just don’t do it. This will pass soon.”

Emmy Award winning writer/producer Paul Suchecki founded