omicron the wrecker

The Sydney-Hobart Race is a genuine offshore passage race. But a rapid resurgence of Covid in Australia may turn that aspect of the event into a disruptive nightmare.

The race starts in mainland New South Wales and ends 628 nautical miles away on the island of Tasmania. But here’s the catch: the separate states of the Australian Commonwealth each set their own health protocols.

Last year’s race was abandoned a week before the December 26 start, principally because the Tasmanian government and health authorities were concerned that arriving crew and supporters would bring the virus with them. Many other states also closed their borders for long periods.

Now, with just four days to go before the starting canon is scheduled to fire at 13:00 on Boxing Day, genuine fears are emerging that the fast-multiplying Omicron strain will hamstring the race, if not force its cancellation altogether. NSW recorded more than 3,700 new infections yesterday while Tasmania had 12 after recently re-opening their borders.

Mindful of the need to run a ‘virus free’ race, the organizers have insisted that every crew member must be tested, and return a negative result, no later than 72 hours before the start. All arriving crew will then be re-tested in Hobart.

In addition, most of the traditional pre-race social activities in Sydney have been canceled, and the public – who always attend in their thousands – will not be admitted to the Cruising Yacht Club marina to view the yachts on race morning.

But the major fear hovering over the event is that even if only a few of the 1,200+ crew test positive before departure then many yachts will have to withdraw.

There are two main problems.

The first is that anyone deemed to be a ‘close contact’ of a person who tests positive for Coronavirus in NSW must self-isolate for a period of up to 14 days. Most crews preparing for the race will already have been in close contact with one another either by sailing together or working on their boat.

Second, the loss of just one crew member could scuttle many of the smaller yachts. Why? Because the Notice of Race for the Sydney-Hobart includes these specific requirements:

* At least 50% of the crew must hold a current certificate demonstrating they have completed the Australian Sailing Safety and Sea Survival course (or an equivalent).

* At least two of the crew must either be a medical practitioner or hold a current Senior First Aid certificate.

* At least two of the crew must hold a Long-Range Marine Radio Operators Certificate of Proficiency.
Acquiring those qualifications takes time (and money). It is already far too late for a replacement crew member to do the mandatory courses and pass the tests.

And there are potential problems after the end of the race. It is quite possible that some crew might have returned a negative test before leaving Sydney yet incubate the virus during their days at sea.

That would mean that they – and everyone else on the boat – would have to self-isolate for up to 14 days in a medi-hotel in Hobart, at their own expense. All their booked accommodation and flights home would be forfeit and they could not socialize or enjoy the customary few days of touring around Tasmania. The family and friends who often fly down to meet the crews would have to cancel.

Die-hard offshore veterans will be determined to race and the professional boats have, no doubt, already recruited standby sailors. But there must be many skippers and crew now assessing the risks and considering their options.

– anarchist David