Sailing & COVID-19
April 4, 2021
By: Lionel Mandell MD, FRCP, FRCP (LOND)
Dr. Mandell is Professor Emeritus of Medicine at McMaster University and a former president of the Canadian Infectious Diseases Society.
He was chair of the pneumonia guidelines committees for the US and Canada and has been invited to 60 countries as a visiting professor and consultant to medical groups and governments. He is currently active in the management of patients with COVID-19 and is on the international monitoring boards of several studies assessing new drugs for treatment of COVID-19.
Dr. Mandell has been sailing for many years and currently races a shark, Ideal 18 and has a Beneteau 331 for some cruising.
For more than a year we have been battling the SARS-CoV2 virus and it’s clear that there is a great deal of fear, misunderstanding and anxiety as we face yet another possible wave.
The more we understand about the virus and how it spreads and causes disease the more we can appreciate the public health measures used and the scientific efforts in the form of vaccines to control this deadly pandemic. The proper use of well-established methods such as distancing and masking while at the same time trying to aggressively vaccinate the public will hopefully see us home and dry.
We hope that by reading this you’ll have a better understanding of COVID-19 and how to suppress and ultimately defeat it.
The disease COVID- 19 is caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus. This virus is basically a tiny ball made of protein with spikes on the outside and genetic material on the inside (see Diagram below). By using these spikes as hooks, the virus attaches to human cells and penetrates them. Once inside, many more viruses are produced which then explode out of the cell destroying it and going on to infect more human cells and causing illness in the process.
When people are vaccinated, antibodies are produced which can block the attachment of the virus thereby protecting against infection.
When the virus infects someone, a number of scenarios may occur. The person may simply carry the virus but not become ill or he or she may develop symptoms of COVID- 19 that can range from mild to severe or even critical. Unfortunately, not only people who are ill but also those who are asymptomatic carriers of the virus are capable of spreading it to others.
How the Virus Spreads
The main route of spread is by respiratory droplets. If someone carrying the virus talks, shouts, sings, coughs or sneezes, respiratory droplets carrying the virus are expelled and these may infect other people. Typically, these droplets travel only several feet before dropping to the ground.
The above considerations form the basis of the two most important public health measures to prevent viral spread:
- Wear a proper mask
- Maintain physical distancing
By wearing a mask, you lessen the spread of respiratory droplets from yourself to others and you also protect yourself from inhaling the virus from others. By proper physical distancing i.e., two or more meters, you decrease the risk of contact with the respiratory droplets.
Proper masks should cover the nose, mouth and chin and should fit without any significant gaps between the mask and your face. Surgical masks or cotton masks that are multilayered work well. Scarves, bandanas, neck gaiters and face shields are not considered to be suitable masks or face coverings.
The gene code of the virus is basically an instruction manual for how to build the virus. If mistakes occur in the code, then a change in a part of the virus may result. If this change provides an advantage to the virus such as a better hook with which to attach to human cells, then viruses can become more transmissible and eventually become dominant. This happened in England with the UK (B.1.1.7) variant and this particular variant is now becoming dominant in Ontario.
Aside from increased transmissibility however, the current variant circulating in Ontario is also considerably more virulent. Some variants may also acquire the ability to evade antibodies produced by previous infection or vaccination. The best way to mitigate the risk of variants and SARS-CoV2 in general is to follow public health recommendations to minimize viral spread and to get everyone vaccinated as quickly as possible.
It’s a Numbers Game
The issue of viral transmission and acquisition is basically a numbers’ game. The more virus you are exposed to the greater your chance of “catching it” and vice versa. The important variables involved are:
- The number of viral particles the person is spreading
- How close you are to that person
- How long you remain in close contact
- Whether you or your contact are wearing proper masks
Although this link is part of an overall message aimed at the sailing community, one may better appreciate the constraints of a boat and particularly a cockpit when the following sports are considered. Think of them from the point of physical distancing, length of time in close contact etc. and then think of a boat and its cockpit.
- Baseball; except while sitting on the bench
- Skiing; downhill, cross country
Whether engaging in recreational sailing or racing, having multiple people in close proximity to each other in a cockpit poses a potentially significant risk. This is increased during racing when voices are raised, people are breathing harder etc.
The problems of transmission and acquisition of the virus are minimized considerably if while sailing you are a) only with people in your own bubble, b) you are all fully vaccinated or c) appropriate physical distancing is maintained and proper masks are worn at all times.
Please keep the following points in mind:
- Physical distancing and proper masks work
- Vaccines are being rolled out
- Avoid situations that increase the risk of viral spread
- There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Keep that light bright by being careful, vigilant and smart.