Sailing as an Essential Activity


Let’s take away all the boats. Not the ships engaged in essential commerce, not the barges hauling goods, not the net boats catching fish. Keep those. And the Navy, of course, keep that. But all the rest can go.

Now, imagine as we look out over the waterfront we see no skiffs on the bay, no dinghies along the shore, no sloops or schooners on a sunset sail. This arrangement, if it persists, could have dire consequences—at least if you believe French philosopher Michel Foucault:

“In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure and the police take the place of pirates.”

Some, like Pompey the Great (as quoted by Plutarch), put sailing above even life itself. “To sail is necessary; to live is not.”

As for me, always pining for another long passage on the Pacific, I can easily see the value of sending all willing sailors out to a seaborne isolation. Perhaps this could be a future pandemic strategy?

As summer fast approaches and COVID-19 persists as a threat, coastal communities, sailing clubs, schools, and camps around the country are asking the same question: Must our boating activities be curtailed, and if they are to continue, what measures are necessary to ensure public health?

The situation is changing, but at the time of this writing, the boat ramps around our homeport in Sarasota, Florida were opening up again. All state municipalities have banned gatherings of boaters on sandbars and on-the-water events that might draw a crowd—although some impromptu “regattas” will likely spring up (as they tend to do whenever another sail appears on the horizon).

The concern about even solo outings is that the boat and boater don’t exist in a bubble. A simple afternoon on the water can involve a great deal of bustling about. Whether in commerce (buying fuel, hardware, etc.) or in congregation (socializing on the dock), contact with others is almost inevitable. In most regards, however, sailing not only complies with the requirements of safe distancing – it embraces it.

Not that we’re a bunch of hermits, but the fact remains that a great number of sailors took up sailing precisely because it took us away from land and all its problems. (Okay, maybe some of are seagoing hermits—or at least we inspire hermits.)

The editor and his son add another coat of varnish to the tillers of Practical Sailor’s smallest test boats—a 1983 Catalina 22 and a 1978 O’day Javelin.

As for me, I’m in no rush to get on the water. There will be time for that. The lull in waterfront activity has allowed me to catch up on some long-delayed work projects with my younger son Jake. At present we’re on a brightwork binge, with hatchboards and tillers lined up in the garage (doors wide open, and well-ventilated with fans, of course) awaiting another coat. For the time being we’re buoyed by another quote to carry us through these days. Something Kenneth Graham said about messing about with boats.

If you are a sailor in search of a project, you’ll find many on the website. A good start is to plug “DIY” into the search box. If you already have a specific project in mind, just enter in the relevant key words. Doing a Google search and including the phrase Practical Sailor also works (searching Practical Sailor varnish, for example, yields a number of hits).

And if you’re still looking for something to do, I’m sure we can come up with something. Feel free to reach out at if you’re stumped.

Finally, for up-to-date guidance from some of the country’s leading experts on COVID-19, Practical Sailor‘s publisher, Belvoir Media Group, and its partners at Harvard Health have set up the free Coronavirus Resource Center.



Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


  1. excellent article and reminded me that I miss not having a boat in my life at the moment. Currently in self-confinement at home in Toronto near the lake Ontario waterfront.

  2. Great Article! Good hint is to use google with the site: option. (e.g Varnish It will ONLY bring up results from the site listed. It is very useful when a site does not have a built in search function.

  3. Banning boating is a total over-reach. The nanny state of MD has banned it in a most ridiculous way. A charter boat with fewer than 10 fishermen aboard may sail – 2 people on a sailboat is not allowed. Well, unless those 2 people are fishing for food for their family, then it’s OK. Just don’t “catch and release”.

    The DNR initially forbade kayaking and paddle-boarding, but revised that restriction due to public push back. The commerce and congregating aspects supporting the ban are irrelevant. Have you been to Lowes or West Marine lately? The liquor stores? All filled to capacity. If I stop at West Marine on my way to my boat, am I really risking peoples’ lives? Be serious.

    • I’m with you. When I hear politicians referring to people “behaving” or ” obeying” I want to…. O.k. I counted to 10. Anyway, this thing is way over blown. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but if Democrats cans somehow extend this idiocy till November and get mail in voting, well kiss your freedom goodbye.

  4. 100% Essential! And good for the body, mind and soul…
    Dexterity, strength, problem solving, creativity, thinking on your feet, fitness, mental health, meditation, fresh air, sunshine, and, one of the few sports on the planet that you can do in your golden years. What’s not to like?

  5. Unfortunately sailing gets caught up in the same net as the powerboaters who get a group of friends together to go fishing. Look at the idiots in Florida and the impromptu party they threw on beer can island that caused the ban in Miami. Unfortunately you and I may be out there sailing alone, but it only takes a couple of boats full of people misbehaving to ruin it for everyone.

    A blanket ban also makes enforcement easier.

  6. Why can’t people decide for themselves whether or not to go out for a sail? The Land of the Free applies no more, not to mention Water of the Free. With the rationale employed for the lock down, why not ban boating altogether, since it always entails an element of risk to personal safety and possible risk of death? Some ill-informed government official can always decide what’s “best” for you. Maryland’s indiscriminate ban on recreational boating in particular makes no sense.

    • Public indoctrination system has given us several generations of people with little knowledge of our Constitution and the freedoms millions have died to defend. One party actually defends Communist Chinese government. Totally f ed up!

  7. Vaccine for the seasonal flu has been around for decades. Do you know anyone that have never got the flu in their lifetime? A vaccine will never give us 100% protection so we will all catch the Corona virus sooner or later. When they say the lockdown is to protect your life, what they really mean is that the aim is to protect the national healthcare system from being overwhelmed: Please die or get seriously ill at a more convenient time… What is really at stake here is our (i.e. the western worlds) freedom. The public accepting a lockdown is really opening Pandora’s box. What will be the excuse for a lockdown next time?


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