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Stay Calm and Keep Boating

Despite the challenges of the coronavirus, demand for charter and boat-sharing services remains strong. 

Despite the challenges of the coronavirus, demand for charter and boat-sharing services remains strong. 

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus to be a global pandemic, having spread to more than 100 countries. In the United States, the virus was reportedly affecting close to 1,100 people in 40 states as well as Washington, D.C., with at least 31 patients having died.

Larrain Slaymaker, owner of NorthPoint Yacht Charters in Rockland, Maine, was relieved to be living in one of the states that, at least for the time being, remained unaffected.

“The thing is, I have a son who lives in China. I’ve been dealing with this since the beginning of the year,” Slaymaker says, referencing the place of origin for the virus. “In Maine, our state government is doing an exceptionally good job. We don’t have any cases here. I’m sure at some point we will. We just need to keep ourselves in perspective.”

Slaymaker is among those who run charter companies and boat clubs, and who have to decide whether to keep their businesses open as the virus continues to have what is expected to be an even more widespread global impact. By mid-March, everything from the South by Southwest media festival in Texas to the Coachella music festival in California had been canceled or postponed; universities were sending students home and moving entirely to digital-learning models; and thousands of airline flights had been canceled as the authorities urged citizens to stay away from crowds. The U.S. State Department issued a warning for Americans to avoid cruise ships altogether, leading the owners of boating companies to field incoming questions about whether bookings would still be available on smaller boats during the coming months.

“I’ve spent this morning talking with several people about just that,” Slaymaker said on March 11. “We’re still booking, and it has not slowed down at all. We book individual boats for families, and I think people are seeing that going onto the water off of Maine with your family is a pretty good deal. You don’t have to deal with crowds, you don’t have to deal with planes—you’re in control with your own environment.”

The Freedom Boat Club, which has a network of locations where members can use its boats, was fielding similar calls and offering a similar response, according to Louis Chemi, vice president of franchise systems.

“A lot of the questions have come from folks who are traveling,” Chemi says. “Because of our network of 221 locations, a lot of people are coming from the North and visiting our clubs in Florida, and they want to make sure there are no restrictions.”

Freedom Boat Club was redoubling its efforts to ensure that all cleaning procedures for its boats were followed among the staff and was reminding members that they also can wipe down the boats with their own preferred cleaning products on arrival, if they have a serious concern. But overall, Chemi says, members were still keen to get out on the water and go cruising, in spite of the wall-to-wall media coverage about the virus.

“It comes down to the fact that coronavirus isn’t floating free on the ocean,” he says. “It’s about coming into contact with people. When you’re out on a boat, there’s very little contact with other people. There’s very little chance of any spread at that point.”

Indeed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the novel coronavirus spreads from person to person. People who contract the virus are no longer considered a threat to others if they have no fever (without having to take a medicine like Tylenol or Advil), if they no longer show symptoms including a cough, and if they have tested negative on at least two consecutive respiratory specimens collected at least 24 hours apart.

Also according to the CDC, “because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated or frozen temperatures.” There also is no evidence that the novel coronavirus spreads by way of products imported from China or elsewhere.

The latest research out of China indicates that the virus can linger in the air for at least 30 minutes, and can travel almost 15 feet from person to person. Chinese researchers also found that the virus can last for days on a surface, depending on the environment. At 98 degrees, they reported, it survived for two to three days on glass, fabric, metal, plastic and paper.

With the warmer months of summer coming, some experts are hopeful that the novel coronavirus will slow down for the season, the way the common cold and flu typically do. But the CDC is warning that nobody knows whether that pattern will hold true for this particular virus.

“This virus is capable of spreading easily and sustainably from person to person ... and there’s essentially no immunity against this virus in the population,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters in mid-March. “It’s fair to say that, as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time, either this year or next, be exposed to this virus, and there’s a good chance many will become sick.”

At Maine Windjammer Cruises—whose National Landmark schooners Grace Bailey and Mercantile each take 29 passengers, and whose smaller schooner Mistress takes six passengers—business remained steady in mid-March even as the virus continued to spread.

“We are certainly accepting reservations, and our boats are starting to fill up,” says Margaret Jones, executive assistant to the company owner. “We’re watchful of the situation, but we’re not panicking. It’s an environment where it’s not a large cruise ship. It’s fresh air. We will watch and, should the situation get to the point where we need to be concerned, then we will address it at that time.”

Jones says that in Maine, they’re seeing cruise ships rerouting to the virus-free safety of Bar Harbor from runs that would normally go to other places, to avoid outbreaks there. Maine is more rural and remote than most of America, making it possible that even if the virus spreads to that state, it will affect fewer people.

Top: When you’re out on a small boat, exposure to other people, and the coronavirus, is lowered.

Top: When you’re out on a small boat, exposure to other people, and the coronavirus, is lowered.

And, no matter what, the mostly uninhabited islands off the coast of Maine should remain a playground for boaters who want to get away from civilization. Many Windjammer customers, Jones says, drive to meet the boats from New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Virginia. For those customers, mass transit is not an issue, nor is seeing huge crowds even after they get on board.

“You can bring your own car,” she says, “and we have an archipelago of about a thousand islands to play with.”

Chemi says he recently traveled to Alabama for the 50th Bassmaster Classic, which is nicknamed “the Super Bowl of bass fishing.” Boaters, anglers and industry representatives there, he says, weren’t panicking at all.

“It was really interesting,” Chemi says. “Probably 20 percent of the people were doing a fist bump or an elbow bump, but honestly, most people that I met were more, ‘I am going to shake your hand and not let this bother me. I’ll just wash my hands more regularly.’”

Slaymaker says that’s pretty much what she’s urging charter clients in Maine to do too. “Boating is healthy. Eat well, exercise, stay healthy, wash your hands a lot,” she says. “Salt water is great.”

So are small B&Bs compared to big resort hotels full of people right now, Jones adds. At Maine Windjammer Cruises, passengers often book time aboard as part of a longer stay in the region. “In our area, we have very few big hotels,” she says. “You’re not going to find an accommodation around here that’s going to take 500 people. It doesn’t exist here.”

The company’s plan was to stay calm and keep cruising, for as long as the virus poses no threat to passenger or crew safety and health.

“We’re cognizant of the fact that this is out there, and we’re watching it, and we will do whatever is necessary to make sure our passengers are safe and comfortable,” she says “but right now, we see no need to panic.” 

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.



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