Ten swans were there.  With huge good grace and unhurried calm on seeing the gates of the SGSC opening and envisioning the prospect of social competition for admiration and attention they headed in a line for the opposite bank: upper class social distancing by the true aristocrats of birds. Some swifts like black dots on a blue sky screeched by. Two moorhens hooted like journalists with urgent headlines reporting a story of great importance and they made way in turn for a random mob of Canada geese who had heard the news and gathered just to gaze and guffaw in honks of laughter at the odd sight of SGSC boats trundling down the ramp – and at the even odder sight of sailors in Covid-19 face masks.

Alex in a cowboy movie bandana, ready to ride out of town on a raid, Lev in a ghoulishly tooth-fanged Halloween mask [surely pinching David’s party trick] and Sam was unbelievably pretending to be as innocently white-faced as the driven snow on a summers day while Rob wore something red and Andy swore by a heavy duty builders demolition rubble and dust choker, complete with a nose valve. James realised he was not at all suitably dressed for this fancy dress party and came back in a fetchingly backless spaghetti-strap little black dress number.

Covid-19 is making the bizarre and impossible quite normal and no one is used to it. 

Neither are the boats. Nor are its sailors. Lev had taken over the duty as Safety Boat officer from Tim while being in self-isolation. Lev’s boat was upside down but with immaculate external repairs while Andy’s was fighting acute and chronic internal rot with more and more patchwork. Sam tangled his mast in the tree and while commenting that the heavy gusts were not encouraging, discovered a shorn-off part of the gooseneck – which he took as a recipe for cooking his boating goose into an early lunch retirement.  And the safety boat trailer wheel had a flat tyre; requiring the urgent life-saving attention of a mechanical ventilator. Nurses in PPE then wheeled the trolley patient down the ramp to recuperate and recover in the water. No-one clapped.

The warm F3 wind came fitfully but directly from the North-West; perfect for a really long straight ‘A’ course.

As the OOD set up the start at the Bell & Crown he discovered that Covid-19 had struck the scoreboard pen into mute.  No transmission of ink to paper! Unmute your mike! But no amount of empty scribbling would work to fix the bug. There was nothing for it but to abandon the call and zoom off back to the club to get another pen. An aural and video sign was signalled to Lev on the Safety Boat to inform him of the delay.

Hurrying back, the Blue Peter was raised for the 6-minute start – but without using a trumpet or a whistle that would potentially blast corona virus into the atmosphere for miles around and prolong the lockdown of the whole of Britain. Can the squeezy rubber ball for the acoustic hooter ever be replaced?

A brisk and gusty warm wind sent first Alex, then Rob, then James downstream and within three minutes they were more or less together at the mark that was set just off the City Barge.  After rounding it, James took the lead and headed across the end of the PLA trot into the mainstream of the river and stayed close to the punts before crossing to the upstream mark, reaching it only just ahead of Alex.  Both Alex and Rob had stayed on the Strand side of the trot.

Only the tricycle ice-cream seller had a socially distanced queue that could silently watch the gybes round the mark.

Goose-winged, James flew down the Strand side but Alex found he was caught in the slacker wind by the bank and Rob overtook him.

After rounding the mark and coming back upstream, James decided not to risk heading across into the mainstream again but tacked into the wind on the Stand side of the trot.

It seems that as the incoming tide reaches a certain volume its momentum carries it through the railway bridge and on around the bend in the river, away the main traffic route; towards the Strand rather than towards Kew bridge. The wind was perfect for a classic “Round the Island” race but the slackness of the current on the other side of Oliver’s Ait usually also makes it dangerous to manoeuvre with the constant traffic of rowers and passenger boats. But with a totally empty river, this would have been a perfect day for a “Round the Island”.  The OOD regretted not suggesting it.

By the third lap Rob had secured his second place lead over Alex who, by the fourth lap and in a slackening wind and an imminent high tide, was being tailed by James.

Gybing fast round the upstream mark James lapped Alex – and James asked the OOD if this might be the moment to signal the end of the race.

Since they had all been sailing for well over an hour while the ODD starting technology was zoom-meeting muted this was clearly appropriate.  

The Blue Peter was raised – and lowered. 

The sky was so blue – while no planes flew.

A Covid-19 race had ended  – and no tea was brewed.

c Andy Ross OOD

25 May 2020