Peter Michaelson didn’t have much company last week while painting the bottom of his sailboat at the Safe Harbor Marina on Greenwich Bay—just the sun, some squawking seagulls, and a few other sailors working in the distance.
“In the age of quarantine, I’m catching up with chores,” said Michaelson, a retired Episcopal priest who has been sailing since he was six years old. “One of the nice things when the weather’s good is to work at the boat yard. And it’s almost deserted.”
Marinas, boat clubs, state regulators, and sailors like Michaelson are adapting to the new realities posed by the spread of coronavirus by adhering to social distancing measures, practicing strict personal hygiene, and working within the 14-day out of state quarantine orders put in place by Governor Gina Raimondo at the end of March.
But that doesn’t mean the rules aren't causing sailors and marinas headaches.
Recommendations from the RI Department of Environmental Management ask that marinas, yacht clubs, and harbormasters prevent out of state residents from using their facilities, even as Rhode Islanders are allowed to work on their own boats. Rhode Island marinas and boat clubs can also continue projects repairing docks, moorings, and other facilities.
“For a place like Edgewood Yacht Club it creates a peculiar situation,” said George Shuster Jr., the commodore of the Edgewood Yacht Club in Cranston. “We have members who live just across the Massachusetts line, in Seekonk or Rehoboth, whose houses are only a few miles away from their yacht, and they can’t access their boats at this point. But a Rhode Islander who lives 30 miles away from Edgewood Yacht Club and who might be a member, can come and access their boat.”
Shuster stressed that he was appreciative of the “thoughtful approach” the governor and state agencies were taking towards sailors. Instead of shutting down marinas and yacht clubs completely by categorizing them as non-essential businesses, the state is allowing basic maintenance and repair work to continue, so individuals, marinas, and yacht clubs can prepare for the upcoming summer boating season.
Still, Shuster felt the current regulation created an arbitrary distinction between Rhode Island and Massachusetts residents, allowing Rhode Islanders to continue work, even as Massachusetts residents can’t.
“Rhode Island and Massachusetts, while there’s a state line between them, are a part of the same place,” said Shuster.
Andy Tyska, the legislative committee chair for the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association said that RIMTA had clear lines of communication with the governor’s office and representatives within state government, to communicate the “unique needs of the boating industry.”
“That has a significant negative impact on our industry, but our interests are aligned with the governor’s,” said Tyska of the 14 day out of state quarantine requirement. “Would we like to see that removed? Yes, but at the right time, when it’s not going to put anyone at risk.”
Wendy Mackie, CEO of RIMTA, said also that a daily email was being sent out to members and other marine businesses to ensure the industry was getting uniform guidance at the same time.
Aside from concerns about out of state residents coming to work on their boats, marinas and municipalities are also preparing for transient boaters who might travel via water to the Ocean State.
Mayor Joseph Solomon of Warwick said in a statement that he was concerned about out of state residents arriving in Warwick by boat, and had brought up the issue with state leaders. He was particularly concerned because many who have boats in Warwick reside in other states.
In an emailed statement Solomon said “I have spoken with Chief Hoxsie of RI DEM and am pleased with the guidance he has issued to all Rhode Island marinas regarding safe operations during the COVID-19 crisis.”
In conjunction with her executive order signed March 28 that required 14 days of quarantine for all out-of-staters coming into Rhode Island, Raimondo also announced regulations outlining quarantine requirements for out-of-state boaters. Those regulations recommend the appointment of a “sentinel” paid by city or town councils, a person who can spot incoming vessels and quarantine the crew if necessary.
In Warwick, Harbormaster Jeff Baris said the city hadn’t appointed a sentinel, but the Harbors Management Commission was monitoring the situation.
“They will put a quarantine flag on the boat, give them health department forms to fill, (marinas) will file them, and then monitor them for the 14 days,” Baris said of transient vessels who end up in Warwick waters. He said the Harbor Management Commission plans to patrol anchorages and rental moorings for out of state boats, and keep in close contact with marinas to make sure out of state sailors respect the quarantine requirements and are resupplied on their vessels.
At Pleasure Marina in Warwick Cove manager, Joe DiCenzo, said he was worried about having to shuffle boats around to get Rhode Island vessels in the water. With so few people working on their boats because of the coronavirus, he said most people wouldn’t be ready to go into the water by April 15, the typical starting date for the boating season.
“Nobody’s been congregating,” said DiCenzo. “There haven’t been any parties. People are coming to work by themselves. There haven’t been any pizza parties with the crew. If I see people congregating, I’ll tell them we can’t have that.”
At Fairwinds Marina, also on Warwick Cove, owner Joe McGrady said that he had closed the public restrooms and required people who wanted to work on their boat to email the yard and sign in and out on a piece of paper.
“There’s no better way to social distance than to be on your boat with your family,” said McGrady, who also owns Dutch Harbor Boat Yard in Jamestown. “Honestly. It can be great for boaters to get away, and spend family time.”
McGrady said the Jamestown Police Department told marina operators that they were going to be increasing the number of patrols at boatyards by checking for out of state license plates and breaking up groups of people. McGrady also said that sailors coming up from the Caribbean had to wait out their quarantines in state harbors, meaning that the time spent sailing up the coast didn’t count towards quarantine.
He also said that a loophole existed in the state regulations that allowed people to sail their boats between states if it was for commerce, but not for recreation. He said he knew some people who were planning to contract out others to sail their boat for them into Rhode Island, because law wouldn’t allow them to do it themselves.
“Do you know how many people are in Massachusetts who have their boats in Warwick? It’s a lot. It’s significant,” said McGrady. “If you’re coming from out of state or to the Caribbean and are coming to Dutch Harbor, it’s really not possible right now.”
Michaelson finished painting the bottom of his boat, an Alerion 28 that he uses for club racing, daysailing, and short overnights around Narragansett Bay. For him, all the work left to do is wax the topside. In the next week or two he wants to put her in the water.
“People who are boat owners, and live in Rhode Island, really ought to take advantage of it,” said Michaelson. “On a good day it’s really nice to get out there. Taking walks is fine as far as that goes, but I like to work on the boat better than taking walks every day. And being a couch potato doesn’t get it either.”
Michaelson’s first sail? Three hours due north to Edgewood Yacht Club.