Sailing Week organisers ‘disappointed’ at axing of long-running event – but say not worth risk to country

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by Gemma Handy

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Antigua’s world famous Sailing Week – which has attracted enthusiasts from across the globe for more than five decades – has been cancelled for the second year running.

Almost 70 boats had confirmed their participation in the 2021 event slated for the last week in April.

But organisers announced yesterday they had been forced to pull the plug on the much-loved regatta – a staple of the country’s sporting and social calendar – due to fears of Covid contagion.

“There was no way we could do the event safely,” Sailing Week’s president Alison Sly-Adams told Observer.

Hopes had been high even up to last month that the event could go ahead despite the pandemic, with a slew of additional safety measures in place including the creation of a special ‘marina bubble’.

But soaring infection rates which have taken the country’s active coronavirus cases above 300 have forced organisers and tourism bosses to think again.

 “We all agreed we couldn’t let Sailing Week go ahead given the current situation, and even though it’s a couple of months away, we have to consider the logistics involved in getting our participants here,” Sly-Adams continued.

Hugh Bailey’s ‘Rebel’ from Antigua Sailing Week 2019 (Photo by Edwin Gifford)

“If we cancelled close to the event it would do huge reputational damage to Sailing Week, which we wouldn’t recover from easily because of the amount of money our participants could potentially lose.”

 The event’s president also pointed out that yacht racing is currently barred in Antigua and Barbuda, along with many other sports.

“As an island we are being asked not to do anything which groups people together closely. For us to be pushing internationally that we’re hosting a race when we actually can’t legally race is very difficult,” she said.

Sailing Week started in 1968 as a small regatta organised by a group of friends, aimed at extending the tourist season. Over the decades it has evolved into one of the principle sailing events in the world, attracting hundreds of vessels in previous years.

These days it brings more than EC$6 million into the country each year. In addition to the high-energy racing, it is loved just as much for its social events, such as the Reggae in the Park show in Nelson’s Dockyard which has seen live performances from stars including Damian Marley, Tarrus Riley and Christopher Martin.

“It’s hugely disappointing but at the same time there’s an element of relief because our huge concern was, how could we possibly create an impenetrable bubble and ensure everyone’s safety? And the answer to that is, you can’t,” Sly-Adams said.

“We don’t know enough about Covid and we don’t have enough control over people’s individual lives to be able to ensure that that happens, so it’s not worth the risk to the country.”

Dismay is compounded by the fact that the 2020 counterpart was also cancelled due to the pandemic.

“It’s a giant loss to the economy of Antigua and to the yachting sector in particular,” Sly-Adams added.

Tourism Minister Charles Fernandez said, “Not only is Sailing Week very important to us as an economy, but for many of us it is our favourite time of year when we come together as a community with our visitors to celebrate the wonderful yachting season.

“This year, however, as a destination we are prioritising managing the health care system and the vaccination programme for the good of the community, which in the long-term will allow us to welcome back our visitors safely.

“In fact, we have started planning for 2022 and intend to make it bigger and better than ever.”

Meanwhile, industry chiefs are reassuring visiting sailors that the sector remains open for business. There are currently dozens of yachts docked in the country’s marinas.

“Our marinas and supporting marine service businesses are open and with our many anchorages around both islands, it’s possible to enjoy charters between both islands and there still be enough space to socially distance,” said Franklyn Braithwaite, president of the Antigua and Barbuda Marine Association (ABMA).

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