How the marine sport, leisure and event industry can tough-out a global pandemic

By Jeremy Troughton, General Manager

There has been a quote from William Arthur Ward that has been used extensively during the coronavirus pandemic and the various lockdowns, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” But what does this mean, and more specifically, what does that mean for those operating in the event industry?

As the youngest skipper in charge of 17 crew on the first leg of the BT Global challenge, I remember being in what turned out to be our worst storm of the race. It was late September 2000, and we were en route to Boston from Southampton, close to the Grand Banks south-east of Newfoundland. The area had been made infamous during the movie “The Perfect Storm” and some of the crew had watched the film in the cinema before we left; coincidentally, the ill-fated Andrea Gail was the same length (72 feet) as the yacht we were racing on.

It was our first major storm as a team with wind speeds hitting over 70 knots. The yacht was ‘knocked-down’ to 86 degrees, damaging some of the communications equipment and the crew on deck were flung to the full extent of their safety harnesses with three being thrown over the side. It is a moment in my life that my thoughts have returned to on many occasions, but none more so than this year, where it has felt like everyone has been thrown into a horrendous storm to battle through. We may be experiencing different, local anomalies and will need different techniques and expertise to ride it out.

Disruption to cargo sailings bring congestion and backlogs in ports

As the world descended into various pandemic forced lockdowns, it was inevitable that global logistics would see disruption across many cargo sailings as production lines were impacted. Congestion and backlogs in ports today are still affecting the global movement of containers, with empties located where they are not needed, and a lack of containers where they are! Demand for space on many routes is hugely outweighing the available supply – and as a result ocean freight rates are hitting an all-time high, with reliability of service an all time-low.  It is not just ocean freight that has been impacted; in the air, most cargo moves on passenger flights, and with so many of these grounded or running reduced schedules and services, the space available has plummeted. Again, with demand massively outweighing supply, we have seen a huge rise in prices for anything moving by air.

These freight moves all require human interaction at various points in the freight forwarding chain, and here the impact of COVID has also been felt. With less staff available to work either through illness or social distancing requirements, or the inability for crew changes to take place due to cross-border restrictions; processes have slowed, and in some areas (especially in the southern hemisphere) industrial action has caused additional disruption.  Wherever there are delays, cargo vessels will often divert away from problem ports to allow other elements of timetables to be less adversely impacted.  Throw in the impending end to the Brexit transition period into the mix and we could be facing our own perfect storm in the UK on top of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

So what can we do about it? Back on board my Challenge 72, Logica, as the boat righted herself, we helped the crew back on board (they were all, thankfully, still attached by their safety harnesses) and started to check we had everyone. We came up with a headcount of 17 (i.e. one short) four times, before we realised it was, thankfully, a miscount. Looking around us at the time, at the horrendous sea state with the wind whipping spray up from the surface of the water, I knew that if we had lost someone in those conditions, the chances of recovering them successfully would have been almost zero. Two things were going on here; confusion in the heat of the moment and a normal standard process was being compromised due to overbearing circumstances but I had all my crew still with me mainly due to the safety precautions that we maintained on the yacht. As soon as a crew member came up on deck they must clip-on, and remain clipped on at all times – and that safety equipment was always rigorously checked. Cool heads, a good dose of expertise and a rethink of strategy got us through that confusion.

Leisure and events sectors have seen a steep downturn in business - image - How the marine sport, leisure and event industry can tough-out a global pandemic.Throughout the pandemic, the leisure and events sectors have seen a steep downturn in business, and, it goes without saying that it has been a very tough year for many businesses across a range of sectors and industries.  Like many, we have had to make use of the UK government furlough scheme, but this has allowed us to keep everyone employed and to keep the crew together.  Diversification of offering is something that many businesses are focusing on currently, and it has certainly provided opportunity and options for our team here at GAC Pindar, allowing us to bring people back from furlough and be redeployed to different areas of the business where they are currently needed.  The freight services team at GAC is playing its part right now to assist UK businesses, with the fiscal team more than doubling in size to cope with the increased demand for customs paperwork that leaving the European Union will bring.  The ability to keep good people, especially through down times, we see as a key part of what we have been able to offer as a business, and it gives us the ability to recover and be back at full strength as soon as the industry allows.

It would be fair to say that the storm and the knockdown on board Logica had created an atmosphere of uncertainty among many of the team around what the future held. Here we were on the first leg of the race, with another six to go; legs which would take us upwind around Cape Horn and through the infamous Southern Ocean, known for the relentless wind and waves that we’d be battling against for weeks at a time.  Whilst the future weather conditions were unknown, we were able to offer some reassurance; the wind we’d seen as part of this storm was greater than the maximum wind recorded in the previous iteration of the race four years previously, and in this instance we had come through it relatively unscathed. It was also an important lesson in communication and support for each other and addressing fears and concerns.

Everyone is aware of the increased virtual communication that the pandemic has forced upon us, but with a team that is used to working from temporary site offices when required, the transition from office to home working has been relatively painless.  We do miss the face-to-face interaction with each other and regular calls on MS Teams help, but are not the same. Mental Health has been a key focus for us this year, even before the pandemic made its presence felt.  We currently have ten people trained as Mental Health First Aiders, and every manager has undertaken a Mental Health Awareness course.  We are also supporting two mental health charities MIND and the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH).

Keeping cargo moving, transportation by land sea and air

Many of our customers rely on the internationality of GAC Pindar; we have a team speaking multiple different languages and our sales team has always been spread out across the globe, even before the current pandemic. Communicating with our customers in their native language, in their time zone, has helped on so many levels. We know that the freight situation will stabilize, but throughout, we have been able to assist our customers with their requirements, in part due to our knowledge of the situation and our good communication between suppliers. We have managed to find options to keep equipment moving, whether it is freight for an Olympic sailing team to continue training ahead of the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics or working with organisers on their 2021 race series planning, or putting a yacht in a plane to make it to New Zealand in time for training and preparation ahead of a major regatta in 2021.  For everyone, we have been identifying where the risks lie in their plans, and what can be done to mitigate those risks.

During the storm, we had lost miles towards the finish in Boston, and against our competitors but we were all still on board, and importantly all still together as a team.  It was a good lesson in resilience for us all in being able to tackle whatever the conditions throw at us. We had to carry on and to do that we needed to adjust those sails.   It takes time to develop a specialist team and you don’t want to lose that precious knowledge if you can help it, so keeping everyone on board, in a job and with the ability to adapt and be flexible in approach, to support each other whilst remaining optimistic and above all to maintain a sense of humour is key. So as we look forward to next year, and the return to live events that we hope the vaccine will allow, it leaves me to say thank you to the GAC Pindar team, and all at GAC UK for their hard work and support, and to wish them, our customers and suppliers an enjoyable, if socially distanced, festive period.


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Photo credits

Main Image: Challenge 72 ‘Logica’, sailing in the BT Global Challenge, 2000-01

Image 2: Routine maintenance check on the spinnaker pole, on board ‘Logica’, sailing in the BT Global Challenge, 2000-01