Retired GP and lifelong sailor Jonty Pearce examines how to have a successful and COVID safe charter in the British Isles this summer

As we emerge from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic many sailors who have suffered delays or cancellations of planned chartering cruises will be looking at the feasibility of rebooking this season.

While the potential for outbound international travel from England returned on 17 May, a three-tier traffic light system has been introduced to maintain safety and control.

This has also been adopted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Effectively, this means that holidays and yacht charters have to be based in the British Isles or in countries on the coveted ‘green list’; even then certain hoops may need to be jumped through.

If down below, make sure you wear a mask and try and socially distance, where possible

If down below, make sure you wear a mask and try and socially distance, where possible. Credit Katy Stickland

Most of the major overseas charter destinations are currently on the amber and red lists which forbid non-essential travel including holidays.

These lists are reviewed every three weeks but the whole arrangement is fluid and prone to change at any moment; beware also that if your chosen ‘green list country’ charter reverts to amber or red while you are abroad a period of quarantine and other restrictions may apply.

For those willing to take the gamble on booking a charter aboard, be alert for news of vaccination benefits or health passports, and monitor the travel announcements.

A woman opening a port hole for ventilation to minimise the risk of COVID transmission on a boat

Ensure good ventilation when down below. Credit: Howard Young

Make sure you check the terms and conditions of your booking in case any COVID regulation or travel change renders your holiday untenable.

Needless to say, don’t forget to check your insurance covers both travel and charter cancellation, as well as medical treatment abroad should the worst happen.

Those intent on searching out potential holiday charters outside UK waters might be lucky, but, for most of us, the only sensible option seems to find a charter company with vacancies in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, or possibly Eire.

Applying the restrictions to your charter plans

The practical implications of COVID restrictions on chartering may be illustrated by those experienced by the Penguin Cruising Club; we have been trying to arrange Easter and summer Scottish cruises since before the first lockdown.

The series of restrictions and safety advice since the start of the virus has meant that our cruises have been postponed, adjusted, and reshaped to fit the permitted mould of the month.

A man on a boat sanitising a surface

Ensure surfaces are frequently sanitised. Credit: Katy Stickland

We have been fortunate not to have suffered large financial losses, though it looks as if our July charter will operate at a loss.

Much depends on the introduction dates of Scotland’s Level 0 and Level 1 COVID steps; while Level 1 is envisaged to be adopted on 7 June, it would help us if the ‘late June’ Level 0 relaxation was in force at the time of our cruise.

Level 1 permits a maximum of 6 people from 3 households as crew for each boat, while Level 0 allows 8 people from 4 households.

This is all very well for family or large households, but many clubs or groups are made up of either singles or couples; with only a limited number of sailing couples on our books the boats will inevitably suffer reduced crew numbers from that planned.

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Clearly if a family, or pair of families, choose to charter they would face fewer constraints than ‘club’ charters of multiple individuals or couples; it is important to know whether limits of 6 persons from 2 households, 6 from 3, 8 from 4, or any other combination of mixed crews staying overnight on board might apply.

International travel restrictions confine the viable options for charter sailing to England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Although in the Common Travel Area, Eire, at the time of writing (25 May), has not yet announced that non-essential (including holiday) travel is permitted.

As a further complication, the governing bodies of each of these countries have different ideas, timetables, and regulations; for example, in Northern Ireland public health advice is that visitors from the Common Travel Area should self-isolate upon arrival for 10 days, unless exempt.

An element of crystal ball gazing becomes necessary as not only is there a risk that anticipated timetable relaxations may be delayed, but any resurgence of the pandemic might result in a tightening of restrictions.

Although all restrictions in England are expected to be lifted by 21 June, the Indian variant is causing great concern in ministerial circles and may delay the current ‘roadmap timetable’

COVID-19 guidelines for you and your crew

If a charter has successfully been booked then a range of general measures should be adopted to maximise COVID safety on board, applicable both to mixed crew and family groups.

While the crew on a yacht will effectively form their own ‘bubble’, general government recommendations and regulations in force at the time of the cruise should be upheld including:

  • Wear a face covering in indoor settings where social distancing may be difficult, and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet.
  • Avoid crowded places.
  • Clean hands and surfaces regularly.
  • Maintain a two-metre distance from people you do not live with where possible, or 1 metre with extra precautions in place (such as wearing face coverings or increasing ventilation indoors).

The following additional specific measures could be taken to promote COVID-safe charters:

  • Advise all crew to have at least one approved COVID-19 vaccination at least 3 weeks before the cruise.
  • All crew to have tested negative using a Lateral Flow Device (LFD) not longer than two days before embarking.
  • All crew to be retested using a LFD within 24 hours of joining the cruise.
  • All crew to have their temperature taken before embarking and not to embark if above 37.80C.
  • All crew to confirm that they have no COVID symptoms and have not knowingly been in contact with anyone infected with COVID during the previous 10 days. Results of all the above checks to be noted in the ship’s log.
  • All single crew members should be accommodated in single-occupancy cabins or as sole occupant in the saloon.
  • Try to source food supplies in one large pre-cruise shop rather than the increased risk of daily small shop visits.
  • Wash the standpipe and hose fittings with disinfectant before filling the boat’s water tanks.
  • Socialising amongst crews from different boats should be subject to the prevailing government guidelines.
  • Consider opting for isolated anchorages rather than visiting crowded ports and marinas.
  • Where possible berths should be pre-booked to ensure visitors are welcome and so that harbour officials have your contact details for track and trace.
  • Remember that visitors to remote communities may be viewed as possible sources of infection so be polite and considerate while maintaining COVID safety.
  • Shore-based services like showers etc may be restricted – adhere to local guidelines.
  • Rafting might not be allowed, depending on guidelines.

Hygiene and other sensible measures that could be adopted include:

  • Advise all crew on the importance of regular hand sanitisation.
  • Encourage everyone to be on deck in the open air whenever possible.
  • Sanitise deck gear every 2 hours by using a disinfectant wipe or spray.
  • Consider wearing disposable gloves when handling mooring and berthing equipment.
  • The occupants of each cabin should be responsible for sanitising the hard surfaces and door handles twice daily.
  • All hard surfaces in the main cabin and galley should be sanitised before and after each meal.
  • Keep sanitising wipes or a spray in the heads; each user should clean the surfaces and door handles after each use.
  • Cooking should be done by the ‘duty chef’ who should maintain hand and surface hygiene as thoroughly as possible.
  • The duty pot and plate washer should ensure kitchen equipment is washed, dried, and stowed promptly after each meal; an extra supply of clean tea towels should be available.
  • Each crew member could use the same mug; different coloured short ribbons can be tied to each handle (if a list is made this can also help to give the right drink to each crew member).
  • If bad weather confines the crew into enclosed cabin spaces ensure all possible hatches are open to minimise risk.

If any crew member tests positive or develops symptoms:

  • Any crew member displaying COVID symptoms during the cruise should undergo a LFD test. If positive, the skipper should contact the NHS 111 Helpline for advice.
  • If you have COVID-19 symptoms, self-isolate as best you can (on a yacht retire to your cabin) and book a test. Those with symptoms should self-isolate for 10 days; for other crew members and contacts the same self-isolation period applies.
  • The charter company should be notified; the cruise will effectively be over and the affected yacht’s crew should immediately return the yacht to the charter base where they should disembark while maintaining self-isolation, returning directly to their homes or place of quarantine without breaking their journey. The charter company will have to deep-clean the yacht for the next occupants.

Check latest regulations before you book and travel

Many COVID regulations are due to change in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland before the end of June.

A skipper wearing a mask and gloves to protect against COVID 19 transmission handling deck gear

How to have a COVID safe charter

For potential charterers, England currently plans no restrictions from 21 June.

Scotland hopes to permit 8 crew from 4 households from 28 June.

In Wales, only households which have formed an extended household with one other household can meet, and no timetable has been given for the easing of those restrictions.

From 24 May, 6 people from 2 households were allowed to mix in Northern Ireland, but be aware that those travelling from Wales, England, Scotland and Eire should self-isolate upon arrival for 10 days, unless exempt, which could make a charter holiday untenable.

Holiday travel to Eire and shared accommodation on board seem unlikely to be permitted in the near future.

With uncertainty over the Indian variant, the situation is fluid which could result in the relaxing or tightening of restrictions.

It is essential that you check local guidance for the country you are chartering in.

For the latest on:

England COVID restrictions click here

Scotland COVID restrictions click here

Wales COVID restrictions click here

Northern Ireland COVID restrictions click here

Eire COVID restrictions click here