Shifting winds: Marion sailor helps shape post-pandemic policies

May 2, 2021

MARION — Sailor Sara Stone knows boats — and how to prevent the spread of communicable illnesses.

As a former epidemiologist, the Marion resident and professional sailor was uniquely positioned to help get races and other gatherings safely underway during the pandemic.

“I’m used to thinking about this sort of thing,” Stone said. 

The Dartmouth College graduate decided to become a professional sailor after watching an all-female sailing team complete the Volvo Ocean Race (now the Ocean Race) in 2015.

So she quit her job studying ebola for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Fort Collins, Colorado — the first time in her life she’d ever not lived near the ocean — to pursue her passion.

When training and events paused during the three-month lockdown in 2020, she started consulting on covid safety for businesses, races, and even specific teams.

“So I was able to help people put together risk mitigation plans and try and figure out how they could do things in this world,” she said, adding, “Every country has had a different experience this past year.”

Stone said that many US-based races were able to take place after the lockdown, although most international events were cancelled due to travel restrictions.

The Marion native said she added sailing back into her schedule as various events were approved. 

“I was pretty lucky last year, in that a lot of the teams that I regularly sail with held modified events,” she said.

One race, the TP52 series in the Great Lakes, was officially cancelled — but Stone said the boat owners got together and decided to run the races on their own.

“So we were able to be out on the water sailing,” she said.

Stone noted that compared to other sports, sailing is fairly covid safe — except for offshore or distance racing, in which sailors go belowdecks. 

“That’s a very small space with a large number of people,” she said. “It would be so hard to stop transmission in that environment.”

“And that looks very different than if you’re just out on deck just for day racing,” she added. But even then, Stone said, “it’s not foolproof by any means.”

As part of her new covid consulting duties, Stone is helping organizers plan this year’s Marion to Bermuda race, which is (provisionally) going ahead this June.

“Hopefully it’ll all happen,” she said, adding that if current rules change — for example, if Bermuda’s government decides to stop international travel between now and June — the event will be postponed or cancelled. 

Some races are going ahead with modified courses, like the one from Marblehead to Halifax, which is set to take place in July. 

The large biennial race cancelled its traditional format in favor of holding smaller races on two different courses — one in Canada and the other off the coast of Massachusetts — rather than cross an international border.

As for her dream of sailing in the Ocean Race (formerly called the Volvo Ocean Race) this year, she said, she most likely won’t be able to see it through. 

The race was postponed until October 2022, when she will be too old to participate under current rules.

“I haven’t given up hope on joining the race next year,” she said. “But the chance of me being able to do it is extremely slim.”

And although she’d like to join the 2024 Olympic games in Paris, where there may be a mixed male-female double handed offshore sailing event, Stone said that may not happen either.

“It’s one of the interesting things about the sport is that the landscape of what the races are, what types of boats there are, who’s eligible, is constantly changing,” she noted. “It’s a constant kind of readjustment of goals and objectives.”

For now, she has set her sights on a double handed race around the world in 2023.

But she continues to beef up her skills in the meantime.

Stone recently spent a week in California learning to sail an Olympic-class foiling catamaran called a Nacra 17, which sails on a hydrofoil to attain very fast speeds.

“This boat is new to me,” she noted. “It’s quite different from any of the boats I usually sail.”

“I’m out here kind of giving it a go,” she added with a laugh. “It’s definitely fun!”