Ensuring the safety of guests and crew on board has never been more important. Since the 2020 coronavirus pandemic began, the availability and accuracy of COVID-19 testing products has continued to evolve. For yachts, safe and efficient testing has been vital in safeguarding the health and safety protocols implemented on board and securing entry to popular yachting destinations. To help captains and owners navigate the shifting landscape of COVID-19 testing, BOAT investigates the most effective testing protocols available to help yachts get underway.
COVID-19 testing: What are the best options for yacht crews and guests?
There are currently three tests available and in use in the yachting industry.
- The first is the antibody blood test, which tests a droplet of blood via a finger prick for antibodies, returning the result in 15 minutes. Despite its fast response, the test proves little use in detecting an active infection and does not require a laboratory, making it less accurate.
- The second is an antigen test, which uses a nasal swab to return the result of an active infection within 20 minutes. Again, this does not require a laboratory, reducing the accuracy of the result.
- The third test, known as a real time PCR test, can be collected through either a nasal swab or saliva sample and requires a laboratory to return a result in 24-48 hours. The result indicates whether the patient has an active infection and is considered highly accurate.
With its prompt results and high accuracy, the latter real time PCR test has unsurprisingly become the testing method of choice for the yachting industry. However, the accessibility of the test and turnaround of results hasn’t always been straightforward, especially for those seeking a test through public health pathways. BWA Yachting managing partner Kristi Chesher explains that “crews going to clinics are finding it hard to get the results back in the time frame.” Some crews have had to wait up to five days to receive their results. This is problematic because many countries require a negative test within 72 hours of departure. As Chesher says, “timing is critical”. Accessibility has also been an issue, with many crews unable to get appointments together.
In response, BWA launched a new service this year to help crews heading to the Caribbean for the winter season get the tests they need. Once a yacht has booked a testing appointment, BWA will organise a nurse to visit the crew and carry out the PCR nasal swab test on board. The tests are sent off to a lab, with results returned within 48 hours. It takes just “five minutes” for crews to be tested in this way, Chesher says. “It’s safer than queuing up at a clinic and the crew are in their own space and on their own vessel. They get tested, stay on board, get the results and the next day they have owners or guests arriving and have already been tested.”
Unsurprisingly, this quick and effective testing comes with a cost. BWA currently charges $200 a test, with an additional charge of between $150-200 for the nurse to oversee the testing on board. As such the service has opened up a “big revenue stream” for BWA. Since July, the agency has helped crews of 30 yachts get tested and are now helping other marine businesses too. “I was really pleased to be able to offer this to our clients this summer,” Chesher says. “They already have a stressful life being shut up on board so it was great to be able to offer them this peace of mind.”
While the nasal swab test remains the most frequently used, a new real time PCR test that tests a saliva sample instead is now on the market. Both the nasal and spit tests are around 98% accurate but the saliva test offers several advantages to yacht crews and guests.
The first saliva test must be overseen by a nurse on board but additional tests can be undertaken with the nurse watching on a video call. This eliminates the $150-200 charge for having a nurse present, which is compulsory when taking the nasal swab. Saliva testing is easier to carry out and considered less invasive than the nasal swab, making it an appealing alternative for crew undergoing regular testing.
To meet the testing demand and cut down on disruption, some captains are becoming certified to oversee the PCR tests themselves. One such captain is Charlie Allan of 54.6 metre Vitters sailing yacht Adele. Using a company called Vault, Allan registered a testing facility on board and was trained to oversee the testing, eliminating the necessity of a nurse watching on video. To undertake regular and safe testing of the crew, Allan bulk orders batches of PCR saliva tests, which he stores on board. As and when he wishes to test a crew member, Allan logs into the Vault portal and registers the bottle and crew member being tested. After collecting the sample, Allan sends the test via FedEx to the lab in New Jersey, which returns results on email within 24 hours. “We can do it on board, it’s not invasive and it’s easy for crew to do,” Allan explains. “All we need is access to the portal and to be able to send it off to the lab.” He describes the process as “logistically easier, safer and cheaper”, with individual tests costing $90 when ordered in a minimum bulk order of 90 tests.
As the charter market returns to life, COVID testing is becoming a requirement for guests and crew alike. Crew working on the Edmiston charter fleet are being tested every week of the season, according to charter broker Rana Johnson. The crew of a yacht based in Antigua is contained on board and within the Antigua Yacht Club to decrease the risk of infection. “They don’t go beyond so there’s not a lot of mingling prior to a charter,” Johnson explains. Crews are tested five days before a charter starts and then again the day before, but only if requested by the client. “Once they’ve been tested, they’ll stay in self-imposed isolation,” Johnson explains. “They’ll go to anchor and remain isolated”. An addendum added into the Edmiston charter contract now requires clients to be tested ahead of joining the boat and undertake temperature checks daily. “It’s a bit of an honour system,” Johnson explains. “So far, people have been very honourable. They’re taking it seriously and doing what they can.”