Roll Tacks January 2010

Where next for sailing?

There have been some amazing developments in the past decade. For me, the most exciting was the arrival of the foiling moth, courtesy of Rohan Veal. This launched the International Moth, a moribund development class, into the mainstream. Since then it has attracted some of sailing’s biggest names into the foiling fleet, Olympic medallists and America’s Cup sailors. Ask them what sailing they enjoy most of all, and it’s not the stuff that pays them the big bucks, it’s sailing their Moths in their spare time. At the other end of the spectrum there has been the rise of the mass-produced rotamoulded plastic dinghies - durable and affordable boats which make sailing more accessible at the grass-roots end of the sport.

In the UK, we have a lot to be thankful for. We have become the envy of the Olympic world ever since Team GBR burst into dominance at Sydney 2000. The RYA has created a medal-making machine that has done us proud for the past three Olympic Regattas. And it in terms of participation in dinghy racing, we have more going on than the whole of the United States. We possibly have more dinghy racing activity than the whole of continental Europe put together.

The UK continues to be the innovator in small boat sailing, with successes of the past 10 years including boats like Laser SB3 and Musto Skiff (designed in Germany but made a commercial success in the UK), as well as the many RS classes that have sprung up in recent years. Another one to watch out for is Steve Cockerill's ‘Project X’ singlehander.

Whether or not there is room for another singlehander is up for debate, although if anyone understands this market it’s Steve. Unlike the majority of people in the industry, he seems happy to promote what many would consider to be rival single-handed boats side-by-side, rather than in competition with each other. Rather than taking the approach of some manufacturers who, particularly in the 90s, did a good job of convincing some unassuming punters to buy a boat that was plainly unsuited to their size or abilities, Steve’s inclusive approach of promoting different singlehanders means he can offer the customer a proper choice, and know that he’s doing the right thing by the customer. It's a very honest way of doing business and Steve has done great work in helping breathe new life into some of the older, traditional classes that were on the wane.

At the time, I was hugely in favour of the dinghy revolution of the 1990s, which brought new boats into the market such as Topper's Iso, the Laser 5000, and the first boats out of LDC Racing Sailboats’ stable, the RS 400 and RS 600. Whereas the singlehanded Laser and Topper were established, it's hard to think of many successful double-handed manufacturer one-designs before that period, and we should be grateful for what the dinghy revolution brought us in that respect.

The dinghy revolution brought us more choice, which at the time seemed a good thing. However, what the one-design manufacturers have not proven very skilled at is how to maintain ongoing interest in their boats beyond the first five years after launch. If we are to take the national championship attendance table on as a barometer of success, only one of those boats stands out as having established itself with any long-lasting national appeal, and that that is the RS 200, and to a lesser extend the Laser 2000 and RS400 and 800. While manufacturers are good at launching new boats, it seems that it takes a bunch of well-organised fanatics to keep the momentum going beyond the initial honeymoon period. No doubt the professionally-run RS Class Association has been a big help to the ongoing success of the RS200, as has the input of enthusiastic class stalwarts such as Pete Vincent. Maybe there is a lesson there. While the RS Class Association is able to support some paid employees to run the classes professionally, other individual class associations don’t enjoy the same economies of scale. But if a few classes clubbed together, perhaps that would become a viable option. More of that in a moment.

Bigger slice, or bigger cake?

I was at the World Yacht Racing Forum in Monaco in December, and CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race, Knut Frostad said he couldn't remember the number of times people had come up to him in the past two years saying what an opportunity the problems with the America’s Cup must present to him. Presumably this was with the notion that the Volvo Ocean Race could knock the America’s Cup off its perch and supplant it as the number one sailing event in the world. Frostad admitted that he only finds such comments irritating and frustrating because people seem to view global sailing events as being in competition with each other.

He sees it quite differently. When the America's Cup is in trouble, the whole of sailing is in trouble and he believes that the best thing that could happen to the Volvo Ocean Race is for the America's Cup to get back on track. When one part of the sport looks unhealthy it affects perceptions of the rest of the sport. Frostad is all about growing the cake rather than trying to slice up the little cake that we have. The real competition for the Volvo Ocean Race - in his view - are all the other things that compete for his audience’s attention, other sports, other leisure pursuits, television, and the Internet. For example, the figures of 2-300,000 players in the online games that accompanied the Vendée Globe and the Volvo Ocean Race sound impressive. But as the games developers, who were also in Monaco, pointed out, there are more than 40 million people playing a game on Facebook called Farmville. Even then I think they were underestimating the size of this game, because when I had a look recently there were more than 60 million active players. This is a game about fertilising your virtual crops and making sure that your virtual farm is in good order. Thrilling stuff! So you can see why the games developers think they've got a lot further to go than the few hundred thousand participants they've managed to attract to sailing games so far.

So what, you might be wondering, does this have to do with a column about dinghy sailing? Well, Frostad's comment made me think of the unholy spat that’s been going on in the forum of between fans of the soon-to-be launched RS 100 and the recently launched Devoti D1. What an utterly pointless argument. OK, maybe in an ideal world it would have been better if RS and Devoti had found a way of working together to produce one hiking singlehander with asymmetric spinnaker. But what’s done is done. Neither builder is going to back off now. That’s a commercial reality. But perhaps, just perhaps, if one of these products really takes off, it might actually drive sales for the so-called rival product as well. If some less adversarial thinking was applied, that is.

I was a big fan of umbrella organisations like FastSail and also TASA (the Trapeze and Asymmetric Sailing Association), both of which tried to bring together similar kinds of classes that traditionally would have seen each other as the enemy. Instead they organised events where similarly-typed classes could compete against each other on the water instead of on the Internet forums. It seems that in an increasingly fragmented market with the same number of sailors competing in more and more classes, this umbrella approach is a much better way forwards. Maybe some of the rabble rousers on the internet forums could devote their valuable time and unquestionable intelligence into something more positive than slagging off boats they’ve never even set eyes on, let alone sailed in.

Am I asking too much for sailors to think globally rather than tribally? Probably. People get as fanatical and as loyal to the type of boats they sail as they do about which football club they support. That fanaticism can be a good thing - if it’s diverted outwards, towards the idea of attracting new people into the sport, or even some of the old ones that fell out of the sport. But if that fanaticism turns inwards, to just trying to poach sailors out of other classes, then it’s just parasitic. It’s not helping the sport at all.

The big winter handicap events such as the Bloody Mary and the Grafham Grand Prix bring together all types of boat and reacquaint old friends and rivals who may only see each other once a year, before they revert back to club or class-based racing during the summer season. That’s fine if you’re in a thriving class with big turnouts and a great social scene. But with so many classes struggling to get enough entries to justify holding their own open meeting it would be nice to see more multiclass open meetings throughout the year. This would make events more fun on the water and in the evenings. FastSail and TASA seem to have gone quiet lately, and that's a shame. I've spoken in the past to some of the big cheeses at the RYA about the possibility of them lending support to these umbrella organisations but the RYA didn't seem that interested. They didn’t see it as part of their remit.

The thing is I don't think it would actually take much support or funding to make a huge difference. TASA was run by two enthusiasts in their early 20s with no real clout behind them. If the RYA could apply even a fraction of the focus and drive that it applies to Olympic and youth sailing, it could galvanise a huge change in some of the weekend racing classes. The RYA has done a great job of building a well-oiled youth sailing machine.

That's all good, but let's make the most of what is still a very vibrant weekend sailing scene and turn it into something that the kids want to stay involved in, once they've moved beyond the youth scene. A bit of RYA management and direction applied to some of these well-meaning but amateur-run organisations could go a long way.

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