Where we are now and where we should be going…
By Airwaves writer Clinton Hayes We invite your thoughts and comments. Post them at the bottom of this article!
It seems often that I’m asked, “What’s wrong with American Sailing?” That’s an interesting question if in fact you believe that something is wrong. Yes, USA failed to win any medals at the Olympics but do you believe that success is judged only by those results? Sailing is a diverse sport and there are a lot of Americans having a lot of fun and kicking a lot of ass at events around the world. If you were at the US Team Racing Championships(Hinman Trophy) earlier this month you know what I mean. Competitors, volunteers, and spectators were treated to some of the highest level (and most fun!) sailing around.
The fact is, many sailors graduate college and all they’re really interested in doing is team racing. Even for the ones who go on to Olympic campaigns, team racing is something they always come back to and there were many at the Hinman this year. It’s something the rest of the world doesn’t really understand but who cares? Team racing is more fun, plain and simple. However, what’s interesting is why it’s been shrinking recently.
A Look back at what’s made it successful should shed some light and large part of that picture is college sailing. No where else in the world do 18-22 year olds spend a majority of their on the water team racing, practicing for one of the most competitive events in the world, college team racing nationals. That hasn’t changed and is only getting more competitive. One reason why people love team racing is because you don’t have to own a boat. They have the time of their lives racing in college fleets and want to do the same post college. Combine this with a tough job market and little free time and its no wonder why no one wants to own a boat. Traditionally, the Vanguard 15 was the boat to get after college. V15 team races often drew 20+ teams and fleet racing nationals over 100 boats. There is still solid participation but less than half of what it once was. For team racing to grow it needs to give the people what they want!
Yacht clubs, in an effort to attract younger members have started to offer very cheap “junior” memberships to “kids” under a certain age, usually 30 or 35. These clubs also own fleets of Sonars, J22s, or similar boats and do a lot of team racing. Since they’re less physical than dinghies older members (spectators!), who have money and run the club, get involved. This is great and there’s a lot of super competitive keelboat team racing going on but it’s not the same as dinghy team racing and you HAVE TO join a fancy yacht club to get involved. Part of the allure of dinghy team racing is being able to put together your own team and name yourself whatever you want.
The key to a good boat for team racing is something that is not too weight sensitive, very responsive, durable, and fun to sail. FJs and 420s are responsive, and durable but are too weight sensitive. It’s too much of an advantage to sail light and weight minimums don’t do enough. The Vanguard 15 is a great boat to team race but is not durable enough and only exists by private ownership. The builder, laser performance, also does not supply them for the Hinman anymore so it’s no longer, “the boat to own” after college.
The future may lie in new boats developed with more modern construction techniques that are lighter, more durable, and at the same price point as standard FJs and 420s. Rondar and Laser Performance are taking stabs at this with the Z420 from Laser Performance becoming fully integrated at college nationals this spring. Its 50 pounds lighter, much stronger with a full foam core, and shaped slightly differently in the deck to further increase stiffness and performance. Its light weight will still benefit lighter people in light air but the wind range where that will be an advantage will decrease. For now college programs are sticking with the same rig and sails to help make the transition cheaper but there are possible upgrades to make the boat even more user friendly. Laser Performance is testing a tapered rig with a square top sail that has initially shown to be stronger than the standard club 420 mast. This could both increase durability and make it even less weight sensitive by making it more powerful for heavier sailors and more easily depowered for lighter ones, not mention it will be faster and more fun to sail!
Bring it to the Spectator
It’s been a hot topic among the highest ranks in sailing with the Olympics shifting towards more spectator friendly competition. In team racing it’s the balance between more round robins and winner take all knockouts. The trend in American team racing has certainly been toward more round robins with every race counting to determine final positions. The argument being that the more data counted, the more certain you can be that the winner is in fact the best team. While theoretically correct, that has failed to grow team racing and produce enough interest for a sustainable future.
Look at match racing, a sailing discipline with mass international appeal and a world tour with big prize money. Knockouts consisting of quarterfinals, semis, and finals are standard even when there’s only enough time to sail a short best of 3 series. Knockouts put pressure on the competitors to perform at their best when they need to the most. Isn’t this really the true test of who’s better? Furthermore, knockouts may sort the top teams better than round robins. For example, take College Nationals. Most years (at least in the recent past) the Championship comes down to who beats who between the top two teams in the last race in the final four round robin. Yes, technically all races count from prior rounds but what ultimately decides the winner is the result from a single race. Wouldn’t a best of 5 between the top 2 teams be better?
The other, and perhaps more important, argument for knockouts is spectator appeal. For those who think this is not important, remember… The spectators are the ones who volunteer to help run events. The spectators (yacht clubs, schools, parents) help send teams to events and buy the boats you race. The spectators umpire events. The spectators cheer for you and help you have a good time. The point of being spectator friendly is not to get team racing on ESPN but to simply grow team racing. These spectators are the ones who have money and influence and could convince a yacht club or college to buy a new fleet of boats. What’s good for them is good for us.
In 2011 at the Wilson Trophy finals in West Kirby, England the American teams already eliminated stood on the break wall and drowned out cheers for the British team by yelling USA, USA, USA as Team Extreme defeated the West Kirby Hawks in a best of 5 final. That atmosphere keeps teams and volunteers coming back year after year. This year at the Hinman in a 1st vs 2nd final (not full knockout but
better then nothing) there were at least 15 boats following behind the race with many more people looking on from nearby or ashore. Isn’t this better then the winner being decided with multiple races remaining or worse yet before the final four even starts as would have been the case at the Hinman? Can you guess who won? Yes, the “better team” who lead going into the finals. I will add one exception that in non-umpired events knockout series are difficult due to protests. Most of these events are lower level anyways so there are less spectators and more emphasis on learning by racing as much as possible.
Packed grandstands at the Wilson Trophy:
Dinghy team racing is a pretty athletic endeavor. You don’t have to be super fit but at least quick and nimble. When someone decides this isn’t them anymore they move on to the increasingly strong keelboat team racing circuit. Dinghy team racers should be allowed to sail their boat as well as possible. In college, rule 42 is adjusted so you can tack and gybe as well as possible without worrying about coming out faster. I’m a strong believer that this should be the same post college.
I’ve been to too many events where young racers become frustrated sailing to a rule where they have to dumb down their boathandling. Umpires are a big part of this too. Part of the frustration is constantly getting flagged for kinetics in light air. Its extremely hard to determine whether or not a boat comes out of a tack faster than they went in so many penalties are wrong and a lot of illegal boathandling goes unpenalized. Its SO MUCH easier to judge if someone is tacking or gybing (3 or more in short period of time) for non-tactical reasons or is over flattening too much, which is what the college rule asks. All of this alienates the current college group from the rest of team racing and does not encourage them to keep getting better.
If team racing were as international as Match Racing with a well attended and competitive World Championship I would not argue for the college 42 rule. Sadly, this is not the case. Not even a single bid was submitted for team racing worlds this year. That’s why I believe we should show the rest of the world what’s been so successful in college sailing and lead rather than follow. There’s not much to follow anyways.
Big tacks make for great pictures!
The goal of team racing is to have fun doing what you love and, not to get too serious, but think…The Olympics are increasingly looking for more athletic and spectator friendly events. What’s better than team racing with the college kinetics rule(or similar)? Heck, you could even eliminate 42 over a wind minimum, making it even more athletic. Why not, there’s not too much to lose!
I haven’t been into team racing to start a sailing career out of it. I just think it’s some of the most fun you can have sailboat racing and I know many sailors agree. The point is for people to start thinking a little differently and in doing so grow what is an incredible way to have fun with your friends on and off the water.