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Ways into Yacht Racing: Is the top end of the sport aspirational for the young?

by Mark Jardine on 12 Jun 12 June 2017
Emirates Team New Zealand vs. Land Rover BAR on day 6 of the 35th America's Cup © Richard Hodder / ETNZ

With the America's Cup going on, I - amongst many other sailors - have been in two minds as to whether the event is working to get more people into sailing, in particular young would-be sailors.

In many ways the boats are completely different to anything that the vast majority of sailors will ever sail, but does that matter? At times it is difficult to work out if a foiling America's Cup Class catamaran is going upwind or downwind as the sail (or should I say wingsail) is hardly adjusted, due to the apparent wind, but is that just something which upsets traditional sailors who are used to seeing the spinnaker up downwind?

If you look at other mass participation sports, such as football, rugby and cricket, there is no doubt that the venue and television coverage does a lot to build the excitement and make the game more understandable, and on this front the ACEA, who organise the America's Cup, have done an amazing job. On-screen graphics showing boundaries, lay-lines, speeds and distances make the relative positions of the boats understandable. It is clear who's in the lead and when a team is making gains.

Couple that with the on-board cameras and microphones and you've got the 'personal' aspect of the sport: the sailors that everyone, including kids who are watching the racing, can look up to... although it would be useful if the language was a little less blue at times!

'Stadium sailing' has been actually been happening in the UK for around 20 years, hitting terrestrial TV screens with the Ultra 30s back in the '90s. Before that the 18ft Skiffs were regularly on Australian TV in their heyday, with head-cams, helicopter cams and a lot of spectacular action. This made for great TV, and especially good highlight packages, but as a non-sailor it was difficult to see who was placed where in the race when watching it live. The multiple camera angles and graphics capabilities available now have pushed the coverage up to a whole new level.

So back to the question of whether this is making the sport more appealing to the young, and my first-hand experience of this would suggest yes it is. On Tuesday my 8-year-old son's first words when I picked him up from school were, "When can we watch the America's Cup racing daddy?" Both my boys are absolutely hooked on the racing, drawing pictures of British flags to wave when Sir Ben Ainslie's Land Rover BAR is in action, and then pretending they're driving the boats as they run round the garden.

How can the sport build on this? The next step will be to make sure events like the Volvo Ocean Race become more accessible, and with Mark Turner in charge I'm sure this will continue to happen. The sailing coverage of the Olympics needs to be honed, as - even as a long-time sailor - I found that hard to follow at times. All events need to keep looking at their media output and seeing how they can improve their coverage and make it more accessible. This doesn't mean we all need on-screen graphics and 40 knot speeds, just decent photos (mobile phones are good enough nowadays) and enjoyable reports; quotes from the sailors always liven things up.

We are incredibly lucky in sailing that most of our top sailors are extremely approachable. They are happy to go out of their way to talk to kids, sign a cap or t-shirt, or just talk to them about what sailing they currently do. If the sport of sailing can keep its top sailors accessible, and build on the America's Cup coverage to make it all more understandable, then we can bring more people into the sport. The aspirational nature of the sport is really beginning to work!

Do you think the America's Cup racing is aspirational to the young? Give us your views in the comments box below or email me directly via .

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