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Noble Marine 2012 #2

Snakes! Or as Corporal Fraser would say, "We're all doomed"

by David Henshall 22 Jan 12:00 GMT

The working title of Part 2 of this three part series was 'Snakes' – with Part 3 then being 'Ladders'. Together with Part 1, I am not a number the contention is that right at the fundamental level, the sport/pastime of small boat sailing has undergone changes that are only now making themselves truly apparent.

The concern should be that the majority of these changes are indicative of negative trends and that despite better clothing that delivers year around suitability and a wide choice of commercially available, accessible boats, that a look at both the headline numbers and those that underpin them shows a sport that is shrinking. This will probably be the cue for the usual keyboard warriors to dash off another "Dear Sir" missive on how their own club now has a vibrant youth scene with a cast of thousands and it is certainly the case that there are some very forward-looking establishments doing some great work out there.

An active and growing youth scene at a club is surely one of the great pleasurable sights of the modern sailing scene, yet only time will tell if the interest of today will translate into adult grass roots participation tomorrow.

One of the surprises that resulted from the publication of I am not a Number was that though there was a great deal of very varied reaction, few really picked up on the revelation that there had already been one mass extinction in dinghy terms. Running through the 1950s, the success of the Portsmouth Yardstick system allowed a large number of new classes to replace the existing dinghy stock so that today, classes such as the Stormalong, with one or two rare exceptions, exist now only in the history books.

Despite their dogged appearances each year at the Dinghy Show, there is a darker reality that a number of classes are 'hanging on' and being kept alive by what could kindly be described as a 'legacy membership'. It is not difficult to imagine the classes for whom the bell will soon be tolling!

After all, these changes are nothing more than the natural selection process for a sport that evolved in a very ad hoc and unstructured manner. It may well have seemed that in the UK, not only did every available stretch of shoreline have its own sailing club - be that by the sea, a gravel pit somewhere, or on one of our great rivers - but that many of these were the powerbase for classes that were popular there and nowhere else. Back in the 1960s, an onlooker may well have been forgiven for taking one look at the way the sport was evolving and thinking "what a mess"! And in all truth, it was! Too many designs meant few economies of scale, with boatbuilding trapped by circumstance at the cottage industry stage. The Class Association model, as perfected by the Merlins (before amalgamation with the Rockets) worked well enough, but would become very insular, with each class fighting a rearguard action to try to protect and promote their own little niche.

Keen students of dinghy racing history might well smile indulgently when they hear people complaining today of there being "too many classes" because in the years gone by, there were even more of them, indeed, a lot more. The chances for survival for exciting new developments were sadly slim, as the vested interests fought to retain the status quo. We had the rise and then the fall of the home build movement, helped along by some clever, easy to build designs, then the advantages of stitch and glue, then slot and tab to further reduce the woodworking input that was required.

And still the new classes kept coming; Peter Milne had scored a bulls-eye with the Fireball, then looked to make it 2 for 2 with the Mirror 14. With over 700 boats sold, it seems just downright wrong to talk of the Mirror 14 as a failure, but ultimately, even freedom from the Mirror name and their insistence on red sails could not save the now renamed Marauder from a fate no less final than that of the Stormalong a generation before. This situation even pervaded into the International scene, as was seen by the core dinghy scene in the UK all but ignoring the arrival of the 470, with its promise of accessible Olympic sailing. Here in pre-EU 'Brit' land, we had the Fireball and Hornet which we liked and saw as part of the very fabric of the UK scene and thus could afford to ignore the new kid on the block (and a French kid at that....Quelle Horreur!).

Nevertheless, despite the fragmenting effect of so many clubs and even more classes, the pastime – and sport (for they are two sides of the same coin) of dinghy sailing continued to blossom in the UK. At some point in the mid-sixties, when 'England swings like a pendulum do' small boat sailing was embarking on a double decade long golden era of growth.

It is easy to cast around for reasons to explain the 'what happened next' and some could rightly question some of the major policy decisions taken on our behalf by the Administrators of the sport. Others will point the finger at the introduction of VAT, which immediately hiked up the prices of dinghies - as a perceived luxury item - (and everything else), whilst others claim that it was the arrival of the Laser phenomenon that started the process of moving sailors away from double-handers to single-handed sailing.

Whilst the probable answer is 'all of the above' in some ways the Laser does indeed have a case to answer, for although we didn't recognize it as such at the time, it was society that was changing fast, whilst the inherently conservative word of sailing was determined to carry on doing things just as before.

Jack Knights wasn't just an insightful journalist, but a top helm in his own right and a clever innovator – seen here on his entry for the 1965 IYRU Singlehander Trials. When the Contender was chosen, Jack would be a part of the International launch Committee. In many ways, he would make the 'right' call.

Jack Knights, the irascible and often (for often read 'always') controversial columnist for the Y&Y paper magazine, put his finger right on the issue more than 40 years ago. Jack had bought himself a Laser and was a strong proponent for the boat. The issue, he declared, was one of time. He wrote how you could either spend you day faffing about at a chandlery, trying to chose between an RWO block without a becket, or a Barton one with, or you could have a Laser and just go sailing.

There had been SMODs before, indeed, the Fairey Firefly could have been classed as one back in the 1940s, but the Laser took the idea to a new level of practical application. As he so often was, Jack was spot on in his observation, that whilst we were all so much better off, we were becoming increasingly time poor. And there was just so much more we could be doing with our time.......as cheap flights opened up the world to pretty much anyone who fancied travelling.

Of course, the new found freedom to fly anywhere, along with yet another advance, where anything could travel anywhere in a shipping container, would suddenly open up the possibilities of international competition. Bugger Bognor...let's go to Bermuda, or Brisbane. If that wasn't enough, the growth in the roll-on, roll-off channel car ferries (the tunnel was still a twinkle in the eye somewhere) meant that you could now hook up your combi trailer (and what a huge difference they made) and drive to La Baule, Berlin - even in the days when the Wall was still in place - or down to the Italian Lakes. The Brit Abroad at Magaluf had yet to come to define yob culture, so it was possible to go to Europe, have a great time out sailing, run riot ashore and then come back thinking that sailing was the sport to be in.

Editor's Note: If there is one example that highlights the changes from then to now it has to be the joys of sailing at the northern end of Lake Garda. To compete there in the early 1970s was a testing adventure. You needed an International Driving Licence, a Certificate of Competence, fuel vouchers for Italy and a small bank's worth of various currencies. On top of this you needed time, as with 7 borders to stop at and often be searched, it was very much a case of a slow boat to Garda! Then there was Germany, where you could be stopped and searched again to see if you had a Bader-Meinhoff terrorist hidden in your side tanks.

Yet even as we thought that everything was fantastic, real change was starting to catch up with the sport. It hindsight, it can be seen that it came from the top end and filtered down, as there was clear relationship between performance and loss of critical mass. The 505s felt the cold winds of change quite early on, when after decades of seeing 100+ boat qualifiers to determine the 12 boats who would go to the international events, they struggled to find enough boats to fill up the UK's allocation of places. Other high-end classes suffered a similar decline in numbers and even the arrival of the exciting skiff revolution didn't really arrest the steady haemorrhaging of critical mass.

Some could well now point to the depredation caused by the windsurfing bubble, which didn't just pull people away from dinghy sailing, but the whole dinghy club lifestyle. Why pay fees, do duties that always fell on perfect days for sailing, spend precious time at the weekend painting the ladies loo, when you could pick your moment, drive to a beach somewhere, rig your board without all that dinghy set up rigmarole, then thrash up and down in the company of like minded individuals before going home again when you'd had enough - and not before.

For a society that was becoming ever more time obsessed, yet at the same time burdened down with rules and petty officialdom always wanting to tell you what you could and couldn't do, windsurfing was a breath of pure fresh air freedom. That the bubble would be burst (yes, I know, the inference there is that it was an act or omission that was behind the equally precipitous decline in windsurfing but.....not here!) sadly failed to result in the lost numbers returning en masse to the dinghy sailing scene.

By the 1990s, the contagion had spread from the very high-performance dinghies and was starting to afflict the UK core dinghy scene of two person hikers, with or without spinnakers. One of the bellweathers of the domestic dinghy scene, the Merlin Rocket, was hit especially hard. The arrival on the scene of a new breed of designs started to render all the existing stock as slow enough to be obsolete. Punters who had waited months for their beautiful new, but 'old' designed boat to be completed found that they were taking delivery of expensive white elephants that they – and nobody else – wanted. Worse still, the new boats and revised rigs saw the Championship winning crew weights fall from a healthy 26 stone/165kgs to an anorexic 21.5 stone/135kgs. The Merlins would go on to re-invent themselves, but not before the arrival of the RS400 would change the game in the most positive of ways.

Here was an 'almost Merlin' that was a strict one-design, so no more overnight obsolescence caused by a new design. It carried weight well, was a joy to sail and despite being a 3 sail boat, was Laser-like in the way it allowed the time to be spent sailing rather than fiddling (in an even bigger contrast to the Merlin Rocket, which courtesy of the mast raking systems, was becoming ever more complex). It is hard to overstate the impact caused by the arrival of the RS400, not just for the boat itself, but the future dynasty that it would become the foundation for. Once the 400 was firmly established a veritable flotilla of new designs would follow. Many would be innovative and ground breaking, even today the RS300 looks futuristic whilst the 800 is a hard to beat package when it comes to equating 'bangs for your buck'! Meanwhile, the RS200 almost redefined the lightweights two-person hiker, where it has become a firm favourite for mixed couples.

At the heart of the message carried by these boats is that going sailing, and racing, is great fun and easily accessible in an RS dinghy. The vexed issue of the worrying disappearance of the three letter F word is something that the sport could – and should be addressing. Is part of the success of the RS branding that the main events seem to include a full package of fun filled après-sail activities? With the attentions of those who manage sailing elsewhere, with their focus on either the small but high profile numbers of foiling (don't forget their message that foiling is the future), Youth and the Olympics plus the other global grandstand events, the Volvo and AC, the demise of the grassroots scene is all too easily overlooked. This shortcoming was explored in the 'Where is the Fun in Sailing article' but the answer is that there is still fun to be had, but it might not be where it was found in the past.

For certain, one of the pre-conditions for that elusive F word is numbers, for there is little doubt that the old cliché of 'the more the merrier' is as true today as it ever was. And of course there is an age element to this, as 'x' number of younger people are more inclined to recreate that missing party atmosphere than a handful of candidates for grumpy old man of the year award (even more so if 'x' is a healthy balance of both sexes). There are a number of other helpful factors; venue can be important, timing and weather can be crucial and then there is organisation...

Despite all these factors, it would be simplistic and even worse, plainly wrong to attempt to portray the domestic dinghy racing scene as a tale of unremitting gloom and like Corporal Fraser, "doom". And yet, whichever metric you choose, the signs are there that the social changes that have been accelerated by the unrelenting pace of the digitally connected lifestyle, the changes to the boats we sail, the demographic cliff end that is with us now and the eventual erosion of the current class association structure are no longer 'maybe' considerations, but are with us now.

80 or so years ago, dinghy racing was an elitist, expensive sport, enjoyed mainly by the bright young gentlemen of the pre-war middle class. It took the efforts of forward looking thinkers such as Jack Holt and Ian Proctor to 'democratize' small boat sailing, making it a sport that is accessible to all. Is there a danger that in looking to the future, that dinghy racing will go back from whence it came and once more become an expensive, elitist sport, sailed in very high performance boats that can only be sailed by a small cadre of superbly athletic, full time sailors who shuttle from televised event to televised event.

This is certainly one vision of the future but one that doesn't bode well for the wider, populist activity of week on week club sailing (though casual, unstructured getting afloat in roto-moulded boats on a 'pay and play' basis may well expand to fill the void).

We can though re-write that script and create a different outcome, but in doing some of our most cherished ideals – and institutions - might have to be sacrificed to make for a better future for all.

In Part 3 – Ladders, we will look at possible alternatives to that rather dismal outlook, with some novel, but exciting solutions (but you'll all think of lots more I am sure). It is not only possible, but highly do-able, for the dour words of Corporal Fraser to be replaced by those of Baldrick, who never missed an opportunity to tell us that he had a "Cunning Plan"...
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