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Is the F In Fun going to be lacking in the future?

by Dougal Henshall 10 Apr 2017 12:46 BST 10 April 2017
Gold for Hannah Mills & Saskia Clark (GBR) in the Women's 470 at the Rio 2016 Olympic Sailing Competition © Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

Thanks to the amazing golden efforts in the 470 of Hannah Mills crewed by Saskia Clark and Giles Scott in the Finn, the UK, via the RYA, could once again claim to be the 'most successful nation' at the Rio Olympics. However, as disappointment unfolded on disappointment, by the end, it was, as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, "a damn close run thing", as both Australia and New Zealand came within a whisker of taking the top spot themselves. Mention of the Kiwis is a good reminder that 2017 will also see the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda, where the high profile team of Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing means that the UK is at long last mounting a challenge for the 'Auld Mug' that has a realistic chances of success.

Little wonder that the mood was bullish when, a while back, the RYA and BM (British Marine/British Marine Federation) co-hosted a conference at which future opportunities within the sport were discussed. By all of the metrics favoured on the day, competitive sailing in the UK, from success at the Youth Worlds up to the Olympics and beyond, was clearly in robust health. Better still was the perception that the growing influence of these high profile 'stadium' events would translate into both an attractive pull in for newcomers to the sport, whilst there was a palpable 'ker-ching' of much needed cash flowing into sailing on the back of TV revenues. Thanks to some seriously clever graphics, drones and helmet/boat mounted cameras, high profile events such as the World Match Racing Tour and the Extreme Sailing Series are today getting more exposure via watchers on the web, but is this translating into what could be described as 'fun footage'? There is a sneaky feeling that despite these well intentioned efforts, sailboat racing remains essentially an insider sport. This was highlighted with the Rio 2016 coverage, where the needs of the TV feed gave us interminable delays under the AP flag, whilst on the outer courses, the good old fashion print journalists were trying to hang on in bucking and bouncing Press Boats, as racing was taking place that even the most ardent of landlubbers could see was the stuff of white knuckle excitement.

Yet at the same time as World Sailing tries its best to create the elite 'star performer' ideal that is at the heart of the more popular sports, there is another side to our domestic racing dinghy scene. The powerhouse that drives the heart of the sport is the regular, scheduled, weekend after weekend activity of grassroots club level sailing around the UK. This is light years away from the rarefied atmosphere of the squads and professional, elite sailing, and with that distance a very different picture starts to emerge. There are still some welcome high spots, but these are not that widespread and they may well be outnumbered by more gloomy indicators that dinghy racing is a sport flirting with a pastime changing crisis. Apply a different, non-elitist set of metrics to those in use at the Ageas Bowl Conference and the result is a very different picture.

One such barometer that is a very useful indictor of the health of the sport would be attendance at Open Meetings and particularly Championships, as reported to Although not uniform across the differing genres of boat, the trends identified from this data all seem to be heading one way: downwards. This really should be worrying, for it always used to be that getting away to a couple of opens meetings was an achievable aspiration for the club sailor, whilst a week of annual holiday would be ring fenced for attendance at the National Championships for whichever class you sailed. Yet these are the areas that have seen the most marked loss of critical mass. Why should this be, when the ubiquitous combi trailer and tie down ratchet straps, flexi-working hours, not to mention better cars (and better still, the rise and rise of the campervan) together mean that travel with the boat has never been easier!

Of course there are probably legions of reasons why this could be happening, with clubs and classes quick to point out the cost of attendance, both in terms of financial outlay and in the overhead of time that attending events places on our already time starved lives. Then there are the conflicting attractions of the online, digital world, family and the ever present spectre of work, which casts a shadow over life, even at the weekend. But what nobody will own up to is the possibility that heading away to an event, be it for a single day, weekend or longer, might just not be 'fun' any longer. Those of us able to remember the 'then and now' can clearly tell the difference. It never seemed to matter where you came in the fleet; getting away to an event was the high spot of the month. It wasn't easy back then (compared to now) but boats would be packed up, tied down and off you would go. A race on the Saturday afternoon, party Saturday night, two races Sunday, complete with hangover and then head for home, planning your next trip away as you fought your way through Sunday evening traffic. But it was FUN!

Compare this with today. Has it all got so serious that the nature of the sport today has sucked every last drop of fun out of the act of travelling to events. Cramming lots of races into a day/weekend might look as if it is making the event 'value for money' but it can seem as if the racing is the only thing that the weekend is about. You even hear Race Officers chanting their mantra of "they're here to race" as they start the fleet off on yet another heat. Banana growers and the maker of the chocolate bar that helps you work, rest and play must love it, as you head afloat early morning and don't return to the shore until late in the afternoon. Finn Olympic medallist and sailing visionary Luca Devoti is just one high profile helm who has identified that the more racing that is compressed into the time available, the more it favours the elite sailors that increasingly are dominating our sport.

He is not alone in this observation, as there are other key movers from within the sport who have come to recognise that there has been a seismic shift in the nature of the sport, a change that is contributing to the erosion of the fun factor. Back in the day when fun afloat was a 'given' within the sport, competitive sailing could be seen as a broad based triangle. The wide base could be seen to represent the total, grass-roots club scene. Go up a level and you had a smaller number of sailors who would do the occasional open, go up another step and you had the core open meeting and championship supporters. Get closer to the top of the triangle and you had the good guys, the winners, then sat above them would be a small elite of the 'hired guns', the quasi-professional sailors in an otherwise amateur focused sport. Most sailors from the lower echelons of the triangle hardly ever saw the elite, whose time was spent sailing in the top, highest profile classes. For the mere mortals, the National Classes and the like were a happy playground, as you all knew who the winners were, but they were just like us, only better.

Today though, that triangle has been inverted through 180 degrees. There is now a smaller base of club sailors, supporting layer after layer of 'assisted, semi-pro, pro, elite and then a growing spread of fully paid mega stars'. This re-alignment wasn't a problem when the mega stars were strutting their stuff over in the Olympic and top rank International classes, but that is no longer the case. The domestic and National classes are now fronted up by the same calibre of sailing rock star found at the elite level. One well known class, famed for the ability of the boat to be used for purposes other than racing, is now so talent rich at the main events that the first real 'supporter' of the class (i.e., someone who sails in that boat and nothing else all season) was just able to scrape into the top ten. Yet the format of events in classes such as these risks being manipulated, to the benefit of those front running elite sailors. For the broad base of true supporters of the class, there is a very real danger that this disconnect is becoming a turn off, with this exacerbated by the feeling that they are only there to provide the necessary cannon fodder for the few. Little wonder that the expression that there is no longer any F in fun in going racing. The very real danger is that that today there are really more palatable alternatives.

One such alternative that helps to highlight that cost and time are maybe not causal factors in the decline in event participation can be seen in the continuing rise of the sailing week. From Rock in the far South West to Pyfleet in the East, North to Abersoch or South to Chichester Harbour, sailing weeks are now successful draws, pulling in increasing numbers of competitors. In conversation with a large number of them, the reasons behind the upturn are not difficult to discern. It is fun ashore with family and friends, you sail one race a day and have FUN. The deadly boring death to fun, that is the perpetual sailing on windward/leeward courses, are replaced by something completely different; at Abersoch for example, the course can take you on an extended trip around the bay and it is far from unusual for races to be one lap affairs. But it will have been a lap that is interesting, different, yet still demanding of crew and boat. Little wonder then that the feedback is that the sailors love it and cannot wait to come back the following year.

But if there is one example of this love of the alternative then it has to be in the way that the Merlin Rocket fleet love their week in Salcombe. There are 124 places on offer but these get booked within an hour of the website opening up for business. If you haven't booked up by then, it is the waiting list with the growing likelihood that you have to hope that you will be lucky! Yet it is hardly a budget week (but when did that worry the Merlins) that delivers up courses that take the fleet all around the various arms of the estuary. In typical July conditions the venue can shred reputations and sails alike, as in almost biblical fashion the first can be last, the last first. The good guys still win, but even with the wind coming from any one of 360 different directions, Salcombe delivers, year on year, that magical ingredient of fun!

The Merlin Rocket fleet, along with the Finns and low rider International Moths are also good examples of another growth area where the fun factor is very evident, both afloat and ashore. For a long time now these classes have been developing their classic fleets. Anyone who thinks that the competition in these classic boats is any less intense than in their more modern counterparts would be in for a shock. Owners, far from being sock and sandal woodbotherers are knowledgeable about keeping their boats in tip top racing order and race them with a passion when afloat. But the races are shorter, leaving plenty of time for on shore R&R.

The Phantom class may have the tag line of 'who ate all the pies' but for the amount of food consumed in one BBQ, the classic Finn fleet will take some beating! Be it the classic Finns with their communal feasting or the low rider Moths who tend to spend their evenings indulging in shared activities with some ply and an epoxy pot, they are all about having FUN.

If the fun factor becomes more and more discernible the further you get away from the elite event scene, then it must make sense that the most fun may well be there to be enjoyed on your own doorstep, or at least at your home club. The more forward looking clubs are becoming increasingly aware of this and can be seen making changes to their offering that are resulting in healthy increases in participation rates. Mid-week evening sailing in the summer has been identified as a growth area that refuses to be ignored! So what is the magical factor that some clubs and classes are getting so right, whilst others are patently getting it so wrong? There is not one organisation who can claim to know the reasons why the sport is behaving as it is, but one person who came close to turning his sights on one of the core contributory causes would have to be Mark Jardine's insightful article last week on making sailing more fun for children wanting to get afloat.

But just as youth is far too good to be wasted on the young, shouldn't the fun factor be there for everyone wishing to go afloat, irrespective of their age! This may sound simplistic but just stop and think for a moment about when you were last conscious of that wonderful fun feeling. Sure, winning feels good and always has done, but how many of us are celebrating that win courtesy of a stop watch and PY table, being it in paper form or in a Sailwave programme? It is the contention of this article that whatever the number of happy yotters is, it will be dwarfed by the number of somewhat dis-satisfied sailors. There are just too many times when the 'experience' on offer means that sailors have had to make the best of a biased start line, leading into a naff course, without either a proper beat nor run. Even if they have the skills to make the most of this rather passé course setting and sail a good race, they then find out that in the results they have finished behind a less well sailed boat that just happens to suit those particular conditions.

What is amazing in this all too common scenario is not that it is happening like this, up and down the country, but in how resilient the sport has been for the past forty years or so. Despite the failure of the authorities that run the sport to wake up to the realities of life sailing at the lower levels, it is a harsh truth that there are too many clubs, classes and events who are still holding on to the view that what worked back in the golden era of the 1970s will still work now. Just as the boats themselves are changing, so the social factors that underpin our lives today have undergone a radical change.

The success of mid-week evening events has already been highlighted as one area where the fun can be put back into the sport without much in the way of fundamental change. Even so, it is still possible for enjoyable evening sailing to be very right... or sadly, very wrong. This was highlighted by looking at two famous South Coast clubs, no more than fifteen miles as the seagull flies apart. Yet their approach to the fun factor is in the 'chalk and cheese', right and wrong way of doing things. One club, despite having a strong heritage of running events, offered a reaching start, spinnakers could be flown on three out of the five legs, none of which required the sheets to be set for windward work. Racing there was boring, all the more so when just along the coast 'Club B' has shown how to be hugely successful in running races for the sportsboat classes. For a normal, mid-week race the sum of the various fleets topped out at over 80 boats! One good quality mid-week race, not too long in duration and then the good natured scrum in the bar all point to some 400 sailors all having a fun evening; and wanting to do it all again next week.

Other clubs have seen a more home-grown, organic approach to restoring the fun factor. Another popular club, where the racing is (and always has been) in the handicap fleet, recently saw a small initiative suddenly develop into something else. The mix of classes at the club was the classic Noah's Ark (each animal came in two by two) until another helm sold his boat and bought into another class, making three. Then another joined, the four sailors were keen on getting afloat and were soon joined by three more. As last season drew to a close, the fleet was well into double figures with more helms selling up their existing boats, so that they too can join in. For now, they will still sail in the handicap fleet, but with each race other club members are made aware of the fun they are enjoying in the classic single fleet 'one design' competition. It's a great story and for those involved, they've managed to put the F in Fun back into their sailing, without any of the hassle and expense of travel to events away from home. Yet in doing so, they have fractured a status quo that has stood the club in good stead for a number of years and the now denuded handicap fleet is at risk of losing out in the fun factor stakes.

There are many who would point to this being one of the fundamental failings that is eating away at the opportunities for people to have a fun experience at that grassroots level (because if you cannot have fun on your home water, you're unlikely to have fun anywhere else). The constant launching onto the market of new boats continues to fragment the sailing scene at all levels except for the very top, where choice of boat is determined at International level (though the repeated changes to the boats intended for the America's Cup suggests that ever here the Administrators manage to screw things up royally).

Yet, as we explored in the 'Silver Dream Racer' article, many of these boats are failing to satisfy in that all too important fun factor. As the article made clear, if you look at the proliferation of new classes, yet another trend becomes apparent. Designing boats as the product of a marketing exercise might seem to be an intuitive move, but in the search for an attractive financial proposition, the result can be boats that people might dream about sailing, only for the end result to be beyond their capabilities. More extreme boats that are more difficult to sail (add more sail area or more sails) are great for the few but can end up becoming an unloved, unsailed fixture in the dinghy park.

Some classes can buck the trend, and having been Race Officer for the Devoti D-Zero National Championships, it was clear to me that this was a boat that was defying the modern trend, offering good racing, yet at the same time, still allowing that fun factor to function. No surprise then that the D-Zero is not only enjoying good growth, but the percentage of owners who are happy to commit to wider participation is unusually high. Looking at this situation in greater detail suggests that one reason could be that this attractive singlehander fits comfortably into the mid-range of dinghies, a genre that the dinghy designing greats such as Holt and Proctor would recognise.

For this is the final trend that appears to be eating away at the core of mainstream dinghy sailing. It isn't that there are just too many 'new' dinghies all competing for a shrinking market; it is that dinghy design seems to be splitting into two distinct and diverging threads. One the one hand, you have boats at the lower end of the performance spectrum, mainly roto-moulded, heavy, sometimes under-canvassed and great for 'general' on water activities. At the other end, there are the new breeds of ultra-lights where FRP construction is a minimum. Powerful rigs using carbon spars and Mylar sails are 'de rigueur' whilst a carbon hull is even better. The danger is that with serious competition at one end and casual sailing at the other, a void is beginning to open up in the middle. Many of the classes that are still 'stuck in the middle with you' are the older, traditional boats, but these are now coming under attack as never before. Yet it is in that middle ground where the combination of reasonable competition and the all-important fun factor happily co-exist the strongest. I have no doubt that there will be a chorus of very negative comments on these statements, as the highly vocal viewpoint today is that the future is fast and foiling and that once you've 'taken off' then the fun will be yours as a matter of right. Their view, that the way forward is to go as fast as possible is a sure-fire recipe to ensure that the schism does happen and if it does, then the grassroots of the sport will be all the poorer for it.

'History is bunk' is a common defence in these cases, but there is a very strong lesson to be learnt from the past. There are clear and worrying examples that it is when the 'middle ground' is lost that the greatest damage occurs. There is no shortage of evidence that this erosion is taking place, with the 'collateral damage' being the loss of the fun factor. Yet if there is one sport where fun should be at the top of the list of attributes it is sailing!

How did we get it all so very wrong?

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