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The great grass-roots revival?

by Mark Jardine 10 May 2020 22:00 BST
Philippa Danks during the RS Aero Australian Championship © Alex McKinnon Photography

We've all been missing our sailing during lockdown, but the months we've been off the water have given us time to reflect on what it is about sailing that we really miss most. Sailing can be regarded as a sport, recreation and pastime - and sailors are a diverse bunch so understandably our reasons for wanting to sail are many - but we are all united by our passion for being on the water.

Today I'm looking at some of the types of sailor, starting at grass-roots level and moving all the way up to the yachting professionals and Olympians.

Our network of worldwide clubs is the lifeblood of sailing. Nearly all sailors are a member of a club and proudly represent that club at events, or just use the facilities of their club for the entirety of their sailing. Club memberships vary from the low hundreds to many thousands, with fees varying in a similar way.

Clubs, though, provide much more than facilities; they provide the community in which to socialise, to compete and to grow as a sailor. Many become life-long members of a club or grow up in a youth system at a club, only to move away for education and a career, but return later. Many young sailors who have grown up with a club sailing upbringing regard their days on and off the water with mates as the time of the lives.

Over the past twenty years, the increased emphasis on regional and national squad systems has pulled many young sailors, and their parents, to qualifiers and ranking events far afield. While the standard is undoubtably high, the time spent towing to events and the pressure on the sailors has led to a high attrition rate. As many will know, I'm a firm believer in letting kids love sailing before being thrown into the cut and thrust of serious competition, and I'm thankful that national governing bodies worldwide are now recognising this and putting more emphasis on supporting club sailing and structures.

Open meeting sailors, or 'weekend warriors' as they are affectionally known, gain their sense of community from the class that they sail. Without an opening meeting circuit, these sailors will fall back to their local club for their sailing when restrictions allow. This, in the short-term, will further bolster the local club scene.

Both yacht and dinghy racing may be some way off for the majority of us as social distancing measures will preclude a large gathering of crew on a single vessel if they are not from the same family, but hopefully antibody tests will make a huge difference in this regard. We are assured that these tests will be available in the coming weeks, but how many weeks that is remains to be seen.

Professional sailors have been in a tricky predicament since the Covid-19 crisis. Racing on yachts is the primary source of income for many, and without this racing their income has dried up. This group is often one who falls through the cracks of the government income support schemes. Some yacht owners have decided to help their professional crew with retainers, others have not.

The top-level sailors and Olympians that I've spoken to seem to be amongst the group who are missing sailing the most. They are literally chomping at the bit to get back out on the water and are playing a huge amount of Virtual Regatta. Every time I speak to them, their passion for the sport shines through.

For the foreseeable future our travel is going to be limited. Crossing national borders is going to be far harder than it has been in the past and national events will be limited. I believe this is the opportunity for 'the great grass-roots revival'. A time to reidentify with our local club and appreciate what we can do without the need for travel. The community spirit in strong and well set up clubs has been evident throughout lockdown with regular eSailing, online quizzes and many other projects. It is this community which happens throughout the age groups and is a key part of making sailors for life.

Every year thousands of kids are introduced to sailing, but many will drop out of the sport as they progress through squad systems, only to find out at some point that they don't make the next grade. The community of a club provides both the structure to nurture good sailors and let them love sailing. As lockdowns are gradually reduced and the restrictions on our day-to-day life are removed, it is time for us to reflect on the importance of our local club in making sailors for life.

I am sure some will decry my words, wondering how it is possible to develop world-beating sailors without pushing kids through the squads and taking them to events every weekend, but having chatted with many of the top sailors, be that Olympians, professional sailors or those involved in the marine industry, the vast majority of them grew up 'messing about in boats'.

The Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com team have been writing and sourcing some gems lately so please do take a good look through the websites for some superb entertainment. I highly recommend listening to each of the Happy Hours with Stretch & Stirfry, the latest guests being Vasco Vascotto, who gives an unprecedented insight to Luna Rossa's America's Cup campaign, and Volvo Ocean Race sailor Emily Nagel. Sharing your capsize photos has been a real hit and we're now up to part 5 of this series. John Curnow's regular editorials and David Schmidt's Reflections on a Life Afloat have been achieving extraordinary readership, and Richard Gladwell is always on top of everything to do with the America's Cup.

Last, but certainly not least, we'll be hosting eSailing's equivalent of The Ashes. This will truly be an event not to be missed!

Take care & stay safe.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com & YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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