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A Fine Line

by Dougal Henshall 22 Jun 12:00 BST
Big winds, big waves and a big fleet, truly the fine line between brilliance and insanity : The gate start on day 4 of the SAP 505 Worlds at Weymouth 2016 © Mark Jardine

As the world around us reblooms after the constraints of lockdown, there is plenty of food for thought surrounding the debate as to something of a reset for dinghy racing.

Older sailors talk in nostalgic terms of the delights of the 'golden era' of the 1960s and early 1970s - when despite wetsuits being made from 6mm neoprene sheets that you glued together on your tabletop, and clunky cleats that did the exact opposite of what you wanted them to do - that somehow dinghy racing was in a much 'better place'.

The reference to those early wetsuits is important, as apart from a few rather 'odd' races, sailing took place from late March to October, but once you had stuck that yellow tape onto your wetsuit seams (as well as sticking it to everything else) you might start thinking about joining in with other hardy souls in one of the new 'winter series' that race up into the festive break at Christmas.

There was then something of a closed season, when decks were dried out and revarnished and repairs could be made to boat and body alike before the perils of the famed 'fitting out' party which heralded in the next new season. For many of our best dinghy sailors, the starting signal for the new season would sound down on the Hamble River, where the National 12, Firefly and Merlin Rocket fleets would gather for the (in)famous Warming Pan event.

The tradition called for this to be a weekend of racing with starts and finishes on a fixed line, within the confines of the river. No matter what the wind direction, the first leg took you downstream and out into more open water.

It was certainly a spectacle, as upwards of 50 Merlins tried to time their spinnaker hoists, not helped by the tide being under them and a situation where, if over, you were out (or would find it very difficult to get back over the line which effectively was the same thing).

Hamble had it all, as an event that was very much an inland river style race at the start and finish could have a middle section out beyond the Hamble Spit buoy that was as windy and wild as anything likely to be found around our coasts. Yet, for all of the downsides, year on year the Warming Pan would pull in bumper fleets and for those for whom it was too early, too cold, or both, the event made for near compulsive spectating.

Depending on the weather there were some key vantage points, such as the bend in the river channel that would demand a gybe without the option, that is unless you wanted to drive into the shallows. A quick look at the trophy shows an incredible roll call of names, for despite everything that was apparently wrong with the event ('unfair sailing' was one complaint) yet the best boats and crews always seemed to be the ones taking home the prizes.

As we moved through the 1970s the voices calling for something better were getting ever louder, with Yachts & Yachting journalist Jack Knights being one of the most outspoken of critics. "Hamble," he declared "is an anachronism; there is much better and fairer sailing to be had just a few miles around the coast at Weston".

As was so often the case, Jack was well in tune with the changing values that were shaping the next generation of our sport. He was also writing some often blistering critiques of the changing nature of the sailing scene, which along with almost every other sport, has become far more pressurised over the last 40 years or so. It doesn't help that every action can now be reviewed and discussed at length, with a lot of the attention focusing on how the game is managed.

From footballers screaming abuse in the face of the referee, to tennis players swinging wildly with their racquets and the often profane 'verbals' in F1, the old Olympic adage that the "important thing is to compete" is sadly now a thing of the past. The exceptions are all too few and far between, but we relish such moments as the slight figure of referee Nigel Owens bringing a pack of unruly rugby players back into line with one of his more scathing comments.

One can but imagine the scathing editorials that Jack Knights would have used to scorch some of the leading egos of today, for although he saw many of the ills in sailing as being self-inflicted, his over-riding view was that we had to make the best of what is in truth an inexact and often imperfect sport.

At the heart of the problem that has made so much of today's competition anything but sporting is the overriding need to win, not necessarily the contest, but against whatever target the individual is aimed at. When that all-encompassing need to win comes with a pressing financial imperative, sport rapidly leaves the OED definition of being an activity for enjoyment and entertainment far behind.

Motor racing probably got there first, simply by dint of being the most commercialised of the sports and it is little wonder that the motto of the big car-making concerns was "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" as they connected the dots that linked success on the racetrack with success in the showroom.

In this respect sailing was quite a late entrant into becoming a commercially-driven activity, as for many years the IYRU (now World Sailing) tried desperately to stem the tide of professional sailors, preserving the sport for the true Corinthian competitor.

In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they decreed that sailing would remain an amateur sport and introduced a series of draconian rules to keep it so, with the result being the rise of the 'shamateur', as sailors did their upmost to circumvent the latest rulings.

Some of the results were more than bizarre, whilst others verged on the comical, as at a high-profile Kiel Week certain sailors were unable to wear a certain brand of yellow wellies, whilst Paul Elvström was rumoured to be having to pay back a 5-figure advance for his latest book.

Closer to home, Barry Dunning would be just one UK sailor to fall foul of the authorities in a big way. At that time, Barry was heading up the Javelin sailing clothing company and had naturally enough called his J24 'Javelin', along with a sticker that told spectators "What a difference a J makes". Now this could be a play on words for the Dinah Washington song, or maybe something darker and of the moment (you might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment).

Few were surprised when the event organisers threw his entry out, which caused the boat to be renamed Avelin, which Barry had to explain to the organisers was a girl's name in the Punjab, so they had to let it go!

In the end the best efforts of the IYRU would do no more than delay the inevitable as shamateurism gave way to fully recognised professional sailors, but the results of this change would be far more profound than anyone could have predicted. Part of the problem lay rooted in the spiralling cost of remaining competitive out on the 'big' stages.

As we discussed recently in What Price in Taking the P prices in sailing have been outstripping inflation by a significant percentage for decades now, with the result that not only has this had a negative impact on numbers, but on the make-up of the fleet. The expected 'trickle down' from the topflight international events happened far more quickly than anyone could have predicted, and before long, even in relatively relaxed classes, the front of the fleet would become dominated by the 'hired guns' representing boatbuilders and sailmakers.

In no way is this a criticism, but the amazing skill sets that many of these big names bring to the sport are way beyond what the traditional class sailor could aspire to. They're fitter, have better self-preparation and by virtue of the amount of sailing they do, bring not only experience to their game, but a deep fund of knowledge of how to get the most out of their boat and rig.

Sadly, the changes that had seen a step function in race craft had not been matched by a similar improvement in the way races were being run. This is not to say that there wasn't some very good Race Officers since day one, but all too often events were being spoilt by poor courses and worse start lines. The tales were legion of World Championship start lines that had been so badly laid that they could only be crossed on port tack, which often led to the querulous task of protesting the Race Officer.

I could fill a lengthy article with stories of Race Officer cock ups: There was once a decision to set a course axis of 100 degrees, only to find that there was only one zero placard in the box of numerals. Surely this wouldn't be an issue, after all 99 or 101 would work equally well, but to just post '10' defies all logic... but that is what they did!

Then there was the Race Team that got the fleet away before going below to tuck into a lavish luncheon and, as the wine flowed, they seemed to forget what they were there for. It was only when those racers who had already completed the course started banging on the hull of the committee boat that anyone on board seemed to remember that they were running a race, but no worries as they blamed the situation on the competitors for 'finishing too soon'!

Not only did the fallout from events like this fail to result in any improvement but they also helped generate a 'them and us' attitude that could see some pretty unpleasant exchanges aimed at the Race Officer afloat. Thankfully the RYA were in the vanguard of moves aimed at improving the quality of what would now be classed as Race Management. Before long there would be a highly structured, course-based approach, which started with training for club race officers before moving up through regional open meeting standards, through National Championship level up to the exalted gold standard of International Race Officer.

It would be wrong to criticise this initiative as the transformation has, in some areas, been extraordinary. In just a few seasons many of the old school Race Officers, who used to run their events on the rule of thumb basis, had been gently eased aside by more skilful, formally trained graduates of the RYA system. The changes have certainly brought about a marked improvement at championship level and at most open meetings, though the impact at the smaller clubs maybe be harder to quantify.

Seeing that big parts of the training packages are all about ensuring the correct degree of bias for a start line, this can be fine for the bigger clubs who run committee boat starts, but for vast swathes of the sport at the next level down, these nuances are lost as many races get started from a shore-based, fixed line.

There is though another downside to the insistence that the Race Team has to be 'exact' in their management, in that it can change the very nature of the sailing. The perceived need to be clear of any influences of local land masses can see courses laid further and further out of sea. Not only does this make for a longer day afloat but removes the chance for friends and family to see anything from the shore (apart from some small white specs out on the horizon).

Even once the fleet have slogged all the way out to the committee boat, there then comes the dreaded wait under AP as the 'get it right' Race Officer tries to shift the course axis by relatively insignificant amounts. Meanwhile, most of the fleet are just wishing that the damn RO would just let them get on with it!

Even after the start today's 'correct' way of thinking is that the Race Officer maintains a close 'hands on' role managing the race throughout the entirety of the heat. Anything of a windshift and the Race Officer starts shifting the marks around, which is great for a well-practised team afloat, but it comes as no surprise to learn that this is an area that can all too often result in requests for redress.

For those sailors for whom being at the event is work, the above doesn't really matter, as ultimately the search for Race Management ends up playing to their strengths. A true start line is great for those who, like so many top sailors, have come up through the youth scene where the mechanics of maximising position on a start line are practised to the 'nth' degree.

With the Race Officer constantly monitoring progress and ringing the changes, those 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' that can offer a mid-fleet sailor a chance of glory at the expense of a fancied front runner are largely eradicated. What is left becomes more of a tribute to boat speed; crack the start, get the first shift and then raw speed, plus practised boat handling will do the rest.

The more races in the day and the longer the beats, the greater the gaps become apparent between the leading bunch of hard drivers and the rest. We should not forget that a while back one of our top sailmakers used the tag line in their adverts "Boatspeed makes you a tactical genius". This may or may not be true, as going quickly the wrong way is anything but a ticket to the front. However, add boatspeed to those practised skills and the rest is... chocolates!

Which brings us (via a discussion that is as circuitous as a course at Salcombe) to today on the Hamble River, albeit on the 'other' bank at Warsash. Sadly, the presence of Merlin Rockets on the river is now little more than a distant memory, but their DNA lives on in the shape of the H2 single hander, which hails from the drawing board of designer Keith Callaghan (see The Man Behind the H Boats).

Keith's Merlins were great performers at Hamble, as they were well suited to the specific needs, with the ability to slice to windward coming out of the river, then their beamy aft sections were perfect for the often-wild ride back up stream, whilst their vice-free handling gave crews the confidence that they would make it home in one piece.

Since the very earliest days of the H2 class, Warsash has been home to a strong fleet of these attractive boats, with the club's annual open meeting being a highlight of the season. This weekend just past, the H2s returned once again (in the company of the Blaze and Buzz fleets) but there the connection with the past ended. From the launching point at the club to the start was a 3 mile sail, against the flooding tide. For the spectators, the course area was well east of the river mouth, so even with a long walk and powerful glasses, the fleet would have just been tiny specs on the horizon.

The good news is that when they got to the committee boat, the weather greeted them with breeze and sunshine, whilst the Warsash Race Team pulled out all the stops to ensure that the racing was of the highest quality. Spot on start lines, challenging beats, great reaches and - best of all - the minimum of lost time held under AP, all ensured that this was an event that would easily fit the description of not just champagne sailing but 'championship' quality.

Had it been a championship (it was for the sadly small Buzz fleet) then there would be nothing more to say other than "well done" to the organisers, but for the H2s it was just an open meeting. Was there not a case for celebrating the heritage behind that Merlin-based philosophy, with the start and finish from the club line in the river, providing something very different and equally enjoyable for the competitors, creating a visual spectacle for the onlookers and significantly reducing the long day that had to be spent afloat?

Would this have changed the results? Unlikely, given that the winner sailed better than the rest and those who made mistakes would probably have done so anyway - but at the same time, it might just have thrown one of those curve balls into the mix that can make sailing so unpredictable, yet fun.

Again, it must be stressed that in terms of purity of racing, the comments made above are all positive, but in terms of enjoyment (plus that much sought-after fun factor) does this suggest that the demands for perfect races might just be one of the contributory factors to the demise of the mid-fleet bulge?

Even if you ignore the escalating cost of competing (some recent events can be £200 for four days) the prospect of those ever longer days spent afloat, way away from the shore, complete with lengthy delays (not everywhere is as on-the-ball as Warsash) for little in the way of reward - not just in terms of results but also with regard to the experience the event offers - one has to ask if sailing is in danger of becoming an activity that struggles to promote itself in a positive way.

All this has needs to be seen in the light of the far more attractive alternatives that are increasingly pulling in the numbers. Abersoch, Rock or Chichester Harbour Week have built up great reputations for offering great sailing, not necessarily on championship style courses, plus that valuable but equally intangible 'something more', along with a holiday atmosphere makes these events fun for all the family.

An even better example has to be the ever-popular Salcombe Week for the Merlins, an event that consistently sells out a 120+ entry (more than double the number for the Nationals). From the sailing perspective, Salcombe has to be the polar opposite of the 'championship' ethos, with a fixed start line that really is set in stone (the pin is on the opposite cliff face) that you cross in either a northerly or southerly direction.

The courses require proper navigation, as they take boats around the harbour in a manner that is about as far from the sterile windward-leeward as it is possible to get. Teams either sail in the morning, or the afternoon, but not both, with the result that a great time is had by all.

So different is Salcombe that in the coming months YachtsandYachting.com want to investigate further the phenomena that is Salcombe Week, to see if there are lessons there that other events could learn from.

One thing though is certain: it doesn't matter if the event is a degree-perfect open water course, or a day spent trying to work out the windshifts in the infamous 'Bag' at Salcombe, the best sailors will still win, which is only right and proper.

However, it is that missing fun factor that is something else again, for if we want our sport to rebuild with new growth in the post-pandemic era, it will be through fixing the enjoyment experience far more than by ensuring that the beat is exactly true, with the race duration managed to the minute.

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