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The State of Play of Sailing

by Mark Jardine 5 Sep 2023 16:00 BST
2023 Rolex Fastnet Race - Chris Sheehan's PAC 52 Warrior Won rounds the Fastnet Rock at dawn this morning © ROLEX / Carlo Borlenghi

As I sit in my office on a balmy September morning, wondering why summer started on the same day as the meteorological calendar says that it was the start of autumn in the UK, I was thinking about the state of play in sailing, and I see a situation which is just as confused as the weather...

In my role as Managing Editor of Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com I get to hear about a huge amount of global sailing: what's working, what isn't, how clubs and classes are faring, which events are booming, and which are on their knees, and it's fair to say the picture is mixed.

Post-Covid we saw the initial boom of people getting out on the water or reconnecting with it if they'd been away. The good news is that many have continued to embrace the on-the-water lifestyle, but this often isn't in the 'traditional' sailboat racing environment. Overall, that shouldn't entirely matter, as long as they are active sailors, and become engrained in their local sailing and yacht clubs. Racing is something sailors can dip in and out of, and doesn't have to be the be-all and end-all. That said, what we see most of are the reports from racing events, so that's where my focus will be today.

For many years we've kept track of UK National Championship attendance, trying to accurately log the number of boats to start at least one race during a championship. Through this we see some clear trends, such as the rise in the past decade of the RS200 and Supernova, the slow demise in the Enterprise and 505 classes, resurgences of the Scorpion, RS400, Europe and ILCA classes, and the steady attendances in the Solo, Finn, 2000, 29er, RS Feva and Blaze classes, to name but a few.

But this only tells one story, in one country, in one section of our sport. As we all know, sailing is multifaceted and enjoyed the world over. The table could be regarded as a bellwether for individual classes, but even then there are a multitude of reasons for variation. Why does the Merlin Rocket attract over a hundred dinghies for Salcombe Merlin Week, but only 27 for its National Championship, for example?

National and International Championships also rely on sailors travelling to events, which many don't do, so again it is a crude marker of the health of a particular class. Many classes with low championship and open meeting attendance are widely sailed in club racing. While owners may not be a member of a class association, they are often sailing more actively than someone doing the circuit of opening meeting and championship events.

Club racing had the potential to be the big winner with travel now more expensive. There have been some clubs who have diversified their offering, and are seeing the highest attendances they've ever had, and membership booming. Others have continued with outmoded practices and are unwilling to embrace change. There is no 'one size fits all' answer for the clubs in trouble, but the Future of Sailing webinars, while recorded pre-Covid, are as relevant today as they were then and provide a range of potential ideas.

Keelboat sailing events using handicapping rules also show a mixed picture. An event such as Cowes Week may be down on attendance, but other shorter duration events are up and thriving. This is often a reflection of how people want to use their valuable time when off work, and the idea of a full seven-day event can be daunting for even the most avid sailor, especially when the getting there, crew organisation and getting home are considered.

Doublehanded yacht sailing continues to grow around the world, particularly in Europe and Australia. The French are the kings and queens of shorthanded sailing, and it's no surprise that many of the best options for doublehanded racing comes from major French yards. JOG racing in the UK has many doublehanders, as does the RORC racing, while the CYCA is using its 2023/24 Two-handed Pointscore to further facilitate this growth in Australia.

Doublehanded keelboat sailing doesn't seem to have cost participation in fully crewed yacht racing. While during the later pandemic years having a reduced crew helped with 'bubbling' smaller crews, there has been growth in other types of yacht racing. Most noticeably this is in the big races, such as the Rolex Fastnet Yacht Race, where a record-breaking 450 yachts took part. Take a look at big events such as the Barcolana, Centomiglia, and of course the Rolex Sydney Hobart which saw 109 entrants in 2022, and you can see the demand is out there.

This week sees the 33rd edition of the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in the ultra-glamorous location of Porto Cervo, Sardinia. Open to yachts measuring 60 feet and above, with many yachts over double that length, this is an event for ultra-rich owners, and fully professional crews, sailing some of the most advanced and expensive race yachts in the world.

Many may ask why is this important, and how does it relate to my own sailing? In many ways these yachts and events are a world away from what most experience in their day-to-day sailing, but while there are such yachts, there are opportunities for careers in sailing outside of the Olympic and America's Cup pathways. Young sailors can see a route to continue doing what they love and get paid for it. That kind of aspiration is vital for sailing and means there is an entire industry servicing the mega yachts, meaning the career pathways are far wider than just the sailing itself.

I've deliberately steered away from talking about the Olympics, America's Cup and SailGP, as we give both those events a huge amount of coverage. The Paris Olympics involves 330 sailing athletes, and the current America's Cup and SailGP yachts now have minimal crew numbers, although the teams behind the scenes at each are extensive.

Overall, I believe sailing is in good shape. The picture is by no means universal, and it's very easy to point at an event with declining attendance and bemoan the situation, but for every one of these, I'll see two events which are doing well.

There's one vital element for increasing participation in sailing: enjoyment. If people go away from an event and say, "that was fun," then they'll come back for more. It's a premise that is all too easy to forget with all the processes necessary to host an event, but should be front and centre at all times.

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

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