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Something so right

by Dougal Henshall 13 Sep 2023 12:00 BST
2022 Scorpion Nationals at Looe day 5 © Lee Whitehead / www.photolounge.co.uk

I had planned that my next article was to be on the efforts - some clever, others futile - aimed at saving something of the heritage of our domestic dinghy development scene; worry not, this is still very much in the pipeline for future publication. But as I was doing my research, I came across an incredible article from that giant of sailing journalism, Jack Knights, that he wrote 49 years ago, at a time when the UK was, like now, in the grips of a financial crisis.

Jack's theme coldly set out that the golden age of dinghy racing had already had its day, and by the mid-1970s he felt that the writing was on the wall that after a quarter of a century of stellar growth in terms of clubs and classes, activity levels had peaked, with some key indicators already showing the first signs of a downward trend.

Jack wasn't just a clever, if at times acerbic writer, who 'didn't take many prisoners' with his articles but at the same time, he was also well-connected and informed and worked hard at his research, so his words were always worthy of note. He highlighted the 'arms races' in the development fleets that were in danger of leaving the majority behind, which then led on to the desperate need for more one-design fleets.

In practical terms, he was concerned that increasing fixture congestion in the domestic scene was causing double trouble. Too many events were being crammed into the schedule which diluted event entry size, whilst increasing the cost of remaining competitive and at the same time; this was clearly taking more and more boats and sailors away from the grassroots clubs scene.

His sharpest words were saved for the growing international activity: between them the shipping container and the Boeing 747 Jumbo had shrunk the world to the point where almost anyone could get themselves and their boats off to an exotic location for a regatta. World Championships then begat the regional events, such as European Championships and then, as Jack pointed out, things started to get silly! If the Worlds for a class were held in the Southern Hemisphere or in the US, then a Europeans was a good way of keeping the home fires burning.

Summer in the South saw major events being held over the festive break around Christmas and the New Year, but then classes would hold another Worlds just 6 months later in the Northern Hemisphere. Add in the Europeans, and for the real hopeful front runners it meant three major events in little more than a 12-month period (even as this was being written, a well-known international single hander was releasing details of just such a fixture schedule).

This was fine for the work teams and the well off, but for the domestically based mid-fleet sailor, the cost, both in time and financial terms, becomes harder to justify, plus there has to be questions asked as to the long-term sustainability of this number of events. As Jack Knights went on to point out, the situation needed some radical solutions, but instead, as the world markets reeled from the sudden increase in oil prices, sailing somehow still thought itself immune from these issues, thinking that it could ride out the storm and all would be well.

With the benefit of nearly 50 years of hindsight we can see that the failure to act then is having implications for the present, with the situation being made ever more painful as we are once again in the grasp of a financial downturn. One of the fundamental issues is that our understanding of the current position remains sketchy, with few looking beyond the obvious to see that the ills that are making dinghy racing into a poorly sport are far from the result of just a single cause.

Certainly, one factor that on the face of it is short term but comes complete with longer term trends that are becoming all the more apparent, is the impact of new and more extreme meteorological patterns. The weather, certainly here in the UK, has always been famously changeable, but now as climate change exerts an ever-greater influence on what we can becomes accustomed to, we can see how it isn't just the weather, but how we relate to it, that is influencing how and where we sail.

Some call it the WindGuru effect, where crews hold off from committing to an upcoming event until they are within maybe 72 hours from needing to hit the road, when the confidence factor in the weather forecasts reaches the point where you can say that "we will sail, we won't sail, or we may sail but it won't suit me".

This create a tricky situation for organising clubs, leaving them to face the quandary of continuing in the face of an unfavourable forecast or to take the 'nuclear option' and pull the plug before people have set out on their journeys, only for the weather on the day to be glorious!

In this respect the summer season of 2023 has been a bit like that game where the men kick their balls (ladies too now and very good they are at it), succinctly described by the great Jimmy Greaves, as a 'game of two halves'! The only problem with this is that, as the season moves into the autumn period, more records have been broken in the September heatwave, but with very light winds around our coasts, it might become a case of a 'game of three halves'!!

The first half of the season was hot, sunny and with almost zilch wind, with many of the top locations for sailing being more like the South of France than the home of dry suits and heavy weather sailing wear. Further south across Europe the heat was record breaking and even here in the UK we were setting new standards for the weather, albeit not in a positive way, as events such as the Moth Worlds at Weymouth drifted across a windless bay into the record books as a 'non-event'. Then, suddenly, it was all change, as low-pressure systems swept in from the Atlantic in an unbroken train, delivering torrential downpours and blasting breezes.

The Round the Island and Fastnet races looked to also set new records, but this time for the number of RNLI calls, whilst the dinghy events that did run were characterised by races being more about who finished rather than who was possibly the quickest. Sadly, July and then August would again be record breaking, but for all of the wrong reasons, as wind and lashing rain washed away any lingering hopes for a classic summer of summer sea breezes and champagne sailing.

Now for anyone who spent a valuable week or long weekend of their holiday sheltering from the rain in clothing that was more appropriate to late autumn, the talk of global warming might sound like a cruel joke but as we take a long, cool (long and cool, ergo the 2023 summer) look at the numbers, the trend indicate that the unexpected conditions have been the third part of a triple whammy that is akin to kicking someone when they're already down!

Add together the long-term downward direction of the sport, a cost-of-living crisis and then the worst of the summer weather, and together these just haven't been hard blows, there is a worrying fear that for some clubs and classes the damage done could ultimately be fatal. Even some of the most cherished, traditional names have shown a worrying vulnerability suggesting that without taking the sort of radical steps that Jack was talking about nearly a half century ago, that the drift off into the sunset of becoming a 'lost class' is a very real prospect.

Little wonder then that one well-known and previously popular class is already facing the harsh truth that the Class Association is facing the prospect of being wound up, with all that this implies.

To help our readers of more tender years, the title of this article, 'Something so right', was borrowed from the wonderful Paul Simon song of the same name, where the lyrics go on to say...
"they built a wall in China, it's a thousand miles long, to keep out the foreigners they made it strong".

This is a phrase that I'm again going to borrow, as bizarrely some of the classes that have been hit the hardest by the triple whammy are those who are most deeply entrenched behind their fixed mindsets, that seemed designed to ward off any attempts at new blood coming in to revitalise their scene.

'We are who we are, and we like it this way' may have worked in the past, but in the harsh commercial world of dinghy sailing today, dominated by the SMODs, this thought process from yesteryear goes some way towards helping to explain why some classes are in the state they are in!

Since the early days of the paper magazine Yachts & Yachting, the success of a season has usually been described using Championship attendance, the easiest understood common metric although, as we can see, sometimes the numbers fail to tell the whole story.

Yet, what is clear from even the most cursory look at the current year is that the entry size issue, the hard numbers, has resulted in a situation where to use yet another popular phrase, "there are lessons to be learnt" on what has worked, what hasn't worked and how much openness there has been to listen and make changes.

Clearly some have already listened and enjoyed a good, or even bumper year in 2023. The 29ers, Darts and OKs all cleverly built on their hosting a major championship in the UK, the challenge for them now will be on turning their 2023 success into a longer-term legacy that they can sail on into the future. In the same vein, the Ospreys have upped interest in their class as they enjoy their 70th anniversary, with them clearly showing their status as the top domestic dog in what is one of the hardest genres in sailing, the non-skiff performance boat, for this is the area that has seen the greatest loss on critical mass over the last 40 years.

Coming down a level, the all-important domestic scene continues to be dominated by the still growing success of the RS200, which is well on its way to the sort of entry numbers that used to be the hallmark of the Enterprise, Merlin and GP14 back in the golden era, whilst the RS400 showed that it too can still pull in the numbers for a bumper year, as can the venerable Firefly.

The usual suspects in the singlehanders, the Solos and Supernovas, continue to apparently float above the wider problems for the sport, whilst the Blaze and Finn show that there's still space for the pie eaters in a dinghy. For the lesser framed, the success story that is the revival in fortunes for the Europe rolls on, with this being just one example that some classes could do well to look at to see if they too could adopt some of their ideas.

To this august list of classes getting a 'well done' we should also add the K1, another boat that enjoys niche status (when it is not being a handicap bandit) to show that it has the pulling power to attract a 50+ entry to the Nationals.

But as to lessons that can be learnt, the first and most obvious is the same as in retail: location, location, location. Yet even this has become something of a dual-edged sword, as falling entry sizes can result in fewer clubs wanting to go through all the upheaval of hosting an event for what will end up as a reduced financial reward.

The second lesson is that those classes that are managing the current situation the best have made inclusivity a virtue, though this may just be a posh way of say 'look after the middle of your fleet' as all the signs suggest that this is increasingly a key ingredient towards a longer-term existence as a viable fleet.

Finally, the role of the class association and how they communicate, to and from their membership, plus how they promote themselves externally, has to be at heart of everything that is going on. During the research for this article, I was with two different classes, and in both cases sailors had joined the association, paid their dues, but heard nothing since. Most classes insist on Association membership to compete at events, but for the occasional mid-fleeter, it is easy to question "why bother" with the result being another 'lost' sailor.

But in terms of lessons that can be learnt, the Lowrider Moths continue to pull in not just the class faithful but also a new raft of members thanks to a glossy and well informed magazine/yearbook. What makes this so good is that it is outward looking, rather than simply being a celebration for the closet circle of insiders: simply saying that 'it is online' does little to make the mid-fleet feel that they belong.

One class that has yet to be mentioned is certainly worth looking at in more detail, as it provides an insight into pretty much everything that has been said so far. On the face of it, the Scorpions are a class that could so easily have been marginalised by the other big hitters in that mid-range two-person hiking dinghy scene, not to mention getting squeezed out by the RS200/400 bandwagon. And for a while, this really did look to be the looming fate for the Scorpions, with declining numbers, a bank balance that would get lesser souls 'debanked' and a set of prospects that seemed anything but bright.

Instead, the fortunes of the class were turned around in quite dramatic fashion, thanks to the force of nature that was a couple of the leading characters in the class association. They didn't have to look very far to see what was wrong, so they set about making it right again. Interest in the Scorpion all but boomeranged, new boats were built, yet care was being taken to ensure that the existing wooden hulled boats were still right up there with their newer FRP sisters.

Visitors to the RYA Dinghy Show at Alexander Palace can hardly forget the stunning 'Tallulah', the boat that won the Concours prize at a canter! (See Returning Tallulah gets her bottom wet to win the 2020 Concours d'Elegance.)

It took time but from a low point of just 33 entries for their championships, the numbers soon bounced back to place them comfortably onto the 50+ list and such is the atmosphere around the fleet that people who had left the Scorpion Class in years gone by are now casting around for a boat so that they can rejoin the fun.

Ahh... fun! Like beauty, this can so often be in the eye of the beholder, but somehow the Scorpions have capitalised on it, building it into their package to the point that their week-long championship is more akin to an event in the mid-1970s. There's still plenty of sailing to be done, but this is a fleet that has a time and place for everything and everybody.

Little wonder then that when a well-known top sailor was asked why he was with the Scorpions, when there were other, potentially higher profile events that could have taken his time, his answer was straightforward! This was where he could have more fun!

Such is the growing strength of what the class has to offer that even though this year had seem them go for a championship venue that was outside of the normal 'run' of popular locations, they still managed to generate an event that ticked all the boxes. It helped that the host club, Eastbourne, went out of their way to 'push the boat out' (and to lift boats back in, as the shore break there isn't for the faint hearted) with great food, sensibly priced beer and the chance to watch what was happening afloat from the terrace, all of which were important factors that help make this both a championship and a holiday week.

The use of a line of Scorpion shaped cut-outs, showing spinnaker colours and sail number, that were arranged after racing each afternoon to show where everyone was in the fleet, was a cracking move that added to the overall enjoyment and that sense of being a part of the event, wherever you might have finished.

It was hardly the fault of the club that the winds and tides conspired to create a course setup that was even more one sided than Lake Garda, with the proof of this being on one afternoon I was stood up on the foredeck of the media boat between races. A well-known helm sailed up alongside and asked me "what does it look like from up there?"

It might well sound like a cheap soundbite, but like so many jesting words there was an underlying truth in my reply. "Come out of the gate as late as you can, tack, then don't tack back again until you're close enough in to count the pebbles on the beach". I'm pleased to say that he followed these sage words and was well up there at the first mark, but in truth, it was one of those days where there really was only one way to go.

Despite this, probably a bigger decider was the wind itself, with a couple of days of racing when the breeze kicked up a short, cresting sea that made for some brutal conditions. Another of the plus points of the Scorpion is that it happily carries a wide range of crew weights, but these were the conditions for the bigger crews when for once they could use those kilos to a winning advantage.

The downwind legs were wild, with the boats fizzing along, prompting another sailor (who has his name on more silverware than most) to say afterwards that this was "the quickest I have ever been downwind in a Scorpion", yet despite all this, there was little damage done throughout the fleet.

What is even more amazing is that after the wind and waves of Eastbourne, for 2024 the Scorpion class will be returning to one of their favourite venues at Weymouth (and it really IS Weymouth, not Portland, for the host club is none other than Castle Cove).

The club have set an entry limit of 100 boats and with 11 months still to go before the first warning signal, there are but 4 places left before any subsequent names get put onto the wait list.

A 100-boat entry for a 65-year-old, traditional two-hander is about as far from the earlier doom and gloom as it is possible to be, plus it is living (floating?) proof that a good boat doesn't stop being a good boat just because the circumstances have changed.

Clearly there are lessons here that can be learned for some of our other 'traditional' classes, but the question will be if they are to heed them or not. Yet for domestic dinghy racing, as a populist participation sport, to not just survive, but to prosper, the evidence from the Scorpions (and the Europes amongst some other notable examples) is clear!

It isn't new boats that we need, as the old ones might actually end up being better than some of their more modern counterparts.

What is needed is a rethink on the overall package that classes offer to ALL of the fleet, with fun and something for everyone (that mid-fleet situation again) at good venues and, above all, communication, that makes people feel that they are a part of something good. This may sound simple, but it is amazing how hard it is to achieve.

And yet, the evidence from those who are delivering 'something so right' surely tells us that the rewards are there, with Castle Cove and Hayling (host for the Europes in 2024) being proof of just how good being right can be!

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