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The Morning Sun when it's in your face really shows your age (Sailing shouldn't be ageist)

by Dougal Henshall 29 Oct 2023 12:00 GMT
The bright sun illuminating the lowrider Moths © Dougal Henshall

Sailing shouldn't be ageist, not for sailors or for boats

Taking the positive feedback that was received as the main metric, it seems a pretty fair assessment that the recent article on the state of the UK domestic dinghy scene struck something of a chord with a number of classes and individuals. In article terms this has to be classed as a 'result', as merely by creating the debate the lid has been lifted on a topic that has long been a leading topic around the clubhouse bar.

Just to recap, the article made clear that the observable downward trends are by no means set in stone, as classes as diverse as the Osprey, Europe, Firefly, ILCA/Laser and Scorpion have been able to demonstrate.

Yet, at the same time, you don't have to look that hard to see the flip side of all this, with a number of classes that seem blinkered by the "we're alright Jack" mentality that will ultimately see them in the long grass of the elephant's graveyard section of the dinghy park.

One of the main arguments in the previous article was that the Class Association structure, which had been such a positive force for good in the golden era (when the supply of new boats and gear struggled to keep up with demand) has proven less adept at managing the years of decline. One of the key factors at work here is that loss of contact with the majority of sailors who traditionally form the middle of the fleet.

Instead, the structure became focused on the elite minority that populate the international and national scene, with sadly this often being at the expense of those who sail the boat for love, for fun and the friendship that they enjoy with others of a like mind.

This focus on the numbers attending the annual championships attracted some of the less positive feedback, with the suggestion being that using Nationals attendance wasn't per se a good indicator of the underlying health of the class, even though the same criteria were applied equally across the piece to all the classes that got a name check. Those classes that saw a marked dip in their fortunes as they went to an unpopular venue, maybe at a time that clashed with other events or school holidays, have to recognise that this too is the result of that limited top-down 'focus on the few'.

The second half of my article looked in more detail at what could be described as a 'worked example' of how to get things right, as the Scorpions have shrugged off the lean years to bounce back as a powerhouse of the domestic two-person dinghy scene in the UK. Just how successful they have been could be viewed by the fact that they had more entries out for their crews race than another well-known stalwart of this genre managed for their Nationals!

Indeed, so successful have they been that if you want to join them for next year's bash at Castle Cove, the chances are that you'll have to join the wait list as the 100-boat limit has already been reached! The Scorpions should also be congratulated for their longer-term foresight, as they've managed to secure a number of competitive boats that will be campaigned at the Nationals by younger sailors, thus sowing the seeds for the future legacy of the class.

One of the other classes featured in the article were the lowrider International Moths, who have also shown such a forward-looking acceptance of many of the key themes that were explored; they too should now be used as a second 'worked example'.

Incredibly, not only do they lack the status of being a fully formed class in their own right (as they're a spin off from the mainstream foiling Moth scene) but in theory they shouldn't really be around at all. Once the Moths sprouted wings and foiled away into the distance, those boats that were rooted to the surface of the water were deemed obsolete with a capital 'O'.

This was nothing new for the Moths, for this was a class that had evolved further and faster than any of the other so called 'development' classes, with the final generation of narrow hulls as far ahead of the conventional boat shaped variants of earlier years, as they were lagging behind the foilers.

Moreover, with their ultra-light construction (there's never been a minimum weight limit in the Moths) their hulls were never built with the expectation of having much in the way of long-term robustness. In the pre-carbon days one boat was even built with a core of cardboard honeycomb, which offered lightness, stiffness and a disaster once water leaked between the inner and outer skins!

And yet, despite the odds being seemingly stacked against them, the lowriders haven't just held their ground but are flourishing in a way that many of the accepted traditional classes can only look at with envious eyes. Applying that same entry size metric as before, the Moths were attracted in numbers to the bright light that was Burton Sailing Club for what must surely be one of the last championships of the UK's 2023 season.

But as the saying goes, 'beware the ides of March', which in sailing terms highlights the risks that are attendant when holding an event very early or late in the season. With a mid-October Nationals, you could easily get one of the dreaded equinox storms or the alternative of a chilly mist of autumn, which was just what greeted the 30 Moths at Burton; they managed to get a day of each.

The Saturday was always breezy but by later in the afternoon conditions had reached the official 'brutal' level that saw more boats capsized at one point than were still sailing. It was breezy enough for boatbuilder Ian Ridge, another Moth sailor with previous 'form' in the class back in the 1980s, to say that this was the "fastest he had been downwind in a Magnum for many a long year"!

The flighty Moths have never been the easiest of options to work around a course, and it says much of how this fleet has matured that there wasn't much in the way of damage, despite many of the boats being classed as senior citizens of the dinghy world.

Day 2 was a very different matter indeed, dawning to a morning that was bright and sunny, but frosty enough for ice to have formed in the boats. All to often these conditions end up as windless drifters until later in the day, but from early on light breeze that was full of shifts and variations in pressure promised an immediate if chilly start. Happily, these conditions would be better suit some of the older designs that wriggled their way around the course from windshift to windshift.

This made for a classic championship in every sense of the word, both in the boats and in the sailing.

Once again though, and just as with the Scorpions, the lowrider Moths have cracked the two big barriers to participation, as they've retained the fun factor with a very big F, plus they've sorted out the issue of accessibility. The designs at Burton were spread over a period of more than three decades and ranged from Moths that 'looked like boats', specifically early Cherubs, to the slab-sided low volume hulls that started life as lowriders before being given wings to become the first generation foilers.

The concern was that the speed differential between these two forms of Moth (that would go on to bookend so much development) might even defeat the best efforts of the PY system. This prompted the class to adopt the best possible practice of going for the 'thick slice, thin slice' methodology. The thick slice saw the boats divided into three divisions, starting with the older, wing-less hulls, then the intermediate winged versions and finally the super narrow boats with their high tech rigs.

Lowrider Moth Nationals 2023 Handicap results:

PosSail NoDesignHelmClubRatingR1R2R3R4R5R6Pts
1st3029Hungry TigerPaul HignettLoch Lomond Sailing Club9801811429
2nd3909Magnum 6Lyndon BeasleyGreensforge SC1080625 3319
3rd3950Magnum 9Kevin HopeNotts County SC10103.5523131124.5
4th3663Magnum IIISimon AllenMengeham Rythe SC1115101857425
5th4043Axeman 7Martin HarrisonRoyal Victoria Yacht Club9803.510445925.5
6th4026Axeman 6Nigel WilliamsBartley SC98059328.51227.5
7th4282MistralGraham CooperBradford on Avon SC1130113666829
8th3891Magnum 7Graham HughesHayling Island SC1080126778.5735.5
9th3887Magnum 6Ian MarshallBowmoor SC108024DNF 2644
10th3222Stockholm SpriteTom FoxallGreensforge SC112097  1148
11th4040Hungry TigerJohn EdwardsBurton SC / Abersoch SC980713108111349
12th3017Hungry TigerGeorge EdwardsBurton SC / Abersoch SC980131299171960
13th3931Magnum 6Ian RidgeHamble River SC108014   101094
14th2022Little Wing (modified)David BalkwillCN Mazerolles99018DNF11 211595
15th9303Hungry TigerChris JonesFelixstowe Ferry Sailing Club9801714  161895
16th3330Skol 3Hugh DyerBarnt Green Sailing club1130    125107
17th4014SkippyKatie HughesLoch Lomond Sailing Club1000811    109
18th3920Magnum 8Sam BarkerNantwich and Borders SC1060 15  1817110
19th2994Hungry TigerAndy GeorgeBurton SC98016DNF12   118
20th4688Ultra Fat Bastard (UFB)John ButlerNotts County SC108019   1920118
21st3851Shelley Mk3 (mod)Tobias PortmanWhitefriars Sailing Club1135 DNF  1516121
22nd4060PredatorOliver WillisonBeaver Sailing Club9901516    121
23rd3936Pearce 2 ‑ Gentleman JimRichard ButlerShotwick Lake SC106020DNF  2222124
24th2893Magnum 5Simon PortmanWhitefriars Sailing Club1100    2021131
25th4046Hungry TigerRussell WheelerIOSSC980    DNF14134
26th2825Shelly Mk2Stuart ManderGreensforge SC1135DSQ   14 134
27th3634WarlockAmber BarkerNantwich and Borders SC1120    2323136
28th2974SkolVanessa Weedon‑JonesHunts1135      150
28th4033BodgeMike PainBurton SC1000 DNF    150
A Championship result that looks like any other... except it was worked out on PY.
Just how successful this was can be seen by the spread of different variants across the three divisions.

PYs had already been assigned to all entries, but the advantage of this enlightened approach was that the old Skols, Shelleys and Mistrals could enjoy their race within their own division, just as the Hungry Tigers and Axemen could get on with theirs out at the front of the fleet. At the same time, the corrected times were also applied across the whole fleet and a measure of how well things worked could be seen in the 'all in together' results on the Sunday, when Tom Foxall, sailing a borrowed boat, won both races.

It helps of course when the boat in question has that little extra spark of magic about it, courtesy of it being the National Championship winner back in 1972. A Stockholm Sprite, designed by Chris Eyre and built by master boatbuilder Dennis Trott, the boat survived the Saturday (not bad for a 50+ year old lady) and was serious quick on the Sunday as part of the middle category that was full of the many Mervyn Cook designed Magnums.

It says much of how the Magnums drove development of the Moth in that there were eight of them in the entry list, covering six different variants, with one notable result being for Simon Allen who bought a boat Thursday, rocked up on Friday and won a race on Saturday. Simon is just another of the many old names from yesteryear who have looked at the lowriders, seen the fun being had, and then rolled back the years by buying back into the class (another trait that they share with the Scorpions).

Also worthy of note was David Balkwill, who had travelled up from France (another nation with an good interest in the lowriders), nor should the efforts of class favourite Lyndon Beasley be forgotten, except that Lyndon might well want to forget the Sunday as he managed to kneel in the wrong place, breaking the deck, yet still went on to record a third place in the last race for second overall.

Despite the weather and any possible vagaries from the PYs, the best-sailed boats still packed the results, with Paul Hignett, who had been sailing Moths since the 1980s being a worthy champion - the fourth different name on the trophy in the last four years!

There was just so much of that 'something so right' ethos at Burton, not least in the fact that there were nine different Moth designs in the overall top ten, which encompassed all three categories and the full range of ages. Even more important was the span in competitor age, from a 70 plus year old to some sailors who are still at school and yet to take their big exams, with both genders going well out afloat.

It was interesting to seek these next generation Mothists out to ask what had attracted them to Burton, and it came as no surprise that the answer was little different today to what it was back in the early 1970s, when the Moths (and the National 12s and Cherubs) were the go-to classes for fun-seeking teenagers.

The Moths are fun, exciting and 'cool' (this was my choice of terminology - I'm sure using words like cool makes anything automatically uncool for today's younger sailors but... it all means the same thing) and when compared to the pathway options that other teenage sailors seem to be shoehorned in to, just offers so much more in the way of cost-effective individualist choice... and fun (that F word again!).

As someone who was at the event as a working observer, it is hard to fault the steps taken by the lowriders to build themselves up from what had been a pretty flimsy baseline. The problem they now face is on how to kick on to the next stage, as the days of barn find boats that can be restored are getting fewer and fewer, plus many of those early boat finds have tired cascamite glue joints, making them a labour of love to restore.

Already there has been talk of making a mould so that new hulls could be produced using modern techniques, with one possibility focusing on the Magnum VI which has the advantage of being a great all-round boat. Meanwhile, over in the unwinged division, Graham Cooper was catching the eye with his beautifully finished all wood Mistral design. A deeply vee'd hull form, the Mistral has the advantage of being one of the easiest boats to build at home, which the previous owner had done to produce a very pretty yet robust hull.

Once again the organising team came up with a sensible PY given that this was a 'new' boat, but that over-riding intention of accessibility meant that Graham was able to compete on a level playing field with the rest.

In a way, it helps the lowriders that there is such a gap between even the later, super narrow boats, and the mainstream Moths of today, that there is nothing (as yet) of any intention in bringing the two worlds together. This may not be so easy for some other classes, who may find this question of 'what to do about the old boats' a trickier issue to address.

Some seem to follow the hard-core line that a Class 'X' is an 'X' irrespective of age, even though FRP hulls, high tech foils and carbon spars have resulted in a yawning gap between the current crop of modern boats and the vast majority that provide the bulk of the stock. This makes it awkward for people wanting to come into the class as they are forced to either buy from the limited supply of competitive secondhand boats or they end up with something that despite their best efforts, will never make the grade.

These older boats don't even have to fall into the classic dinghy category, as we're not talking wooden spars and cotton sails here, but a boat that was capable of front running less than 15 or 20 years ago, but is now a few percentage points off the pace.

Thanks then to the Moths, who have shown that it is perfectly possible to happily race their Championships on PY, with this bringing in the numbers, which now begs the question: could this be a solution for other classes to follow?

After all, there's no shortage of boats out there in the dinghy pounds across the UK, but instead classes seem destined to suffer from a dearth of entries to the big events and an overall lack of participation at class-specific events.

At this point you can almost feel the ire of 'Mr Angry Class Secretary of Sidmouth' reaching for his pen or keyboard to fire a blistering response to Y&Y, along the lines that as they are almost a foundation of our domestic dinghy scene and that such suggestions are heresy and a terrible idea, only for his next task being to find a club happy to host a Nationals for a sub-20 boat fleet.

So why not reach out to all those boats that have gone before, give them all an age related PY, better still, give everyone a PY and then get boats back out there, where they belong, sailing together.

The bottom line is that sailing is, at least for the sailors, a remarkably un-ageist sport and this should apply to the boats as well. Bringing the two together suggests that as long as you select a class that provides a nurturing welcome to the mid-fleet, whilst ensuring that the fun factor is preserved, then there is no reason whatsoever why the downward trend in numbers couldn't be halted or even reversed.

It isn't new boats that are needed, but a new mindset that will provide a broad-based pathway back to inclusion.

I'm sure that there will be those who look at the lowriders and see them as a one-off outlier, they were a fringe outfit back in the 1970s and to some minds are still one 50 years on. But they have done 'something so right' and through good communication and enthusiastic leadership have got their old boats out there and are now on the hunt for more.

In short, the model best shaped for the long-term future of a class has to be one that is based on inclusion of the 'a-lot' and not just pandering to the needs of the 'e-lite'.

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