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Ladders! David Henshall discusses ways of increasing sailing participation

by Dougal Henshall 27 Jun 2018 11:00 UTC
Fear not! © BBC

Those of you who regularly follow some of the more in-depth articles that feature on the website might have noticed that over the past year there has been something of a theme being developed.

The series started with a look at the ageist aspect of dinghy sailing, before asking if the changing nature of the sport had taken that all-important element of 'Fun' out of the pastime. This acceptance that the reality of change was not only widespread but increasing in pace was then refocused with an investigation on the problems that the PY system was having in trying to keep up with the developments that are happening in the dinghy scene, before the last article which painted a rather sad picture of the current downward trends that are becoming all to visible.

Given the way the numbers were looking, that last piece of writing was titled 'Snakes' - with a sub headline of "we're all doomed". This of course prompted the expected replies that Class A or Club X was in robust health with unprecedented levels of activity in the youth squad, despite the article explaining in some detail that as yet, there is nothing in the way of a discernible link between previous levels of youth sailing and later participation amongst adults.

Sadly, since that last work was published, more statistical evidence has surfaced that suggests that the talked of 'cliff edge' that dinghy racing is drifting towards could be even more precipitous and for some, terminal, that had been previously feared. Too many of the administrators of the sport seem blind to these growing issues, preferring instead to focus on what are mere side shows, such as the make-up on the Olympic regatta, whilst ignoring more fundamental failings that are eating away support at the grassroots level. It's not as if the situation is a well-kept secret, as for anyone who has an interest as to what direction out sport is heading in, Liz Rushall's excellent piece of critical analysis (first seen at the RYA Dinghy Show, then in the online webinar) took a well-researched and very illuminating look at the future of small boat sailing.

Yet even though all these available (and widely accepted) metrics paint a worrying picture of a future sport very different to the one we enjoy today, there could still be a different outcome, hence the title of this article being 'Ladders' – or "I have a cunning plan, my Lord!" As Liz pointed out in her talk, in classic Darwinian theory, it is not the strongest nor the most intelligent species that survive, but those that are most adaptable to change; in this respect sailing is no different. Those areas of the sport that are happy and/or willing to recognise the totality of the changing environment and adapt accordingly, can have a future. Those that try to cling stubbornly to their past glories might well face a very uncertain future. As was made clear in 'Snakes' small boat sailing has already been through a mass extinction event back in the 1950s and there is plenty to suggest that another may soon happen, yet 'Ladders' will hopefully point the way to a brighter future.

There are probably more 'lost classes' than current ones. Some of those now described as 'moribund' were actually household names in their day! There is an upside though, with the first green shoots of new activity having been busily growing for a number of years now. Little more than a generation ago, sailing stopped at Christmas with the liquid fuelled antics of the laying up supper, before the majority of sailors went into hibernation for three months until the more restrained 'Fitting Out' bash heralded in a new season. Today though, those same winter months see some of our most intense dinghy racing activity, with the headline acts being hosted courtesy of the Great Lakes/Sail Juice series. Even with a colder-than-average winter, the number of entrants continues to grow, whilst at the same time spin-off series such as that now running down in the South West show that for this genre of sailing at least, the only way is UP! Building on this major success has been an idea that has been mooted for some time now, with an extension of the SailJuice Series being suggested to encompass summer sailing.

This could dovetail in neatly with another area of buoyancy for the sport which can be found with the growth of the family-focused sailing week. At locations around our coasts, from Chichester Harbour to the Camel Estuary, Pyfleet to Abersoch, or all the way north to Loch Tummel, on-shore fun, time for the family and some serious sailing are all blended together to create an enjoyable, viable alternative to the hackneyed and often dated 'attractions' of a championship.

How long will it be before a day or weekend of these already attractive events gets the added cachet of being designated as part of a high-quality summer series along the lines of the Great Lakes winter events? Given the changing dynamics of our sport, some of the arguments in favour of creating such a series are hard to counter. Previous articles have highlighted the age profile of sailors, many of whom are forced to balance their wish to be afloat with the demands of being a modern parent. Blending the best of these events together could go a long way to ensuring that high quality, competitive racing can still take place whilst the needs of the family are not being overlooked.

Yet another often overlooked trend is the increasing resistance expressed by many sailors to their spending all day somewhere out over the horizon, just to get a couple of races in. This may not be a concern for the semi-pro sailors, the parachuted-in hired guns that increasingly pack out the front of the fleet, with one avenue of research suggesting that this is having a direct impact on the numbers of mid-fleet sailors attending events. With the expressed sentiment that they have little chance of having a good day and getting amongst the chocolates, it is the loss of these mid-fleet numbers that should be a primary worry for classes as they plan their events. The front of the fleet is now a transient population, the back of the fleet is populated by the "I'll sail this class till I die" stalwarts but there could be a very real danger that there will be a yawning gap where the mid-fleet used to be.

An example of how to avoid this can be seen with the Supernova fleet, who over the last few seasons have enjoyed bumper attendance at their events. Forward-looking changes to the boat have certainly been a factor here, as has the wonderful support from a committed builder, but there are those who point to participation in the class being helped by the fact that the fleet is made up of people who are genuine, all year round Supernova sailors! With builder-supported Class Associations becoming ever more 'marketing focused', there is a danger that - whilst inviting big name pro-sailors to events can give a nice short-term headline - in the longer term, it can deter the very people that you want to impress. Be it politics, sailing, revolutions or whatever, the historical examples all point to the loss of the middle as being a major factor in a later downfall!

With the decline in numbers comes an almost inevitable drop away in that rather intangible 'event enjoyment' factor, with sailors left racing against the same old faces, event after event. Bigger fleets don't just mean better racing afloat, as a 50+ boat event can always generate an on shore après sail buzz. But when the numbers of entries dip below 20, the onshore activities start to become very parochial and unattractive. No wonder events such as the RS Games are such an attraction, with lots of helms and crews from different classes all mixed in together having a great deal of fun!

There are also other attractions in having a class 'event' within the wider activity of a larger, well-organised race meeting. With the Sail Juice series being run on a Great Lakes handicap basis, it is easy to extract out the results at the end. And with everything set up to run under the handicap umbrella, there is nothing stopping the development classes (and others) from applying age-related PY numbers to the boats to give a second set of numbers; you have the main 'first past the post' results for the seriously committed, then a second set of results, calculated using handicaps, that could allow the owners of older boats to feel that they still belong to the class, rather than being left on one side thanks to their designs being obsolete.

Nor is it just the development classes that could go down this route, as many of our one-designs have undergone changes (such as the introduction of FRP) that have left significant numbers of otherwise serviceable and raceable boats behind. Until now the mantra, normally expressed by class organisers (who are more often than not sailing the state of the art boats) is that "we are one class and will race as such". This though ignores the realities of what has happened in our sport; all Merlins may well be equal, but patently some are more equal than others!

However the issue is approached, nominating a number of days at various summer events as counting towards a 'summer series' stacks up even more plus points. The conventional thinking that underpins class-specific planning calls for the fleet to decamp to a location that may... or may not be a popular venue. Get this one element wrong and the numbers can plummet downwards alarmingly, as was seen when one well established class enjoyed a three figure plus entry on the south coast, only to sink to just 50% of that number the following year when they moved to the east coast, despite the event being superbly organised and run afloat and ashore.

Then there is that dreaded modern phenomenon of the 'WindGuru effect', when sailors delay entering an event until such time that they can confirm that the conditions will make for an acceptable standard of racing. Not too light, not too windy, staying dry, sunny if possible, with the alternative being to stay at home to do things with the family and save the 'sailing pass' for another day when conditions are more attractive. It's hard to argue with the rationale behind this, when one hears the stories of families who have decamped en masse to a supposed holiday destination in support of dad or mum (or both). The expense of taking the family away when doing an event can be eye-watering and if the conditions keep you all ashore (or worse – you spend the whole day afloat and still fail to get a race in) then it really is worth asking the question "is there not a better way of doing this?".

Every idea has both good and bad points and the dread prospect of sharing your racing with everything from Fevas to Flying Fifteens is easily understandable. Sadly, it is a reality of the modern situation that classes that used to be able to figure in the 50+ Nationals attendance listings and could therefore expect a warm welcome at many of the prime locations are now increasingly restricted as to where they can aim for. Clubs have also had to reflect these changes, with an acceptance that with a few exceptions three-figure fleets are a thing of the past and even 50 boats now constitutes a good turn-out. The response to this has been the rise of the multi-class event, with two, or even three or four small classes coming together to create that all important critical mass. Some classes already have a long history of sharing events with a preferred partner, whilst others go through the Class Association version of speed-dating as they look for the right partner at the right event and location.

If there is one stand-out example of this enhanced level of co-operation, then it can be seen not at a sailing club near you but at the Yacht Club de Carnac in Brittany. In recent years there has been a growth in the popularity of 'event tourism' that sees like-minded classes such as the Lark and Merlin Rocket, who between them do not have any international aspirations, heading south across the Channel for a long weekend of sailing fuelled by cidre, crepes and seafood. Others have made the longer trip into Europe, making the pilgrimage to the fabled windspot of the Italian Lakes. Expensive, time-consuming yet offering truly champagne sailing in the sun, the attractions of these events might add a new dimension to the jaded pleasures of yet another trip to the South/South West coasts, but just as with the idea of a Summer Juice series, these events come with a wider cost to the class. One of the reasons for poor National attendance last year was that otherwise regular supporters of some classes had already used up a significant chunk of their holiday entitlement doing a 'bash abroad'!

But if this is now seen as an acceptable solution to the numbers problem, why not take things one stage further and merge together some of the functionality required by the various classes? A small group of like-minded classes, working together as one, could provide an innovative alternative to how things have been done in the past. This may look at first viewing to be a radical and unpalatable solution, but if it helps stabilise the future of a number of classes, it might well be that it is at the very least worthy of consideration. It was Benjamin Franklin back in the mid 1700s who coined the phrase that it was better to hang together, the alternative being that they would surely hang separately. In many ways this could be the scenario that both classes and clubs could find themselves in; consolidate and they might stand a chance but with the alternative being to stay standing alone, where changes to the demographics and social context of sailing will see them suffer a lonely fate.

If the Sail Juice Series, be that for summer or winter sailing, is really going to become an increasingly dominant feature of the dinghy racing landscape, then implicit within this has to be an acceptance that the future will see more, rather than less, in the way of racing under some form of handicapping system. As was pointed out in the "I am not a number" article back in November, the current system has barely evolved beyond what was in use 60 or more years ago. That there could be a system out there just waiting to be developed is a far from fanciful notion as already we're seeing tidal correction factors creeping into the more enlightened sea clubs, with other forms of dynamic handicapping also moving beyond the conceptual phase. From here it is but a small jump to weather-related or even a combination of weather and course-related dynamic PY setting that really will support the idea of the best-sailed boat finishing first, rather than a good boat in those particular conditions. These ideas may still be in their infancy, but it has always been the case that necessity certainly drives invention. If there is enough need for a better solution, one will be found.

Once it is, then there really is nothing to stop largely similar boats all sailing together in the 'small non-trapeze single hander group' that could accommodate everything from Comets to Lightnings, via Bytes, Europes and everyone else who fits into that envelope, or the '14ft non-trapeze two handed with spinnaker group'. As the event is already being run under a handicap system, then not only may an idea along these lines stop the rot, but by encouraging older boats that would otherwise not travel to events to attend, further inflate numbers.

They say that there is nothing new in the world and in truth, ideas along these lines have been tried before in the guise of the 'Fast Sail' initiative some years back. In a recent interview, Andy Rice, the prime mover behind the SailJuice Series, paid homage to how Fast Sail had been a catalyst for his own plans for a future series. Clearly there has been a latent demand for change within the sport that is only now reaching the point where something has to happen.

And happen it will, no matter if we like the idea of change or not. Talk of 200+ boat fleets of Enterprises or 100 and more 505s turning out for a weekend of World Championship are important reminders of where we have been, but they no longer have any relevance as to where we might go looking ahead to the future. It may well be that the future shape of sailing will see it meaner, leaner, lighter and faster with a higher excitement factor than is currently the case. There may be fewer clubs, more 'pay and play' and a totally different approach to the current class structure. All of the above are possible, but to get there will not be without pain, as those institutions that try to resist the encroachment of new ideas and thinking finally get swept away.

There is a popular saying amongst those of a certain generation, that if you yearn for the 1960s then you probably weren't even there in the summer of love. Beads, joss-sticks, polyester shirts, flares and a Ford Cortina might be the very stuff of nostalgia, but in truth they weren't all they were made out to be and in the same way, nor was that oft-talked about golden era for dinghy racing. We've been there, done that and some of us may still have the 'make love not war' t-shirts rolled up at the back of a drawer. Dinghy racing has grown up, not grown old, meaning that it's time to move on and look at the world through something other than flowery glasses. In the end, the future of the sport will be what we make it, but that has to be better than it sinking into a minority, obscure sport.

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