November 9, 2014

A plea for simpler racing

KEN READ, PRESIDENT OF NORTH SAILS, got a lot of publicity earlier this year when he suggested that recreational sailboat racing should be simpler and more relaxed. His message, as relayed by the Scuttlebutt newsletter, was simple: The harder we play, and the more we invest in our recreation, the fewer the people who want to take part in the game.

This sounds very much like a plea for inexpensive one-design racing, of course, the sort of racing that I have always championed, where speed doesn’t really matter; the kind of racing where the skill of the crew is what counts, not how much you spent on a new mainsail or a scientifically faired keel.

I’m surprised that Ken Read should have taken this tack, because I would imagine that most of his business comes from dedicated racers and not from the owners of cruising boats, who are notorious for hanging on to sails for 25 years or more. But no doubt Mr. Read sees a bigger picture, one in which racing goes into a steep decline if the same few (rich) people keep winning all the time. I have seen this happen in a keelboat class where one skipper was simply better and more dedicated than the rest, so I know these things do happen. And if people stop racing, it’s not good for North Sails’ sales.

Read says that the people who organize sailboat racing exert a lot of energy to encourage a lot of people to do a lot of racing, but perhaps they’d get better results if they did a little tweaking of the status quo, and made racing more fun.

That makes sense, because many sailors are convinced that the only sensible thing to do with a sailboat is to race it against others of its class and size. They see no point in using a sailboat for anything else, except perhaps crossing and ocean or circumnavigating the globe. After all, if you want to go sailing in the West Indies you might as well fly there and hire a boat to do some gentle racing. What could be more fun — and wouldn’t it be cheaper in the long run?

Read cites the increasing popularity of rally and pursuit races and advises sailing committees not to keep postponing races until conditions are perfect. “People want to sail,” he said, “not float around waiting for perfect conditions.”

While he was at it, he handed out more similar advice:

Ø Stop worrying that the start line is off by 5 degrees; start the race.

Ø Get rid of uncomfortable gut hiking off the lower lifelines.

Ø Start some races downwind.

Ø Provide a variety of courses, not just windward-leeward.

Ø Involve youngsters more in sailing big boats; not all of them want to sail dinghies.

Ø Professional racers should be helping the amateurs by being available at regattas to give tips and guidance.

I wish Mr. Read a lot of luck with his campaign. Racing can be a lot of fun if it’s properly organized.  Simple rules, no protests, one-design boats, handy facilities for parking and rigging, short courses, clear instructions, and a place nearby for eating, drinking, and boasting afterward would be a good start. And finally, a simple system of dividing a large fleet into three groups, with beginners, medium skippers, and experienced skippers starting at five-minute intervals. And, finally, moving the perpetual winners backward a class and the perpetual losers forward a class, from race to race, until everybody has a reasonable chance of winning overall.

There’s one little snag, of course. Somebody has to do all the arranging and organizing. Sounds to me like a job for a sailmaker.

Today’s Thought
The leader must know, must know that he knows, and must be able to make it abundantly clear to those about him that he knows.
— Clarence B. Randall, Making Good in Management

 “Johnny, did you give your guppies some fresh water?’
“No Mom, they haven’t finished the water I gave them last week.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Unknown said...

John, Read Michalak's thoughts on why racing classes fail. You and he are onto something. Also Mik Storer, when he asked "where did all the sailing clubs go?"

John Vigor said...

Thanks, Unknown:

Boat design Jim Michalak's Soapbox thoughts on the subject are well worth reading:

John V.