Friendly feedback: The Current State of the Sport

Published on June 20th, 2013

The report ‘You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here?‘ published on June 19, 2013 was initiated when Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck received a letter from David M. McClatchy, Jr., where Dave was reflecting on how the sport of sailing had changed through the course of his lifetime, and was curious what others thought of this evolution…

* Why did it happen and when did it so that we moved away from sailing point-point?
* Ditto, government marks?
* Now, W-L’s?
* Today’s, “Paperclips”?
* And now, 3-4 races a day in big boats?

“Near as I can tell,” said Craig, “for those sailing regions that have seen a similar evolution that Dave describes, what we have now is a microcosm of what might be wrong with the sport. I believe this is the unintended consequences from the pursuit of perfection.”

The full response can be read here, which prompted the following letters, received in the order listed below…

From David M. McClatchy, Jr:
I raced big boats, racer cruisers that worked well for cruises and overnight races to distance races, e.g., Annapolis-Newport and Bermuda. It was a lot of fun. But the world changed when we went to Windward-Leewards because it exacted such a paramount amount of precision by the crew.

What followed next is that the crews had to practice given crew work was such an important part of the puzzle. And on top of that you then needed 12 for a 45’ boat. Well, to get 12 amateurs out to practice was tough but absolutely necessary if one wanted to win. And who likes to practice? And take another day to do that when you wanted to go racing?

I stopped because it was no longer fun. And here I am a month ago doing R/C work for NOOD and we are running Cal 25’s. Alberg 30’s, J 30’s and other “good old’ boats” on precise paperclips and we are “rolling” the starts, i.e., using both sides of the Signal Boat to start and finish races at the same time. Time for lunch? No way!

From Gene Rankin:
OK, I’ll bite. I didn’t start sailing or racing until I was in my early 30s, even though I’d read everything I could get my hands on (including all the ‘Hornblower’ books) from age 12.

Then I joined the University of Wisconsin Hoofers Sailing Club in 1970 at age 30, and discovered racing Tech dinghies. That led to bumming my way around the SORC in ’71, ’72, and ’74) and to the then-new Intl. 470. I did well enough (though I held down a full-time job throughout), travelled the national circuit and won a few regattas, ended up qualifying for the Olympic Trials in 1976. At the Trials I ended up where I should have, in the bottom half of the fleet. The top guys basically did nothing but race for a couple of years leading to the Trials, and it showed.

During the same years I raced big boats out of Chicago in the Great Lakes, doing course races and point-to-points (over 10 Chi-Macs, a Super-Mac, a Trans-Superior) and finally quit in ’90 when our daughter was born (premature, her mom with cancer).

I resumed on my retirement in ’06. By “resumed” I mean mostly cruising, teaming up with former 470 competitors to move their boat across the Med, across the Atlantic and in the Carribbean, but I also (with others) did the ’08 South China Sea race as nav/tactics. In addition I have worked RC for the local club and have been in training as an umpire for the past several years, catching up with how regattas are run in Modern Times.

My opinion of modern course racing? Boooooring. W/L courses may be technically demanding, but they’re just plain unexciting.

One of the true joys of racing a 470 was running what were then Full Olympic courses: start & hard-worked first beat, then the release at the weather mark, flying off to the reach mark on full plane, trying to keep the boat under the rig, and not crashing at the jibe mark, then W/L/W to the finish. Variety, excitement, technical demands of several kinds, complex tactics on each leg.

In the olden days, we did the same thing in big boats off Chicago (on the buoy circles they had then to create courses between marks) often full Olympics, sometimes other patterns. Again, variety, excitement, technical demands of several kinds, complex tactics on each leg.

I watch what’s been going on with the Olympics (and the idiocy of the “medal race”), the ubiquitous and uniform W/L courses, the white-knuckled insistence on moving marks to keep them dead upwind, and I wonder what the point is. The skills of boat-handling, of shift reading and timing, of course strategy and tactics have narrowed down the options to where the variables are reduced to a minimum. Racing’s about seamanship, boat speed, reading the environment and the competition – and the more variables, the more interesting it was for me as a competitor.

Call me a Luddite, but I say it was better twenty years ago.

From Frederic Berg:
Point to point races disappeared in Hawaii when we started snapping thin aluminum fractional IOR rigs like twigs.

That’s when no one wanted to race the Clipper Cup “Around the State Race” here in Hawaii anymore. I remember the whining well. “Oh, that’s sooo uncomfortable” and “nobody wants to race these boats for that long.”

What, five days offshore too much for… the pros? Really, that’s what it takes to be pro? I decided then and there to pass.

It’s not only the perfect race that pros are after, but minimizing risk and uncertainty, just like a real business. Where’s the fun in that?

Offshore racing is all about the multitude of variables that exist in the vast ocean and the people that can master them. No one person has all the right answers; that’s what makes sailing so special.

From Rick Rahm:
I could not agree with you more. Been sailing over 25 years on Hobie Cats, J/24, Hobie 33 and just bought a Rocket 22. I never was a fan of W-L; give me a triangle course, an inverted start or a distance race and I knew that I was having a good time and so was the crew. Race organizers have to realize it’s all about the fun factor.

From Alan R. McReynolds:
I parked my boat 2 years ago because I was sick of yacht club politics (cruising versus race agendas) AND most of all, sick and tired of rules lawyers on the water. The screaming, yelling, and protests for silly, minor incidents on the water, and using the rules as a weapon. What happened to the fun? Maybe using the rules as a weapon was the idea from the start, but I always thought that boat speed and positioning for anticipated and changing wind conditions was what it was all about.

I guess I followed the typical arch. I raced with my friend Elmo on his Tornado in the early ’80s and we had a blast with the local Portsmouth handicap fleet, sailing on ridiculous courses. Then I bought a Laser II and he crewed for me, teaching me the “ropes”. The next year I sailed with my wife as crew and we had a blast. I was hooked. I bought my first Lightning a couple of years later in 1987.

I’m an engineer, and was always studying the rulebook, reading Stuart Walker, learning how better to prep my boat. We moved to Upstate New York and I started doing the Central New York regatta circuit, and being home to the Lightning it has a very strong following here. The CNY regatta circuit was our summer home. My daughter and son became the crew and we raced everything local. Then my son started to skipper and we went to the Juniors, Masters, and North Americans as a family on a regular basis.

We bought a new boat, and were buying new sails on a bi-annual basis. It was fun, but it was also a grind. The expenses grew and so did the grind. Then, people I raced with started to get coaches, etc. Fleet races started to get very serious; nasty-ass slam-dunks on the start line at a home fleet race…are you kidding me? I crewed on other boats in other classes – same thing! The pursuit of perfection pushed the fleets to a level that was very difficult to approach with an un-tuned starter boat, with older sails. A newcomer had no chance in our local fleet of finishing near any of the regulars. And the rules kings…. yuck!!!

My kids are grown and the boat is parked. I haven’t quit, but right now my canoe calls to me more than the boat.

From John Jourdane:
I agree with you completely. I miss the old point to point races and the reaching legs. Some of my best sailing memories are the old MEXORC regattas in Mexico, when we would race from bay to bay down the Mexican coast, anchoring out and partying in a different cove every night.

From Kett Cummins – New Orleans, LA:
Your comment, “[D]ifferent race courses that might offer the lesser skilled people … some undeserved success”, may be the most patronizing and unappealing concept I’ve heard this year. Moving AWAY from perfection is not likely to be a recipe for success. The natural evolution of any competitive endeavor will tend to minimize dumb luck and reward skill and tactics. That’s the answer to “How did we get here?”!

I’m not necessarily happy about the current state of affairs, but I don’t think “dumbing down” the sport is the answer; quite the opposite, in fact. For example, I think that PHRF is a blind alley in which we’ve become trapped. With all the technology available today, we must be able to come up with something better.

Here in New Orleans we’re currently trying out a PHRF “classic class” which refers to the racecourses, which are big triangles. The concept is that the casual racers will sail one “classic” triangle race while the more competitive classes will sail two W-L races. It’s too early to say how this will work out, but so far, we only seem to be carving up the same pie, in a different way.

I agree that more variety in racecourses would be nice. Of course, this can put an extra burden on the RC, which is faced with many of the same logistic challenges that racers face.

Notwithstanding the issues that translate also to OD fleets, I can’t help but think that the limitations of the handicapping systems contribute to reduced interest. Consider other amateur sports: golf handicaps the individual, tennis groups individuals together by skill, team leagues hold drafts to even-out the skill levels, but sailing does none of this.

However, sailing handicaps the equipment and assumes that the individuals all have the exact same skills. Is it any wonder that the “casual competitor” gets frustrated? Sail trim and racing tactics have evolved tremendously since the early days of sailing, but the most common forms of handicapping (in the US, at least) are essentially the same as 150 years ago!

I don’t think there’s a quick fix, but to start, there are some well-entrenched obstacles to overcome.

From Manfred Schreiber – Germany:
It is my memory that in the late eighties, a bunch of top sailors voted hard for the inshore races in the Admirals Cup to be sailed away from the public in Christchurch, due to the currents and sometimes “fluky” winds in the Solent. When the Admirals Cup was dead later, some of these same sailors (who did not have big boats themselves, but sailed other people’s boats) voted for the Match Races, which became en vogue at the time and offered free lunch etc., to be sailed as close to the shore and “fluky” winds as possible.

I think that what we need are “courses for horses”. This happened last weekend at a regatta which I attended to. The race committee laid out a triangle for the junior boats and a Snipe-type “PIRAT” and we sailed W/L on the Moths, starting from the same point. I got the feeling that the triangle had been much appreciated by the slower dinghies and I think that a W/L, with different tactics, is perfect for fast Skiffs and Moths.

Pursuit races are getting more and more popular these days for the “Yachts”. Yes, it seems that lessons had been learned and sailors being listened to. At least in my environment here in the North of Germany.

From Pascal Desmarets:
Just come racing in Porto Cervo, Sardinia.  Beautiful setting, good wind, sun, great race organization and committee, scenic courses, challenging local effects… take a look at our diverse race course.

From Bill Heintz:
On the eve of Block Island Race Week, the prospect of 3-4 races a day is an aspect of the racing that I am not looking forward to.

When we start racing from 9-5 all week, it no longer seems to be recreation. We all do a lot of work ahead of time to get the time off, a lot of work to get there, and will need to do a lot of work when the week is over.

I’m not complaining, but at times it is difficult to convince my friends and family that this is how they want to spend their vacations also.

In pursuit of the St. Petersburg Trophy, Race Committees seem to put Quantity of Races over Quality of the Overall Experience of the Regatta Participants.

There’s an old show business axiom, you always want to leave the audience hungry for more. I think this can apply to Regattas.

From Eric Hall, President, Hall Spars & Rigging:
Thinking it over, like a lot things a mix of both is best. The boats I sail on participate in regattas that regularly feature both. The strategy and tactics up and down wind of the W-L’s are never boring.

But my heart is in multi-mark coastal courses. They can be unforgettable (and always tactical). Anyone who has sailed the coastal courses in Porto Cervo, Sardinia can attest to the undying fascination of sailing among the islands, avoiding the rocks and playing the endless menu of shifts. The same can be said of courses on Narragansett Bay, the Solent (especially on the Solent!) and other places.

I have always thought that historically, sailing is navigation-based so I believe in and enjoy multi-mark coastals.

The few times I have been asked to run races, I have always included as many marks as possible. Sailor response has always been positive.

From Dick Neville, On-the-Water Co-Chair, BIRW 2013:
This year’s Storm Trysail Club’s 25th Block Island Race Week has a 30% increase in entries over 2011. This is a nice trend. Perhaps more importantly, the “cruising classes” consisting of Cruising Spinnaker, Non-Spinnaker, Double Handed and Classic, who do one distance race each day, have increased from 5 boats in 2011 to 29 boats this year! We discounted the entry fee 50% for these classes as they require substantially less committee support. Furthermore, some entries are living aboard for the week – just like the “good old days in the 70’s at Block Island when we had 300+ entries and yes, back then, they raced one race a day around government marks.

From John C. Wade:
I don’t think the windward/leeward course is the perfect race. Far from it. There was a time when the “triangle” was considered the perfect race course. That too may not have been perfect, but it did provide some variety, and required some (a lot) of expertise on the reaches.

I recall a race at the Moth Internationals back in the 50s when race committee set up a W/L course for the last race. Moments after the start the wind went east and we had 6 legs of reaching. That didn’t turn out to be the perfect race either.

Every course should have a variety of wind angles to deal with. Even point to point races can have that by adjusting the course with marks. Even the “good” sailors get tired of windward / leeward. Also, if W/L is required, start some races down wind. That gets people’s attention.

We “go to sea” because it’s unpredictable and challenging, not because it’s predictable.

From Robert L. Johnstone:
Bill Lee made this same case about 25 years ago at a “what’s happening to our sport?” brainstorming session at an Annual US Sailing (aka NAYRU) Meeting. And, most of us agreed with him, “The perfect W-L course mentality was taking some of the fun out of the sport…and thus participation, particularly at the local level.”

While it seems not much has changed since then, and there will always be a place for W-L courses in championship events, there are signs of progress. The antithesis of the perfect W-L race is going gangbusters worldwide: 10-20 mile, Round-the-Island (or government marks) Pursuit Races with 100 boats of more in the same race.

In the Pursuit Race, each one-design class has its own start and prizes, no matter how many show up. The slowest boats have their moment of glory for most of the race. The fastest boats get to show off their speed by passing most of the fleet. There are no crowded PHRF starting lines with large boats mowing down small boats. No mark boats or course changes. A chance to relax and enjoy the scenery. First boat across the line is the winner. Big party afterwards. Everybody has fun… including the Race Committee.

The only RC nightmare is solved. If the wind dies, the race can be shortened after 3 hours (12 mile course), at one of several pre-announced locations, without recalculating times. How? Start intervals are based on PHRF time-on-distance handicaps. Three hours into a 12 mile race is about where suggested PHRF time-on-time intervals begin to diverge from the TOD intervals.

From Ed Cesare:
I enjoyed your piece about ideal courses in Butt 3864 both as a sailor and a Talking Heads fan. The follow on line in that song: “Oh My God – what have I done?!” equally applies.

I race both inshore and offshore at a high level and participate in race management at a low level – running Wednesday Night races for my local club. I agree that W/L courses present the purest tactical challenge and would add that “up and down” tactics are not the only skill needed to successfully beat competitors around the course. Ask a bowman. I think the predatory expansion of W/L courses is largely a function of race management inertia. W/L courses simply became, “what all the cool kids do”. I think that tastes may be changing and it is for race management culture to catch up or perhaps lead the way.

I recently competed in the Atlantic Cup, the three stage event for Class40s, as co-skipper of PLEIAD RACING. The third stage of the event was an inshore series of races in Newport, RI. There were five races of various configurations and various numbers of legs run around a collection of both drop and government marks. This led to races with legs on all points of sail, including square beats and runs. There was plenty of very high level inshore talent aboard the Class40s for the day and to a sailor, everybody commented on how great the racing was. I’ve experienced the same format and sentiment at Cowes Week – again with plenty of “A” level inshore talent on the race course.

I like the “paper clips” as much as anybody but we should mix it up some. That said I have yet to give our Wednesday Night racers at Norwalk Yacht Club anything but a W/L. Change will begin at home.

From Eric Sorensen:
This season is the first time since 2005 (when I joined) that Anacortes Yacht Club (in Washington, USA) has had an NFS class (No Flying Sails, aka non-spinnaker). It is also the first season where all the Wednesday night races are inverted starts. In the previous series our Catalina 42, racing in NFS took a series 1st and even had line honors once and missed it by seconds in two other contests. When we were racing in the ‘A’ fleet (think fastest) our goal was to not be last and kill the start. We did start in the first fleet but many middle fast boats would catch us.

Both the NFS and inverted starts are good for the sport. There have been many more interesting mark roundings as the faster fleets have caught the slower boats at the marks, the race committee gets to come home 10 minutes earlier as the last boat still is one of the slow fleet.

There are 8 boats in the NFS class but only 2 started last night in the 15-20k winds but we had a good turnout with ~25 boats. The only downside was this was the month for Jah Mon to be committee boat and we would have romped in that wind as the heaviest boat in the fleet. One other result is the finishers come across in bunches instead of a parade that is stretched out. Exciting for all involved. What else could be better?

From Paul Dietrich:
I just turned 50. I’ve been doing W-L on San Francisco Bay with the J/105 fleet (crew) for almost 20 years. Before that I was a Laser sailor out of St Francis YC. I’m one of those folks who never put enough “commitment” into sailing. That’s what they taught me. I’m afraid I fall prey to enjoying a little variety (sarcasm).

I consider myself a competitive person, so it’s hard to want to compete in fun races, but it’s just so predictable sailing W-L races. I quit racing last season because of it. It has been somewhat like a breakup. I’m just trying to stay positive all the time.

One thing I’ve noticed is that most people are not really terribly competitive, yet, they enjoy life. My point is, your article was exactly correct in your recognition of the plight of average sailors. The bar has been raised beyond a recreational reach for most us. Scuttlebutt is for racers, though. It allows be to keep in touch at a distance, so thanks.

From John McNeill:
I guess it all depends what you want out of racing, but I suspect (and the turnout for the old style events versus the paperclips in San Francisco support this) that MOST of us just want to have fun with some lighthearted competition and good company. Neither form should dominate the offering or be seen as superior. What is important is to produce what will bring the most people to the sport. I’m not sure that goal is fulfilled with high level sterile racing.

From Alan Veenstra:
I am in complete agreement with Dave McClatchy’s assessment of today’s sailboat racing. Windward-leeward courses, while certainly the best test of skill and equipment, has been instrumental in killing the fun of sailboat racing for the vast majority of recreational competitors. It impossible for less committed racers to ever see the winners after the start.

The high water mark of sailboat racing numbers peaked in the late 1980s, not coincidentally the same time that most port-to-port (p2p) racing was usurped by W/L courses. P2P races provided many benefits to more casual racers and the sport in general:

* p2p racing perpetuates the lore and heritage of sailing; new ports, new adventures. There is no sailing heritage about tea clippers or fishing schooners going out for a few hours of day sailing;
* p2p racing gave the entire family and friends a chance to share a fun day or two on the water together. Sail and boat handling was less demanding. One usually had enough time and talent to make sail/course changes. Everyone was involved and it was less imperative to pack the boat with professional gorillas.
* With a wide race course, even the perennial ‘pickle boats’ knew that someday, somehow the wind gods would favor them.

While this observation does not address many other fundamental factors in sailing’s decline (time, money, commitment, etc), it does address one undeniable factor in the decline of racing fleets. Where there is no chance to win, there is no fun. And when it is not fun, who wants to participate?

From JockO Allpress:
I agree with your points, however, I would add another ‘factor’ – ego. We are being ‘led’ in a direction that suits the ego maniacs and not the majority – their vision for sailboat racing does not gel with what most of us want when we get on a boat to go sailboat racing. PROs and RCs should be more oriented to the participants than themselves.

From Randall A. Richter:
Regarding issues within the sport, the W/L race courses are a problem, but so are those race committees looking to have the perfect race.  Perhaps I am just old and don’t understand the ways of the sport as well I used to, but that having been said, nothing is as detrimental to the sport as canceling or postponing a race because the weather is not perfect or it will not allow you to make certain speed requirement as part of a high point series requirement.  Let me explain…

So I get eight of my buddies (everyone already knows how hard that is) and we leave my dock at 8am on Saturday morning to be in the starting area by 10am for an 11am start.  Then the wind is too light or too heavy or too shifty and the RC postpones.  Finally, after three or four hours, the RC abandons the race and we motor home for two hours totally unfulfilled and feeling like we have wasted seven hours of our time.

The RC should start the race no matter what and let the competitors decide to race.  This is the way it used to be. If the wind was blowing 30 knots and you didn’t feel comfortable racing in those condition you did not race.  If the wind was light, you started sailed as well as you could and the race committee shortened course… but at least you had a race.  If you did not happen to finish, at least you got to sail.

It’s sailboat racing folks – the weather is part of it.  The RC should start the race and let the competitors decide if they participate.  I would rather sail a two mile race in three hours than just motor out to start, wait around for three or four hours, and motor home.

From Winship Story:
The other day I went to a championship baseball game. It was for the little youngsters, 5-6 year olds. I watched the game with interest at first, but then after four pitches the coach replaced the pitcher, and I lost count of the balls and strikes. Eventually the batter ran to first. “What’s happening,” I asked?

After the game finally ended with the score 0-0, I again asked, “What happened?”

Then everyone lined up and received congratulations and received individual trophies. They didn’t keep score, the batter was pitched to until he/she got a hit, and both teams won.

I don’t think the sport of sailing is in trouble as much as all sports are in trouble. In fact much of our lives are taking the same course. People have begun to think that we all deserve “rewards” whether we earn them or not. Perhaps “earn” is not the issue, maybe deserve is not an appropriate term. It seems that society is telling us that we are all “equal” or should be…

Well the truth is that we may have been created equal but we aren’t all equally able. Where our abilities at work or sports or life in general are concerned, some people are more capable than others. Learn to live with it.

Telling our children that they all deserve a trophy is a path to the thinking that they all deserve the same rewards, regardless of ability or effort.

Perhaps the problem with sailing is not with racing or the kind of races we run, but with those who think that everyone deserves a trophy, regardless of their ability or the amount of effort that they put forth.

From Al Johnson – Seattle, WA:
It seems like a frequent theme in the discussion about W/L races is that you have to be good to win, so the rest of us hackers don’t like them because it is much harder to get lucky than on a distance race. That may be partly true, but for me, it isn’t just that. Modern race management has changed W/L races to be much more intense than back in the day, with more boats packed into tighter spaces leading to more opportunities for close encounters of the third kind.

The norm for a weekend buoy regatta in Seattle used to be a combination start/finish line, with six or seven classes starting in order, finishing in order, and waiting for the last finisher in the last class before class #1 started its second race. Legs tended to be pretty long, and/or multiple laps. This led to a lot of waiting around.

The new norm is to have a start line on one side of the committee boat, with a short finish line on the other, and typically with shorter legs resulting in 30-45 minute races. Pretty much as soon as the last boat in a class finishes, that class gets a 5-minute horn for its next start.

Assuming that most of the starters are on starboard, there is typically a cluster to the right of the committee boat one to two minutes before the start, and that means they are camped directly in front of the finish line for the classes behind that are trying to finish.

Since the RC has set different course lengths for the different classes, frequently there may be multiple classes trying to finish through a very short finish line at the same time that the 40 and 50 footers are clumped in front of the finish line during the final minute or two of their pre-start.

Add to this the fact that on multiple lap courses there is typically a Z leeward mark a couple of hundred feet directly upwind of the start line, so that the 50 footers are charging downwind at you immediately after you start, and it is probably more intense than some of us hackers really want to experience when we go out to have some weekend sailing fun.

We’ve somehow decided that this is way more fun and interesting than the bad old days of having too much sitting around between races. I’ll grant that it is more interesting, but I’m not buying that it is more fun. That’s why I don’t sail buoy races anymore.

Given the fact that PSSR and PSSC typically had 100-120 entries in the late 90s and early 2000s, and that PSSR was down to 60 boats sailing this spring, it looks like I’m not the only one who has opted out of the mantra, “Keep the classes big, the lines short, and the racing interesting.”

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