Commentary: Will 2014 be the year for change?

Published on January 13th, 2014

We have never met Becky Sodon, but we became fans after reading her plea for change in sailboat racing. Can you relate to her plight? Read on…

A frequent discussion in Scuttlebutt has had to do with making racing more interesting – to spectators and competitors. While I don’t really care what the spectators think, but as a competitor, I would like a little more excitement.

Even on the most thrilling boat, there is boredom in the windward-leeward course. For the slower keelboat rail rider, snoozing between marks is actually a possibility. Around and around the sausage, left turn, left turn, left turn, finish. The biggest decision at a mark is what type of spinnaker take down to perform. As a result, those who have time and money to go out and practice, win, instead of those who are the most clever and adaptable sailors, who are the best boathandlers and know how to figure out how to get the most out of varying conditions and course.

Around island races are the brief oasis in this desert of droning. The bore factor is one reason my husband and I have not been motivated to find a way to sail after the birth of our daughter. I’d much rather be zipping around Narragansett Bay on my Laser, circling Aquidneck Island or Jamestown, never knowing what adventure lies ahead. Maybe that makes me a cruiser, but one population to draw more racers from is cruisers. We need to appeal to their sense of adventure. (though I doubt the wine and cheese cruisers are ever going to make the switch).

So, instead of endless loops, imagine a course where you may jibe, tack, turn a bit upwind, or loop around and go the opposite direction at marks, with many more possibilities. Starts and finishes could be from any wind angle. Landforms and other features may need to be navigated. It’s not possible to practice all these maneuvers. The newest highest tech sails will no longer matter. A steady hand and quick mind will pay off. To me, that’s more of a sport and adventure. It makes it worth giving up the day and family to get out there.

As a junior sailor and instructor of juniors, some of the most fun days involved treasure hunts, tape races, obstacle courses, and sailing polo. Many kids lost interest when we began racing. If we could make racing more of an adventure, and maybe even include some of these games and around island races for adults as part of the regatta, we could keep and draw more sailors.

Crew might be easier to come by if they knew they’d be more engaged than just bringing up waters and testing the windward lifeline. Many sailors may find they are no longer being priced out of sailing, as new technology won’t help – just a keen and skillful sailor. Juniors may find that those who can’t go off to Argentina to a regatta and pay for that private coach, but who are naturally skilled will excel in an engaging keelboat race.

Most would people probably love sailing, because it really is amazingly fun. We just have to remember how to keep the fun in it.

Alternative course to consider
One suggestion is to trial a new type of course that would be easy to follow and remember, but left open to change each day – or race, if the committee and fleet so choose. It’s called the rainbow course. There are 6 marks besides the start (and possibly finish). A boat rounds them in order of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. The RC can designate whether they are to be rounded to port or starboard (all the same in one race for simplicity), and I’d recommend mixing it up often to keep everyone on their toes. The RC would set them up in any shape or course, being encouraged to make it different and creative all the time. If we were to think of spectators as well, at least they would be able to know which mark was next.

I’m sure there are many practical ways to implement this, but here are a few suggestions to get ideas flowing. Make the marks neon for visibility and put stripes on alternating ones, with spots on the others to avoid the confusions of blue/green and blue/purple. (“But we have to buy all new marks?!” shriek the yacht clubs. New marks that help bring more interest to racing and more members is a small price to pay for the future of sailing and your yacht club.) The start and finish marks could be rainbow striped. The finish could be the purple mark or another separate mark. Just as now, the start and finish could be in the same spot or different – or just on different sides of the RC boat. As for races for larger boats where the marks aren’t necessarily visible, there could be some way (I know some engineer could figure it out.) to attach a sign with the bearing (and distance) to the next mark, or it’s texted to each boat. And for the super high tech fleets, a GPS is on the marks that sends a signal out to the racecourse ap. The entire course can be downloaded to the navigator’s phone/IPad/laptop. Depending on the fleet and location, changes and specifications can be made in the race instructions, just as usual.

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