How the sport thrives within the Inland bubble

Published on January 27th, 2014

by Glenn McCarthy, Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation
ISAF Past President Paul Henderson suggests that the best growth and maintained sailing organization is the Inland Lakes Yachting Association. Who, you ask? It is an organization that stretches from the Midwest to the East Coast and down South that caters to “rectangle shaped boats” or, Scows, as we call them.

What makes ILYA great? There are many answers. The first and biggest one is containment of one -design classes. There are A Scow (38′, 1875), E Scow (28′, 1901), C Scow (20′, 1905), M- 20 Scow (20′, 1962), I-20 Scow (20′, 1998), Melges 17 (17′, 2004), MC Scow (16′, 1965), and Optimist (8′, 1947). You buy any one of these rectangle boats or you simply just don’t fit in.

The containment of classes keeps them strong and extremely loyal. You don’t see them splintering when the new XYZ boat shows up and a segment of the existing classes jump to the latest new hot one-design boat, while diminishing the participation in the older classes. This firm control has kept the ILYA and these one-design classes strong for eons.

While the Scow designs are not new, they do keep up with the world. One example: in 2008 the E Scows debated about changing from symmetrical spinnakers to asymmetrical spinnakers using a retractable sprit pole. All existing boats would have to be upgraded. Many didn’t want the hassle or expense. Others thought the boats would be easier to sail. Eventually the class voted, and they adopted the asymmetrical spinnaker with retractable pole. Everyone I have talked to says that the boats are much easier and enjoyable to sail. At the end of the day, they are still all E Scows.

As these boats are sailed on small inland lakes only (Scows are just no good with waves), most are sailed in people’s backyards – literally. What does that mean? It means that the whole family is there, the easy pickings for crew are the family members, and the ILYA thrives on growth through family. It is the perfect pyramid scheme and a very good one at that! Many times you’ll see regatta results with many boats sailed with the same last names, being 2, 3 or 4 different generations or branches of the same family.

I heard a story of a couple pointy-ended boats trying to assemble a fleet in ‘Scowbilly country’. The sailors came to their boats one weekend to find that their shrouds had been cut. Now, I’m not saying any Scow sailor would ever do such a thing, no arrests were made, no one was ever fingered, but the pointy ended boats packed up and skedaddled out of town as quick as they could and haven’t gone back! Clearly this wasn’t a very nice thing to do.

In spite of this one occurrence, Scow fleets are large, people are friendly, National events are highly coveted and have very large turnouts.

What is Paul Henderson saying? In an open economy, with a plethora of choices to be made in purchasing one-design boats, and more coming onto the market each year, there are too many choices. Fleets get built and then cannibalized once a new “hotter” design appears. With each iteration of new designs, everyone at the end of the day sails in a smaller fleet. Loyalty is not what it once was to a particular boat design.

Henderson is strongly suggesting that to have better growth in a local geographic area, to have better cohesion, it may behoove clubs to get together and vote on what one-design classes they will support and become very frigid to change (if you ever met him, no one would ever use the word “strongly,” we all know “it’s his way or the highway!”).

Paul Elvstrøm wrote Henderson about 20 years ago when Henderson was ISAF President: “It is harder to build a Class organization than to design a new boat, and well run Classes are the strength of Sailboat Racing.” Elvstrøm’s words ring true today.

It’s a tough pill for “free Americans” to take and does require a lot of study to understand it, but the ILYA has shown the way that 100+ year old boat designs can and do continue to grow their fleets.

Source: Lake Michigan SuRF Newsletter

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