Dinosaurs Don’t Live Forever

Published on December 5th, 2016

Rob Weiland, TP52 class manager and a regular contributor to Seahorse magazine, discusses the balance needed to play a game for today and tomorrow. From the December issue of Seahorse magazine

Two reasons for the decline of competitive sailing pop up regularly online on Scuttlebutt – the lack of young sailors in both dinghy as well as yacht racing and the mix of pro and amateur sailors in what basically is an amateur sport.

The lack of young sailors is very much visible on most of the TP52s competing in the 52 Super Series and is possibly one of the reasons why a 65-year-old class manager (me!) still is an acceptable phenomenon.

At first sight the pro and amateur sailors mix is not of much relevance to TP52 racing when it comes to the popularity of its competition as, bar a few teams, the only amateur onboard the TP52s racing in the Super Series is the ‘poor’ owner (in this case we should not take that adjective too literally.)

But the two are connected as the pool of high level pro sailor’s ages with the clock ticking away. Today there is hardly any young talent making it to the top of monohull fleet racing, and without being too speculative I fear, beside the main reason discussed below, we are also faced with a lack of taking responsibility for the medium, let alone long term, planning and health of our sport.

The main focus is on instant success – which means that any consideration of mixing pro’s with amateurs to secure sharing of knowledge (learn from the best) goes straight out the window.

Learning from the best is, however, one of the main arguments – if not the main argument – in the debate about mixing pro’s with amateurs in sailing. Without mixing experience with fresh ambition we risk not only the continuity of our sport (and with it the pros’ business…) but we also lose the opportunity to benefit in the here and now from the energy and spontaneity of the young.

When you have seen it all a thousand times before the pleasure of the moment easily gets lost or invaded by future concerns and planning of how to keep the business going. Winning a race then is not just a temporary crown in a game but a way to secure a reputation and gain future business.

When the fun goes and the urge to control business and protect a reputation takes over we are at risk of losing sight of the essence of sport and with it eventually the interest of those paying the bills.

Of course, the only amateur on the boat when it comes to sailing is often at the same time the only pro on board when it comes to business! And in this complicated dance, rarely untouched by burning ambition, it certainly takes two to tango. But the owner in the end is the one with the power to steer such ambition and set realistic targets… so he should lead. This does not mean the pros can lean back and relax. By no means.

At first sight I do not know of other team sports where the team members are self-employed and play in various teams spread out over competitions all over the world. Yes, the best soccer players also play for national teams, but with strict conditions and (usually) with carefully streamlined scheduling.

Our best sailors now race regularly in perhaps five to ten different teams spread across the planet; it is not rare for them to arrive at their latest job jet-legged and tired with two days or even less to get ready before the first race.

Yet sailing is a very complicated sport, the teams are large and the equipment is immensely complicated. Is it such a strange idea to contract key crew for a year or even several years and then include some form of control over their time spend racing in others teams? I guess this is what America’s Cup teams do and why, for instance, back in the MedCup days Team New Zealand often appeared to be such a well-oiled machine compared to their rivals.

Thirteen great sailors do not automatically make a great TP52 team; actually the chances are it is the start of a tiring week. I am afraid this is why top level sailing is as crew-exclusive as it is right now. By keeping the pool of sailors small and made up of the same people year in year out, the pros more or less get away with the lack of training and team-building that is standard practice in other sports.

Today, the pool is about 200 sailors at most, possibly less than 100 at the deep end. It is just deep enough to make up the required number of all-pro teams, say between 6 to 15 depending on class and event, as well as to fill key positions at less demanding events.

Of course, individual teams then try to keep the same crew as much as possible for continuity, but even at Super Series level it is rare to train or test with the full team for more than one extra regatta and possibly another 4 or 5 days outside the Super Series events and its official training days. To introduce new and inexperienced crew into such an equation, no matter how keen and talented, has low priority.

In the long term this situation, of course, has no future and needs some proper thinking through by all involved… as the pool will dry out. Besides that, demand gets bigger as the market in superyacht racing is still growing. Rates go up and the pressure on regatta scheduling increases. Suddenly the bottom of the pool is very often in sight.

The owner, as always, has a special position in this. It is his or her hobby and a hobby can be stopped at any moment if it is no longer fun – without any major consequences for the hobbyist.

But owners care for their sport and many are in it ‘for life’. Some run their sailing team as a business but most experiment with organizational variations they would not contemplate in their commercial life.

Once the plan is to be in sailing for a long time, synergy, the creation of a team greater than the sum of its parts, becomes important and then it is only a small step to acknowledge the need for training young sailors and giving them the opportunity to experience serious racing.

Seahorse is the dominant international magazine for anyone serious about their racing. Take advantage of their subscription offer or order a single copy of Seahorse online at www.seahorse.co.uk/shop or for iPad download the Seahorse App at the iTunes store. Contact by email at subscriptions@seahorse.co.uk.

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