Worry less and sail more

Published on February 21st, 2024

Rod Davis has won Olympic medals for the USA and New Zealand, the latter coming due to a citizenship shift from marriage. His involvement in the America’s Cup has also been extensive as both sailor and coach, and these skills have kept him at the bleeding edge of the sport.

But maybe its age, as he’s now 68 years, or perhaps his fondness of competing in the OK Dinghy Class, which has him exhausted with how the sport has evolved. Here’s his column in the February 2024 edition of Seahorse Magazine:

You know we all need to have a rethink about our racing… as in when we race and, most important, that attitude around only ever having ‘perfectly fair races’. And I can hear your question from here: ‘Who be we?’

We be…race committees, parents, but mostly sailors, in particular sailors who have influence over owners, crews, race committees and regattas. Seriously ‘we’ need to lighten up, we need to look at racing sailboats as something to enjoy, maximizing the fun factor. That is not just for you, our job is to ensure everyone else has a great time too.

I will repeat that – it’s not about just you, it’s about the other sailors, supporters, owners, all the organization and volunteers. Imagine having a great time racing sailboats, win, lose or draw. Now there is a concept… After all, racing sailboats is not life and death, but it seems often ‘we’ treat it as if it was.

Before I get into top-level racing, waiting for the ‘perfect breeze’ to start a race so we have a fair contest, let’s look at two OK and Finn regattas in New Zealand that have fair, fun and efficiency as equal components of the events.

The first one is in Turangi, on the southern tip of Lake Taupo. The time of year when the regatta is held has notoriously light wind. To deal with 4-6kt of wind Wally, the commodore, race committee and about everything else will start the races if there is enough wind for the boats to sail.

Everyone understands this and no one questions it. In fact, each sailor embraces it. Yep, we could wait longer to start and maybe the breeze will be a little better but Wally just figures we will have more races if the breeze gets better. Five or six races a day? Sure! In the meantime we are starting races as soon as we can.

Does the occasional race go inside out? Yep. But so what? What is the worst that can happen – a sailor who has never won a race wins their first big one. The guys who win all the time finish at the back for a race. Shit happens. Have a laugh and get on with the next race, or a cold beer if it was the last race of the day. The same people will win most of the regattas anyway.

The other regatta is in Waiuku. They have a different set of problems but the same ‘races will start on time’ attitude. They don’t have the luxury of waiting for anything. God directed start times when he made the tides. The water is shallow off the club and very tidal. There is a three-hour window on Saturday and Sunday every two weeks to race. So, you know when the races will start, and when you will be back to the beach. Hell, you know that for the next 100 years from the tide tables.

I’ve got to say it is the strangest thing to show up and the water is almost 1km away. The first time I had to ask, how on earth does this work? ‘You’ll see… when the water gets to those yellow marks just off the beach, you help launch the race committee boat and then launch your boat and sail to the startline.

‘Oh, and we will all be back at the beach by 15:37, without fail. No later, or you will be dragging your boats home through the mud.’

And they don’t muck around. This is not their first rodeo, as they say. Startlines and courses are set with SAS-level cold efficiency, and the racing starts. Efficiency and good racing over perfection is the theme. And it works brilliantly, because we know that is the deal, race now… or drag your boat home.

Racing is not about perfection, never has been, it’s about excellence. And efficiency and fun.

Case in point: in TP52 racing we do more sitting around waiting for the wind than is acceptable. Too long by about anyone’s standards. Really, it’s over the top to have 10 teams, million-dollar racing boats, sailors, support boats, billionaire owners, all waiting for wind which is not quite steady enough, or just barely not strong enough to have a perfectly ‘fair’ race. We spend days of waiting for wind. If you looked and totaled the cost of that… Well, that will be a really really big number.

Besides, what is fair? As in all teams have the same chance? If that is the case, how could it not be fair to all teams (ie same chance) to start a race in any conditions?

Talking around with all the different parties, it soon becomes clear this idea of only starting when it will be an absolutely ‘fair’ race seems to come from the sailors mostly, and usually the most vocal ones. They set the tone.

The owners want to race their boats. The regatta organization wants as many races as they can. The race committee are happy to do whatever, but they definitely don’t want to take flak from anyone on their decisions to race in unsteady wind.

The owners, the real kings of the game, are heavily influenced by their sailors. If the sailors tell them it is bullshit to start this race because the wind is only 5kt not 6kt, or they need to move the course because there is land too close, the owners will believe their advisers that ‘it’s a bullshit race’.

And when the king is not happy, when the kings get grumpy… heads will roll! Or the Gatling gun will start spraying lead… at the regatta director, race committee, the jury or about anyone else foolish enough not to duck!

So we sit, and sit, and don’t race. Hour after hour, until we go back in. Not winners, but all losers for the day. You have to admit, it’s kinda dumb. Only hot air ballooning is more weather dependent than our obsession around perfect-sailing-racing-conditions.

What if we… (we being all of us this time) lighten up and expand Our racing windows. What if we start races whenever there is enough wind to get around the course within a very generous time limit. Noon start, 5kt of wind. Fire the guns, we are off.

A few cases to consider:
• The wind is just enough but is supposed to get much better a couple of hours after the first scheduled start. Start the race on time. If you can add an extra race when the ‘perfect’ conditions arrive, do so.
• There could be a 180° wind shift during the race. Start the race on time. If there is 180° shift do the best you can resetting the course. But keep the race going.
• Race goes inside out because wind died and filled in from the other side. Keep going, do the best you can. Same for everyone.
• Wind picks up to the point that it is unsafe for the sailors or the race committee – stop the racing. See, I do have some commonsense!

The point is ‘we’ will race if at all possible. We are not waiting around. Enjoy.

OK, while I am at it… one more thing. This rule that you have to have five races to make a regatta… it should go. We (that will be the NZ OK fleet) have a rule – one completed race is a regatta. By the way, the Olympics have that rule too.

No one wants just a one-race regatta, but if it actually plays out that way then the winner of the race wins the regatta. Give ’em the trophy and spray the champagne.

Lighten up and don’t let the red mist of road rage mess you up. We all need to enjoy our sailboat racing more; let’s all loosen up on this perfect racing thing.

The world is not perfect and does not look like it will be that way any time soon. Most racing series now have nine to 16 races. Some of them, like TP52s, have 50 races per season. A couple of light air races are absorbed and not even felt. And if they do affect the final results, so what? Was it the same for everyone? Come back…

Next time you have a whinge about a race being bullshit, I expect You were on the receiving end of some bad moments. Just remember whipping up the fire will take the fun out of racing for the RC, sailors and owners. And, as you well know, if you step out from behind the red mist of road rage, you will include yourself in the burning.

We are here to have fun and let everyone have as much fun as we can. Simple.

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