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The 'Great Dinghy Sailing Debate' Means Questions for ISA & Yacht Clubs

6th March 2013
The 'Great Dinghy Sailing Debate' Means Questions for ISA & Yacht Clubs

#dinghydecline – The current debate regarding dinghy racing is fascinating (See original article and reader comments here). At present the discussion is centred around the role of the national authority. However, I believe that as the debate develops we will be asking as many questions of the clubs as of the ISA.

What is a sailing club for? The question is not often asked, because for most people the answer is obvious... until they realise that other members are giving very different answers. For some a club is a place where they can socialise with like-minded people, while also providing some facilities to assist them in maintaining and using their boat (the bar and the boatman being the heart of the club). At the other extreme, many Continental and American clubs believe that they exist to provide sailing, which includes boats, for the local and visiting populations. As such they run large fleets of dinghies and keel boats.

The current debate questions whether the ISA does enough to keep the numerous apprentice sailors within the sport of sailing, and in particular orientating them towards racing in dinghies. Unfortunately, whilst many statistics have been bandied about (and I note that Bryan Armstrong's estimate of a core of some 300 young racing sailors corresponds with my estimate given in a previous article, based on the number of students team racing) I have yet to see the essential figure: how many sailors move from beginner to being able to sail a boat round a triangular course in, say, a Force 3. These are the teenagers and adults that could be attracted to club racing in dinghies or small keel-boats.

In an ISA approved training centre these beginners will have reached this level using the boats, and often wetsuits, life-jackets and other gear provided (this may not be true in some club-run training programmes). Beginners will be in a group led by a qualified instructor who structures activities in light of his student's progress. They are only committed to a course lasting a few days and proceed to the next level only if they wish to do so.

What are clubs asking of these same beginners who arrive waving their still new ISA certificates? If the answer is:

take out annual membership;

buy a boat, and all the gear;

pay the club for boat storage;

be expected to sail most weekends in the club;

commit to"volunteering" to run racing and other club activities;

just like all the more experienced members, then it is little wonder that very few beginners take up this offer. These should be objectives not expectations.

Managing this transition from sailing school pupil to active club sailor is increasingly complicated, and should be a major preoccupation for all clubs. "Sailing families" will have already adjusted their life-style and family budget. The group disparagingly known as "Oppie parents" (a group not limited to that particular class) will make great sacrifices, in both time and money, to take their children sailing. But a teenager who may be the only family member interested in sailing will face multiple obstacles. For the new-comer a sailing club can be an off-putting place.

Not the least of these obstacles is the change in the way we allow our children to interact with other adults. Imagine, for instance, the child protection issues raised by any development of dinghy sailing based on young people crewing for adults. This was the traditional method for gaining experience and learning the game, many of us learned this way. Times have changed – I am not sure that many parents today would be happy about their child spending long hours with an un-vetted adult on a small boat, let alone spending a weekend away for an open meeting or championship.

Assisting apprentice sailors in this passage from learner to participant is a process that may take as much time and effort as teaching sailing. Up to now we have assumed that if someone learns to sail they will become a full participant in an existing model of sailing club. Regrettably, there is considerable evidence that this is not happening. New sailors, young and old, need to be brought at their own pace in to our clubs. Doing this successfully will ensure the future of clubs, but will inevitably induce changes in the way clubs function.

Take a model common in France, and elsewhere in Europe: after completing a cursus in the club sailing school, sailors join the club "sport school". Here, with a combination of training and appropriate competition, sailors learn not only the techniques and the tactics, but also the discipline required to succeed. They are assisted as they discover the commitment required to race regularly, they develop the habit of competing, of travelling to events, and so much more. As they are competing with other sailors of the same age and experience there is no arms race. Indeed, as the teenagers will soon move on to another boat, as they grow and improve, logically the boats belong to the clubs.

Only when sailors have reached a suitable level do they join the regatta circuit. One feature of racing in Europe, that may seem strange to Irish club members, is that club racing is not a central activity. Dinghy and keel-boat sailors either train with a club coach or sail at open meetings. The idea of racing once a week in your local club is not part of the culture. Is it possible that one problem in Ireland is that there is too much racing? If every weekend confirmed sailors are competing for club trophies when do they train, and, more importantly, when do they spend time assisting new sailors.

Running a transition programme may be a complicated exercise for clubs. Financing the acquisition and the maintenance of a fleet of suitable boats is a challenge. The ISA could contribute by setting up a training programme in basic boat maintenance, that should be compulsory for instructors and coaches. But clubs have taken up this challenge. For instance, two very different organisations have long maintained fleets of dinghies for team racing – the FMOEC in Schull and the Royal St George YC. This year the Sailfleet J80s will be managed by a single club. The Dun Laoghaire waterside clubs are gradually acquiring a fleet of keel-boats. These initiatives should lead other clubs to reflect and develop their own projects. The emergence of such projects will inevitably lead to new demands on our national authority, who, as always, should play a major role in facilitating new developments - Magheramore

For more dinghy sailing articles from Magheramore see:

Casting a fly over sailing club memberships

Is 'Adventure Sailing' a New Tack for Dinghy Sailors?

More articles on the same subject:

Irish Sailing Needs this Favourable Wind

Is Irish sailing too focused on the Olympics?

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