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First ISA Club Racing Survey Reveals 'Segmented' Irish Dinghy Racing Scene

22nd January 2016
RS dinghies racing as part of Royal Cork Dinghyfest regatta last season Credit: Robert Bateman

Keelboat racing accounts for about two thirds of active racing sailors, a thriving junior single-hander dinghy ‘pathway’ scene is the envy of all other fleets and it makes up 31% of all dinghy sailors (51% of dinghies), according to a new Irish Sailing Association (ISA) club racing survey published recently. A pdf of the full report is downloadable below.

The first snapshot of Irish club racing reveals little new of the 'segmented' national racing fleet, but provides a welcome and robust basis for the ISA, clubs, classes and sailors alike, on which to build and evolve.

According to the report, there is a total of just under 7,000 sailors actively racing in Ireland. Junior single-handers get four times the coaching of everyone else. Senior dinghy sailing is almost non existent in the major sailing centres. One fifth of clubs have no club racing and 25% have no interest in hosting visiting events. These are just some of the conclusions of a report where, the ISA say, the detail of input from some of the clubs was 'varied'.

As sailing clubs and classes found out in 2013, the ISA, charged with developing the sport, had little idea about what type of boats clubs had or what sort of activities they got up to. Fast forward three years and this situation has changed with the publication of this worthwhile fact finding exercise revealing what is really going on.

Part of the reason behind the survey was to deal with ongoing concern that nominated dinghy classes form an elitist High Performance (HP) pathway that 'exclude' strong sailors in other fleets.

The survey, commissioned by International Race Officer Jack Roy, an ISA Director, was sent out in March 2015 with data to be based on the 2014 season. The survey was emailed to the Commodores and Sailing Secretaries of the 57 affiliated clubs that have sailing activity. A total of 52 responses were received, a response rate of over 90%.

Recently appointed ISA director Sarah Byrne, an RS sailor, says the report gives a picture of the 'segmented' Irish fleet and the current overall situation is 'unfortunate' and 'does not serve competition well, without the critical mass to sustain so many classes on active circuits'.

The report is far from perfect but as a first cut at what boats are actually sailed in Ireland and where and roughly how many people are actively sailing it represents an important piece of work. There are acknowledged gaps in the information such as:

a. Northern Ireland – this information was pursued through the RYANI albeit in October/November, but has not been received to date. The ISA say they will pursue a more complete picture of all-Ireland sailing in the future.

b. Non-affiliated Clubs and independent groups of sailors are also excluded (eg GP14s in Youghal)

c. Those that do not participate in club racing but just event.

The survey reveals some other interesting facts too, such as how many clubs don't have racing at all and those clubs not interested in organising events.

The report is therefore a valuable and deserving of wide distribution and plenty of discussion.

The survey shows that 20% of clubs have no club racing and 25% no interest in hosting visitors. Deciding on how to deal with this scenario is the next step, should they be left to their own devices or does the ISA need to visit them and explain how club racing and event running pulls clubs together and keeps people involved and showcases them to possible new members and is important for their continued viability?

Also among the findings it is reported that in the major sailing centres approximately 60% of juniors are trained in single handers and 60% of senior dinghy sailors are single handers.

There is localised depth and strength of some one-design classes where there is a strong social scene and good class association (eg 1720, Waterwags and Shannon OD).

Single–hander v Double–hander

Senior dinghy sailing is almost non–existent in the major centres but relatively good outside of them. In the main sailing centres, keelboat racing prevails. Where the ISA is strongest and 'Development Squads' exist, single handers predominate and club racing flounders, in other areas the scene does exist.

Greystones dinghy sailor, Norman Lee, a long time advocate of the need to reformat current ISA thinking, has read the report and points to a need to change the training emphasis from juniors in single handers to double handers. Lee suggests where possible using double–handers also used by seniors to aid integration and transition.

Appendix 4 in the report is drawn from the classes forum of 14/11/15 and it notes the 'upside down' nature of training and coaching for sailing in Ireland; the junior pathway being heavily weighted towards single–handed sailing where very little or no club racing is done in single handers. Club racing virtually all done in double or multi handers.

Lee estimates this 4:1 coaching ratio is backwards and needs to be reversed more in favour of double handed sailors. 'If the sport is serious about bringing on the sort of sailors we need in club racing this needs to be predominantly done in multi handed dinghies and keelboats'.

'This seems blindingly obvious to me and I feel it needs to be brought to the attention of everyone interested in growing club participation' he says.

The data also illustrates that participation rates are higher where there is a one design or club pathway policy.

Sarah Byrne of the ISA says: The single-hander youth training bias and the ‘elitist’ high performance pathway, against a background of ‘adult’ double-hander preference, are held up by some as agents of death for sailing. However there is nothing extraordinary in the attrition rate from sailing when compared to other sports, whether in Ireland or abroad. We certainly punch way above our weight in terms of international performance and it is clear Annalise Murphy has been an inspiration to our junior females and no doubt, despite a very small active Irish class, recent 420 Youth Worlds success, HYC Doug and Colin too, have and will continue to, enthuse their peer group in turn.

Molly Coddled Youths?

But getting youths to transition from 'molly-coddled' junior and youth classes (coaches, rib support, ISA squads, foreign racing/coaching trips) to the independent world of racing a GP14, Fireball, RS 200 or whatever, is perhaps like asking Johnny Sexton to politely give it all up and turn out for his local Rugby Club on a Saturday afternoon, where the only perk would be the slice of orange at half time!

If we are all to 'sail double handers and have fun'. What more can be done to achieve this? Where's the incentive?

Byrne says 'the exceptional aspect of sailing in that you can remain at the top of your game well into and beyond middle age and often compete in multi-generational fleets. What’s not to love?'

But, how realistic is a €400 a year coaching grant for a senior class to do anything (roughly €20 euro a boat at a 20–boat coaching weekend)?

Combined events?

In the report, combining events to get numbers up to a viable level also comes in for mention but the perceived wisdom of combining fleets for events – a nostalgic throwback to IYA Dinghy week perhaps – plus clubs whingeing about low profits from events, depresses turnouts in total over a season because it takes the pressure off individual classes to do the ring–a–round, get boats onto trailers and car roofs and get people to the events. More needs to be done to empower classes to do this for themselves.

Classes are Mini Cults

A class is like a mini cult, driven by passionate aficionados. Once you mix brands, dilute the passion, well then the next stop is PY. That’s been the experience in the UK from trying to combine Laser 2s, ISOs, Hornets and Albacores for example where ultimately racing is compromised.

Instead supply side bottle necks have to be tackled or at least the status quo challenged aggressively.

The big bottleneck is youths not transitioning because of 1. Burnout and 2. The adult racing scene is seen as 'boring', 'unglamorous' and 'unsupported' (eg no RIB or coach support).

The status quo challenge is for the ISA to take a macro rather than a micro approach to the scene.

For example is it time to stand up to parents, clubs, private coaches and say "Actually, little Johnny is not good enough and should not be anywhere near an ISA HP squad"! This will ruffle feathers in certain quarters and there will also be the short term sacrifice of a good chunk of the €94k annual squad fees generated, almost as much as the cash from its Olympic sailing sponsor.

The ISA also needs to reduce its footprint on domestic junior/youth race coaching and this way it will help tear down barriers of pathways, squads and general all round exclusivity in this tiny sport.

The big numbers in College team racing (Trinity College Dublin have seven teams of 6 plus 10 subs while in the 1980s it was hard to get a second team) show if sailing is fun and sensibly competitive even the burnt out re-engage in some way, but these guys won't go back to one design fleet racing the way things are and given their traumatic experience of over training and trying to get on Irish teams.

The status quo must be questioned in order for things to develop more organically based on the two simple ideas that 1. many kids like going on the water and 2. many kids are competitive and will eventually fancy bit of a race around the cans and let's see where it takes them.

In fairness, the's ISA strategy to 2020 document touched on these issues but there have yet to be any macro moves to change the supply and type of sailors coming through.

The tiny supply from youths is a shame because older age groups (i.e. over 40) are potentially staying longer and that's a positive supply variable.

Globally people are beginning to realise youth sailing needs to change. You only have to check out Volvo Ocean Race winner Ian Walker's recent quotes about overtraining of youths to discover the world wide issue.

In the coming weeks, the ISA promise that input from current and former junior sailors will be sought to establish the underlying reasons for erosion and lack of transition into adult fleets. The ISA say it is looking to exploit all avenues to encourage youth ‘self-motivation’ to harness some of those leaving the sport, while also looking to attract old-hands and novices into the fold. It is hoped that this, with other initiatives, will further inform guiding principles and policy. Some clubs across the country are successfully investing time and funds in their youth sailors, introducing new experiences beyond training to expand the appeal and accessibility of sailing and sustain interest and participation through the ‘age of attrition’.

Only 17 of the 40 classes took up an invitation to attend last year's ISA class forum. Some clubs have commented that this exercise has already prompted discussion among their ranks. If a properly promoted and attended forum in 2016 could address the issues set out in this report, some worthwhile conclusions could be drawn and a plan made. 

As always, is seeking YOUR views in the comment box below. 

Published in News Update Team

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