Ireland's sailing, boating & maritime magazine

State of Sailing: Don't Whine, Do Something Says New Zealand Olympic Medalist Rod Davis

11th June 2023
The focus of sailing needs to shift from medals and trophies to make the sport fun and sticky for the sailors
The focus of sailing needs to shift from medals and trophies to make the sport fun and sticky for the sailors Credit: Seahorse Magazine

New Zealand Olympic medalist Rod Davis told Seahorse magazine readers to ask not what your club and sailing can do for you but what you can do for your club and sailing. 

Let’s admit it, our sport of yachting is not growing the way we would all like. I am not going to whine and moan about that. What I am, and now ‘we’ are going to do ('we' because you are reading this, so you are now part of this) is explore what we might do to help the situation. How do we cast the net further and wider to attract and keep more sailors? More passion for boats, the water, and a sense of belonging in our yachting environment.

I have just spent my four-day Easter weekend playing race committee for the New Zealand Optimist National Championships. To be specific, on the starting pin-end boat, calling OCS boats, resetting lines, and following instructions and protocols of race management. Most of the time, anyway!

New Zealand Olympic medalist Rod DavisNew Zealand Olympic medalist Rod Davis Photo: Max Ranchi

There were three of us on the pin-end boat – fellow OK sailor Gordon Sims, and Jake Salthouse. Gordon has three sons who all went through the Optimist racing thing, then Flying Ants... and now don’t sail much. Jake is 16 years old and from the famous Salthouse clan. In New Zealand, there are two families that have a long enough yachting history to be ‘clans’. The Salthouses and the Dodsons. Jake too went through Optis, then Bics, but now does not sail much.

All of this made for a perfect time to figure out: how and why did we lose them? And with the largest youth sailing regatta going on, 200 plus sailors, parents, coaches, and race management, I figured it was a good time to get the full picture.

Every sport in the world, be it rugby or cricket, complains about losing their players in the teenage years. The dropout rate at 16-plus is massive. That is just a fact that will not go away. But if we in the yachting world could just retain five or 10 per cent more, that would be a huge boost to the sport in five years' time.

In the last decade, with a few notable exceptions, boat sales are down worldwide, yacht clubs struggle for volunteers... and to make the books balance. Today the pathway for a 25-40-year-old to get into sailing for the first time is almost non-existent.

Don’t get me wrong; there are some very bright points in yachting – the Fastnet Race maxes out within hours of opening entries. There is the massive international fleet at the NZ Opti Nationals, plus the focus on 'women in sailing' has taken off around the world. So we need to keep those aspects rumbling along, while readdressing the aspects that are not up to scratch.

Sailing also has one very big card the other sports don’t. We can get our sailors back when they are 40. We can get sailors we lose as 18-19-year-olds back when they are 35 or 40. Cricket and rugby can’t do that. Sailors come back at a grassroots level, crewing or sailing in a low-key way.

"Yachting is so focused on racing and winning, it turns off many sailors who just love going afloat"

So here is what my research has come up with, along with some observations:

Yachting in general is so focused on racing and winning, it turns off many sailors who just love taking part and going afloat. The old 80/20 rule again. 80% of our attention, PR and recognition go to the top 20% of our sailors. That starts at the top and goes right down through the ranks. And that my friend is messed up if we are looking to expand.

Sailors bag their national authorities. Just like people bag their governments. But we need to appreciate that national yachting authorities are in a bind.

Their funding, as in the vast majority of their funds, come from winning medals at the Olympic Games. Be it private or public, the money is ear-marked toward winning Olympic medals. National authorities have long ago learned to push the Olympic expenditure boundaries to include junior sailors as future Olympic medal winners, or coaching development as future Olympic coaches. All the while, of course, funding potential and current Olympic sailors, race and support boats, and campaigns.

Thus the limelight is racing and all things related to racing and winning. There is shocking little money for all the other things you would like your national authority to do. RYA, US Sailing, Yachting New Zealand and Australia are all in the same boat.

The day you become competent in sailing your boat, you get pushed into racing. Yacht clubs, coaches, national authorities, all push racing, racing, racing. To the highest level you can possibly progress to.

Picture little Jonny or Sally, who have just learnt to sail and have become good little sailors; now they're being told they’re going to compete against their mates and learn to race. And we are going to teach them how to use the rules to gain advantage and intimidate others.

Oh, and you can’t pull your boat up on the beach any more, you have to use the dolly so you don’t dare get a scratch on the bottom. Otherwise, we will have to fix that before you go sailing again. Oh, you need to get a new sail and don’t let that flap too much. Wow, this will be fun… NOT!!! Not for 80% who won’t be even close to the top of the podium when the others get all the attention.

The club coach will set up drills for starting, rounding marks, with classroom sessions on the theory of racing. If you show promise, you might get on the national junior fast-track system. Then better coaching and bigger regattas and even overseas regattas.

We tend to hear about and ‘celebrate' the winners at the expense of all others.

No wonder Jake and Gordon’s (and my) kids said screw that, I loved sailing when it was fun messing around with my mates. Seeing if we could sail without a rudder, seeing how many people we could get on a boat and still tack, or tying a rope to the Laser mast to see if we could make a trapeze!!! (They could and did!!!) And sailing at night in the harbour around the moored yachts, with a torch taped up the mast!!! ‘Racing was fun when it was with our friends’.

Sailing can trip over its own success sometimes. The racing becomes popular to the point that the purpose changes from having fun to winning… or… losing.

Losing… who wants to hang around any length of time with that? Happiness comes from having meaning and fulfilment in our endeavour. That is what makes something ‘sticky’. Makes you want to hang around there. Or come back.

Begs the question: ‘why then does the Fastnet race sell out every year?' 350 boats out there, and maybe two dozen boats will win something. Answer: adventure, comradeship, and a challenge. A sense of accomplishment when you finish.
The same thing the Whitbread Race was all about when there were nearly 30 boats in the race...

Back now to making it all ‘sticky’. The world is changing fast… my grandfather could not believe I could not rig a gaff; my dad was frustrated that I could not get an accurate star shot with a sextant. I can’t believe that young sailors can’t rig a spinnaker pole correctly. We all have to let it go, and look forward not back.

What is forward? Boats that are fun to sail in an environment that is ‘sticky’. If that means we throw our net wider to include wing sailing, or kite boarding, we do that. Start with a clean sheet. Keep what is working; change the rest. We need a more relaxed attitude when it comes to sailing and racing. Less regulation, stress and tension.

You know, the most fun racing we have in the OK is when Bushy (OK and Finn sailor) says, ‘I will run races this weekend’. No notice of race, no sailing instructions nor a protest committee, just Bushy in a borrowed club RIB, a couple of marks and 20 OKs. Five quick races and in for a beer all together. Bushy does the best he can, not every line is perfect, but it does not matter. It’s sticky for everyone.

From the USA I often hear complaints about PHRF ratings – they're missing the point. It’s not going to be perfect; it is what it is. An easy way to get lots of boats and sailors out on the water enjoying each other’s camaraderie.

Rather spend your brain time on ratings, wind conditions or ‘fair’ racing? Then use that massive brain to make a yachting environment where people can interact with each other on a friendly basis. Before, during and after racing. Be creative and put the effort in. That will get them back again... and again.

For club sailing, tone it down by mixing it up with downwind starts, starting off the shore tower, race to a destination and spend the night rafted up, come in for lunch break, night sailing with flashlights to light up the sails, or anything that promotes fun and social interaction.

Yacht clubs: let’s actively embrace new sailors. Rules like you have to be a member of a club to race put barriers up, preventing the sport from growing. Make the minimum structure and rules we can get away with. Get the sailors hooked on meaning and fulfilment within our sport.

Build the right stadium and they will come. It’s about the warmth of friendship, not who wins. Resist the tail wagging the dog.

All this might seem strange coming from me, with my Olympic and America’s Cup background, but I have three adult children and none of them are active sailors right now. So I know there is work to do.

Across the board, from World Sailing to the tiniest yacht clubs, the focus needs to shift from medals and trophies to make the sport fun and sticky for the sailors. That way, sailing will grow once again. It will take years to reverse the trend, but if we don’t take some bold steps, sailing will keep shrinking…

Ask not what your club and sailing can do for you but what you can do for your club and sailing.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Seahorse Magazine.

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