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Norman Lee & Bryan Armstrong's Dinghy Sailing Presentation to the ISA AGM

4th March 2013
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Norman Lee & Bryan Armstrong's Dinghy Sailing Presentation to the ISA AGM

#dinghy – Dinghy sailing affairs dominated Saturday's ISA agm (March 2nd 2013) with a motion seeking a change in policy to stem the decline in participation from Wicklow's Norman Lee and Sligo's Bryan Armstrong. The pair outlined problems ranging from the standard of instructors to lack of logbook requirements. As previously reported on Afloat.ie the motion has led to a meeting within the month of all clubs and classes to take the next step toward rekindling dinghy sailing.

There are 40 plus comments in our earlier story on the subject here and below is Bryan Armstrong's Presentation to Saturday's meeting in full.

"When I was thinking about what I would say at this meeting I was expecting that I would be facing a hostile audience and that people might think, at the end of a year when there was much to celebrate in Irish Sailing, that putting down this motion was a disloyal thing to do, even an act of begrudgery.

Since then we have had this wonderful on line discussion both on the ISA site and on the Afloat site and I must admit to my surprise at the level of support we have received. We seem to have struck a chord of dissatisfaction among the dinghy sailing community. Many of the things I would have wanted to say have been said, and perhaps better than I can. I hope that when this is over someone will take these contributions and try to distill out the great ideas that are there.

You will all know Norman and his wife Una (who was JO in LDYC for many years) but since I do not often appear in the higher echelons of sailing politics I am conscious that many may not actually know who I am and why I feel what I do, and how we got here.

I had the privilege of having been taught to sail as a teenager by, at Sligo Yacht Club, which is near where I grew up and still live, in Rosses Point. About 1970 my father bought us a Mirror kit and my brother and I bashed it together over two weeks in an upstairs bedroom. The boat was a mess and we were never very good as mirror sailors anyway but we had an awful lot of fun.

Now I sail and race an old GP14 (which is what you do in Sligo – the club has a one design policy). I'm still not great at it but I still have fun.

In the early 2000s my kids started Mirror sailing and I became a member of the Mirror Class Committee in 2004 after the Europeans in LDYC, a superb event run under the Chairmanship of Patrick Blaney. Anyone who was there will remember the thunderstorm. There were 84 Irish boats entered in a fleet of 120.

The following year we went to the Mirror Worlds in Ostersund in Sweden. A big Irish team of went and brought back lots of Silverware, including the World title.

Any junior sailing fleet looses members after a big event. The older sailors stay on for it and then move on when its over. Suddenly the Mirrors began to loose members very rapidly and although we didn't really notice it for a while, the replacements did not seem to be appearing. Looking back on it, I think the reasons were:--

➢ ISA dropped logbook requirement, a subject to which I will be returning.

➢ ISA actively promoted another class to the exclusion of the Mirror and made it very clear that Mirrors were not favored.

➢ The Mirror was perceived to be old fashioned and outdated.

Suddenly, Mirrors were not "cool". There is no fate worse than that in the teenage market we needed.

This was of course reflected in the IMCAI Committee and I became chairman in 2007, as a kind of last man left standing (almost). At times I was fearful that the association would collapse altogether, but the prospect that I might be the last Chairman was very incentivizing. We managed to stem the flow until the new Winder design became available – we bought two as demonstration boats (very nice: have a look sometime) - and tried some new ideas such as an annual "Bronze Fleet" event, confined to bronze fleet sailors.

Now, by the very poor standards which this motion is an attempt to address, we are doing at least as well as the others, arguably better.

I saw the opportunity to get the 2010 Mirror Europeans back to Sligo & went after it and succeeded. There were 54 Irish boats entered. Ross Kearney (now working for Pinnell & Bax sailmakers), took the title.

We had spent a lot of time during the Europeans making the UK contingent feel welcome. We do that in Sligo with visitors. Actually they had a ball.

Shortly after that event I got a phone call from the Secretary of the UK Class Association to the effect that the 2013 Mirror Worlds were up for grabs and that he would support an application from Sligo. I said yes definitely and put in a proposal. This led to the event being awarded to Ireland, with the Irish Association to decide on the venue. They put it out to tender and I had my eye wiped by LDYC, but that's ok. They will make a fine job of it and I get to relax in Drumineer while someone else does the work.

This is why the Mirror Worlds are there next summer. As I speak, 13 teams are down on Lough Ree being coached for the event by Ger Owens with, I regret to have to say, no support at all from ISA.

I am telling you all this so that you will understand that Norman and I are serious people who have been around dinghy sailing issues and specifically junior sailing for a long time and I suggest that we know what we are talking about.

We have both been deeply frustrated at what we perceive as a long slow decline in the sport which has as its root cause bad policy decisions taken at ISA level. As you can see from the forums, we are not alone in this.

The trigger for the motion we have put forward was the Consultation meeting held by ISA in Sligo last autumn. Although I am less involved with the Mirrors now, I received an invitation to this which said that among other things it was to:

Discuss how the ISA can improve its support & services to organisations.

Since, in my opinion, the Mirror organisation gets no support at all from ISA, it wasn't going to be too difficult to suggest how it might be improved. I went along and we heard a presentation from the ISA officers. To be fair, much of it was very good.

However, I never see any point in going to a meeting and not saying whatever it is I have to say. I and indeed Niall Henry then SYC commodore raised much of what is now in our motion, but did not feel that we were getting much traction.

The report issued shortly afterwards and frankly, I found the report dismissive of the concerns raised and was not pleased. I prepared a document with the intent of provoking debate in some way that I had not worked out and sent it to Norman and Una and asked them what they thought about it and whether I was just making a fool out of myself. Their response was that they wanted to be part of this and Norman later talked me into seconding our motion here today.

THE MOTION

Before begin talking about the Motion itself I think we need face some realities and to put aside some of the PR & spin that has been put out over the past 10 days or so and have an open and factually based, honest debate. It's always dangerous when an organisation starts believing its own PR.

The truth is that, if measured in terms of numbers active, Irish Dinghy sailing and arguably Irish sailing generally is in big trouble. Fleet numbers are very small and many classes seem close to falling below the critical mass necessary for survival. If Harry Hermon and the Members of the ISA board really believe that the 12,000 trainees from last or any recent year are really "staying with the sport" and playing swallows and amazons somewhere around Irish sailing clubs then this organisation is so seriously out of touch with reality that one would have to despair of any prospect of dealing with our problems.

To discuss the motion I need to break it down into its separate elements. The first is:-

"That the meeting recognises that that the current policies being followed by the ISA are causing or contributing to the decline in numbers participating in dinghy racing by:-

Has there been a decline in Dinghy Racing?

Mirror events in the 1990s could well attract 120 boats or even more. (See Garth Craigs contribution on the ISA forum. At GP 14 events maybe 80. The IYA (as it then was) Dinghy week in Baltimore in the 1980s caused the water supply to the entire town to fail. Ironically, as I remember it, the reason Dinghy Week was stopped was that it was getting bigger than any Club could handle.

Over this time there has been a huge improvement in the technology of boats and gear. Road access through the country was never better. We have even had an economic "boom". All of this should have caused an increase in dinghy sailing. Instead there has been as steady decline. No class today can come close to the numbers of 20 years ago and even all of the classes of today combined cannot match them.

We say that current ISA policies are a critical issue and are at least, contributing to the decline.

➢ "Failing to structure the Association's sail training schemes so as to encourage as far as possible the continued participation of young participants in the sport, so as to make sailing a "sport for life"."

Obviously the success or failure of any policy has to be viewed against whatever objective the policy is designed to achieve. Certainly if the Sail training scheme is designed to maximise the participation rates and have the children enjoy themselves in a safe environment then clearly the ISA sail training courses are doing very well. According to the figures put up by Harry Hermon some 12,000 kids participated in ISA sail training in 2012.

If however the purpose of the scheme is to attract people to the sport on a long term basis the consensus and the evidence seem to be that it is failing badly. The question arises, if it is training, what is it training for?

Prior to the Sligo meeting I tried to do some investigation into the number of children and teenagers actually participating in competitive sailing. As there are several factors involved and different levels of participation, that's not totally simple. What I did was go to the websites of the various classes involved and looked at the numbers entered in their National Championships and I came up with the following figures. I realise that they give an incomplete picture but in the absence of anything else they are sufficient to make my point. I find it interesting that the ISA itself does not seem to have figures.

Lasers mixed fleet but 78 young
Oppies not totally clear from site but 160
(I understand that 30 of the 190 entered were from the UK
RS Feva 21 boats 42
Topper 48
Topper Topaz mixed fleet 34
Mirrors 30 boats 60
420 16 boats 32

Total 454

The reality may be even bleaker. Many fleets are going to clubs known to have good numbers locally. E.G 23 of the 28 boats in the Topaz fleet came from the host club.
It is generally believed that 80 to 90 % of Oppie sailors do not sail again after they leave the class.

Correct for those factors, and I would guess that after Oppies the core number of teenagers prepared to travel to an event would be less than 300.

What is happening today in children's sailing is that apart from the handful who do take up racing, they are attending the courses for the few weeks of the summer and are not seen again until the following summer. Then when they finish they are not seen at all.

In a way, they are not meant to be seen again because Irish sailing at the moment could not cope with numbers like that. Where would we get the boats and the RIBs to mind them?

If kids don't race then they don't sail. There is only one thing you can do with a racing dinghy: race it. If there was doubt about this, the safety issue nails it. You can't let kids go off sailing on their own without supervision, and that is only provided in a racing contest.

The strangest aspect of the ISA response to me is the notion which comes across that kids don't want to race – that its a hardship on them to "force" (Harry Hermon's word) them to do so.

I don't believe that it is a hardship and I am not suggesting that anyone be forced to do anything. It's a matter of meeting a standard. You don't force a teenager to study for the Leaving Cert, but if they don't, they won't pass.

In fact I consider that that ability to take a boat out onto the water, sail it around and bring it back in, powered only by the wind, is alone an awesome skill for any kid to have.

However, I also believe one design dinghy racing is a sublime sport combining physical and intellectual, and organisational skills and much more as well. I consider that it was a very great privilege for me to have been given the gift of learning how to do it, however badly. It has for me been a sport for life and I can think also of some of the elder statesmen of the sport, like, Louis Smyth still sailing his Fireball and Sligo's own Gus Henry still very hard to beat in his homemade and very beautiful GP14.

Racing is also the only way to get sailors to actually go sailing. We are a competitive species. It's just the way we are. You could after all play golf alone or with a partner and not keep a score. Who actually does that? We need the little edge that competition brings.

The problem is that sailboat racing is very complicated. A kid can be given a football or a hurley stick or a tennis racket and be sent off with instructions not to be late home for tea. This is not possible with sailing because measures have to be taken to ensure that they actually come home at all.

It also requires a boat and loads of gear to protect from the elements. These things are expensive (although there are ways and means). Proper race management requires ribs, committee boats and serious infrastructure.

I see it as a series of thresholds. The first is the basic safety one that ensures that those who go out, actually come back. The sailing courses do achieve this and games like swallows and amazons are a useful tool for getting small children over the safety threshold.

The second threshold is perhaps the ability to compete in a race and finish the course. As of now the kids are not required to do even that.

The third is when the competitor begins to understand what is going on in the race and the realisation comes that there is more to this than meets the eye. A whole panorama of issues like windshifts, tides, boat tune and tactics opens up. It takes time and commitment for the sailor to get this far. No-one said dinghy racing was easy, but it is very, very good.

I don't see that giving the little push that a logbook gives is "forcing" the young sailor. I see it as bringing the opportunity to learn the sport.

I have watched enough young people sailing to know that those who race get much better than those who do not (if they sail at all) and those who do events outside their clubs get much better than those who stay at home. Huge exchanges of knowledge take place at events, both from kids to kids and from parents to parents.

At the Sligo meeting when we were having this argument Tony Wright said that he would not "put that" (meaning an obligation to travel to outside events) on families. I acknowledge fully that it can be onerous for parents and I have myself spent many Sunday afternoons packing boats in the rain. Sailing does require a lot of parental support but the other side of the coin is that for me anyway great times have been had around Mirror events and there is great bonding with ones children.

This is what the ISA Report on the consultative meetings says on the issue:

Why does the ISA not encourage young sailors within the small boat sailing scheme to race in Regional and National Championships?

When the current small boat sailing scheme was introduced we included modules within the syllabus to accommodate those youngsters who are not competitive and who were dropping out of the scheme. Within the current syllabus there is a pathway for all interests (racing and non racing).

Now they are all dropping out and if there is a pathway, very few are taking it. The decision of the ISA in the early 2000s to take the focus of the curriculum off racing to where I know not, has been an absolute disaster and the numbers are proving that. A huge generation gap has opened up in the sport and it is directly related to that decision.

➢ The system produces 'Instructors' who put no value on participation in club activities, continue to see themselves as 'Juniors' and have not been exposed to 'Senior' fleet sailing. Experience shows that those that have participated in 'senior' racing in their teens are much more likely to continue sailing or come back at a later stage.

The instructor problem is of course a logical follow on from the previous one.

For the kids, qualification as a sailing instructor provides status and the ability to earn good wages in a very pleasant environment. It's a great way to spend the summers for a third level student. It gives responsibility in a controlled environment and it's very maturing. In principle it should be very advantageous in keeping them connected with the clubs and in the sport generally. Much of the training is very good, although very expensive (and I do not see the need for so much revalidation).

The problem is that with the way things have gone over the past few years, there is a large cohort of instructors who simply cannot sail properly. During the last week I learned of two young people who are planning to qualify as instructors. Both are very nice kids and will bring a lot to it. They have come up through the ISA scheme and have all their levels. One turns up for club racing no more than once a season and has never done an away event. The other got a boat for the first time at the end of last year, shows promise but is in no way ready to be an instructor. Neither can sail properly, and could not go out on a windy day themselves, never mind while looking after children on the water.

I have to assume that they will qualify because I have seen several worse sailors qualify. Some clubs (we do in Sligo) try to make instructors actually sail and race, but these are often children of prominent members. They arrive with their qualifications and expect to be employed. What is a club to do?

➢ Failing to provide necessary support and encouragement to clubs and classes associations in all parts of the Country for the provision and continuation of well managed and competitive dinghy racing at club and national level.

I suppose that this can be broken down into support for clubs and support for class associations. I have spent the past two years as a member of the committee of the Sligo Yacht Club. I cannot say that the ISA has been hugely relevant to what we do. This may vary from club to club. I cannot really say.

I do however have a general sense that the smaller clubs could use more support.

Many of the contributions on the forum came from Class Associations or people prominent in them. They seem unanimous that they get little or no support. For the Mirrors I can say that they get none.

At the Sligo meeting Harry Hermon said that he accepted that their relations with Class Associations could be better. He will remember the exchange. I said I had to agree with him. He said that it was good that we agreed on something. I started my usual rant about the many Mirrors sitting unused around the Country. I said a campaign to get them back into use backed by the ISA would be a good start. Here is an extract from the report that followed these meetings:-

There are an estimated 500 serviceable Mirror Dinghies in the country not being sailed, why doesn't the ISA develop an initiative to bring them back into commission?
The ISA's strategy is to develop the sport through the club structures, and the funding model reflects this. As such the ISA operational focus is to support the development of the clubs. We acknowledge the ISA does not perhaps maximise the potential the classes have to offer in respect of developing the sport, however the ISA's policy is to encourage partnerships between clubs and classes. The class associations have the responsibility for developing activity within their own class.

No great sign of a new initiative there.

Clubs run club racing and host national events. Class associations promote the boats that sail in those club races and national events. The ISA is a national organisation which is or should be the umbrella group under which it all happens. Each party need the other. Why cannot they work together in a coherent way for the benefit of the sport?

It is very clear that this is not happening

➢ Emphasising the training of selected juveniles by the creation of elite squads of possible future Olympians, without proper regard to the interests of those failing (for whatever reasons) to meet that standard or who are not able or cannot afford to give the time or family/financial commitment and who are thereby discouraged and lost to the sport.

Norman and I are not against the Olympic campaign. I might argue that there is a need for some proportionality : it only happens every four years and only one of the classes of boat is actually sailed in this country.

Neither is it about the money. In the Mirrors we weren't actually stuck for money (until I got at it and bought the two Winders).

I get how the Pathway scheme is supposed to work. You take a group and work with it with more and more resources and pair them down progressively and the theory is that the ones that emerge at the top are very good indeed. Judged alone by the results, it seems to be doing well. However, national championship turnouts of 16 420s and 22 Fevas – both pathway classes - give no great confidence that all is well for the future.

The problem is that only a small minority will ever get there. As matters stand, the others drop off and are lost. Why do so many Oppie sailors never sail again? These are children who know how to sail. Is the pressure too much?

Personally I would prefer to see a small child at the front end of a Mirror with a bigger sibling or friend rather than alone in a Oppie, but I would say that, wouldn't I?

What I can say without fear of contradiction is that this scheme has done serious damage to the Mirrors who have been excluded. The logic of their exclusion is lost on me. Why would you take a class with regular 100+ fleets and cast it aside like that? A very different attitude is taken in the UK. At last years Europeans in Poole a small Irish Group was faced by a UK team with 3 wholetime coaches with ribs etc. I expect them all over to LDYC in the summer and the Australians and the South Africans, and the Irish are left to their own resources.

If we must have a pathway scheme it needs to be (at least at the early stages) much more inclusive. Kids develop at different rates anyway. Also, there must be an attractive option for those who don't stay with it.

➢ And that ISA refocus on the original Objective set out in article 2 of its Memorandum of Association, which is ' to promote the amateur sport of sailing in Ireland' and amend its policies and practices to address the matters referred to."

This is a direct quote from the Memorandum of Association of the ISA. Harry Hermon has pointed out in one of his submissions that the articles were amended in 2006 to define sailing as including the sport of sailing wind surfing and leisure boating in all its branches whether under sail or power.

Is it a coincidence that what we see as the rot started around 2006? Norman & I make no apology for our interest in the sport of sailing meaning boats powered by the wind and this is what we want the ISA to refocus on. How exactly this should be done is a big subject and very useful suggestions are set out in the contributions to the two forums. It clearly requires much thinking and planning and I would hope that much may yet emerge from the discussion which I hope will follow at this meeting and as we go forward.

I do recognise that there is another side to this coin and that there are issues on the racing scene that need to be addressed so as to eliminate as far as possible the disincentives. There is much work to be done on this.

As a first step, to demonstrate to the ISA that there is a problem, that it has lost its direction and that something must be done about it, I ask your support for our motion here today".

Published in ISA
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