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Former ISA President Calls for Change in Irish Sailing Debate

14th March 2013
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Former ISA President Calls for Change in Irish Sailing Debate

#isa – Roger Bannon has a lot to say about the state of Irish sailing. The former president of the Irish Sailing Association (ISA) - and a dinghy and sportsboat champion in his own right - used his term in office two decades ago to secure the position and financial viability of the association as a national sporting authority by making every member of a sailing club in Ireland also a member of the ISA.

It was a bravo move that unified Ireland's sailing clubs into a stronger whole fit to nurture the talent necessary to challenge the world at the top levels of sailing. But in more recent times that fitness has been called into question, and Bannon is among those hitting out at an authority that has arguably lost its relevance to all bar those at the most elite levels in the sport.

"The ISA has lost its way over the last few years," he says, giving his view of a bureaucracy "detached from the reality of what is going on in the front line".

Resulting from the reforms he spearheaded in the early 1990s, the ISA became "a creature of the clubs", but he believes that the clubs have now "lost control as the professional team in the ISA grew and began to exercise increasing influence on key decisions".

Things came to a head before the recent ISA AGM, where a motion was tabled to 'shake up' ISA policy to stem the decline of dinghy sailing in Ireland. Bannon is among many in the sport - regatta organisers, commodores, champions and racers alike - who credit the decline of dinghies and one-design sailing with the national body's disproportionate emphasis on the Olympic classes. But they're not the only ones in the crosshairs.

"The clubs have also a lot to answer for in this respect," he says. "They were all mesmerised by the easy money of the Celtic Tiger era and lost sight of the value-for-money issues as well as the primary responsibility to look after their members' sailing interests."

Bannon posits the "major disruption" cause by the hosting of "too many 'status' events", and what he sees as the unjustifiably high costs of access to club facilities, as significant factors in the decline of classes such as the SB20 in Dun Laoghaire alone.

And there is "another elephant in the room", he says, referring to the financial struggles among even the biggest of Ireland's sailing clubs, many of which have been cutting fees - some even doing away with them altogether - in an attempt to attract new, younger members.

"Most clubs have worryingly ageing membership profiles which leads to less sailing activity, particularly racing," says Bannon. "This is a disturbing spiral accentuated by the fact that we are also losing nearly all the juniors who we train at great expense because our sailing curriculum is not focussed on generating a lifetime love for or a competence in the sport."

He puts this outcome squarely at the door of the ISA and its policies "both in terms of training emphasis and boat selection. This has huge structural consequences for the future viability of clubs and for the sport in Ireland."

Sailing in crisis

Bannon doesn't mince his words when he says "Irish sailing is truly in crisis". And his reasons for feeling that way are manifold.

The former ISA president references  "needless bureaucracy and expense of qualifying" as an instructor with no thorough assessment of sailing or racing capability.

He even explains the decline in the progression of juniors into senior sailing as a result of "undue anxieties about the political correctness of young people spending extended leisure time with adults .... We also largely train our kids in single-handers and they have no idea of how to sail team boats or double handed dinghies."

Such issues are of course not unique to Ireland, but Bannon says the "macro policies emanating from the ISA have certainly not helped. The clubs do not realise a revolution is under way and most are burying their heads in a nostalgia for what they believe has worked perfectly for the last 30 years."

It's reasons like this that prompted the aforementioned motion to save dinghy sailing, but one factor of a growing resentment among those who want to see Irish sailing adapt with the times - as opposed to the ISA which, Bannon says, sees "nothing wrong with the status quo" of the current top-down strategy.

"After all, despite reducing capitation revenue from the clubs, Government funding is freely available for sailing after the Olympics, the hosting of many major prestigious events and the activism of some in the ISAF."

He also criticises the "detachment" he perceives among the ISA's executives, noting that in advance of the upcoming meeting on the dinghy sailing motion on 23 March, all classes in Ireland received a letter "looking for information about attendance figures at national championships over the last five years. Surely it would be expected this kind of important data would be readily to hand in the ISA? It certainly used to be in years gone by."

Bannon says that when "this unhappiness was articulated at the recent ISA AGM, the ISA's initial reaction was to kick it down the road for a year" but that position quickly changed "when they realised the depth of feeling ... about the urgency with which this all needed to be addressed".

The message, he says, was clear: the ISA needs to refocus its priorities. And it starts with the meeting on 23 March at the National Yacht Club, at which Bannon will represent the DBSC Mermaid, and which "must be effective in changing things and redirecting our national governing sports authority to do what we require.

"After all, it is our organisation, of which we are all individual members, and to which we contribute significant financial resources personally through our clubs."

Meanwhile, there is the problem of encouraging casual sailors perhaps alienated by the ISA's professional focus to get back on the water. Bannon cities "conservative" estimates that there are "over 500 Mirror dinghies stored in garages and gardens around the country ... Will somebody explain to me why not even 20 per cent of them are being used? Talk about a lost opportunity for low-cost youth sailing."

Ultimately, he says, "we have collectively lost our way and need to seriously reassess. Too much of our effort is directed at producing international sailors while 99.9 per cent of sailors never aspire to these dizzy heights. Does this not smack of misdirected emphasis and inefficient allocation of resources?"

Leading up to the dinghy motion, Bannon has a number of questions that he wants the national sailing body to answer. "Why does the ISA devote so much energy to non-sailing-related activities?" he asks. "Why was Ireland the leading protagonist in the ISAF for the ridiculous – and fortunately aborted – decision to adopt kitesurfing as an Olympic discipline? How was this relevant to Irish sailing?"

He continues: "Why was the supplementary grant received on foot of the perceived success of the ISAF World Youth Championships spent on vehicles for ISA staff, high performance sailing support and the purchase of dinghies we never sail in Ireland?" Surely, he says, this was owed to the young sailors of this country and to the clubs who made it happen.

And there's more. "Why do we need a compliment of 14 staff to run the ISA at a payroll cost of over €650,000?" he queries.

Raising the standard

Yet while Bannon believes that the ISA is at the root of Ireland's sailing problems, he also has faith that the organisation is in a position to turn things around. First things first, he says, is to bring about a change in priorities "which is focused on addressing the needs of non-elite regular club sailors.

"This is not to diminish the importance of supporting elite and Olympic sailing. However, this has to become a subsidiary focus to the main objective of getting people sailing competently and safely in whatever boat they wish."

Bannon's view is that by raising the general standard of sailing in Ireland, this country will be more effective at producing – and retaining - a wider pool of talent to feed into elite programmes as well as populate local or non-Olympic classes.

"Good sailors attract competition and invigorate participation regardless of the type of boat," he says. "GP 14s, Fireballs, Mermaids, National 18s and SB20s are good examples of this. Look at how many ex-Mirror sailors went on to become Olympians in contrast to ex-420 sailors."

Other moves he suggests include a redesigning of junior training programmes to encourage racing, with log books reintroduced to measure and record improvement in skills, moving away from the more egalitarian methods adopted by sailing schools "which are directed at a different audience anyway".

Selection of quality sailing instructors also needs review, he argues, with a focus on seamanship skills needed for racing in all dinghies. Related to this would be appointment of full-time sailing club liaison officers with high level sailing skills and coaching qualifications "to provide coaching resources to clubs and supervise the quality of instructors on the job.

"If necessary reduce administrative staff and regional officers in preference for the appointment of club coaches and liaison officers," he continues, adding too that some of the money currently applied to ancillary activities such as PR can be put into support for specialist coaching for adult and non-approved pathway classes. "A sailor in a National 18, a Squib or a Flying Fifteen is entitled to the same access to coaching and development support as anyone else," he says.

On the same note, he believes that clubs should be able to decide what classes they wish to support for junior sailing in a non-proscriptive manner. "What's wrong with the Mirror?" he says by way of example. "There are hundreds of them available at virtually zero cost."

But above all, Bannon places his big question mark over the effectiveness of concentrated support for elite sailors.

"Being absolutely frank, despite all the expectations and effort, we have failed to produce any Olympic medallists or indeed any worthwhile performances over the last 20 years," he says. Even Annalise Murphy - whom he credits as "an enormously talented sailor" and who came so close to a bronze in the Laser Radial - comes under scrutiny. "It has to be acknowledged [her fourth place finish] was in conditions which particularly suited her."

What Ireland needs, argues Bannon, is stronger all-rounders. "A common theme among many successful Olympic sailors in other countries is their willingness to compete in domestic and international non-Olympic classes in order to get high quality competition in other boats where skill levels are high," he says. "Generally in Ireland our standards are not high in non-Olympic classes. We are not sufficiently skilled or competitive because of a lack of support and coaching.

"Until we improve our domestic standards generally, we will never produce world-class sailors capable of winning Olympic medals, regardless of extensive specialist nurturing."

For Bannon, whatever class people sail doesn't matter "as long as we get loads of people sailing with acceptable skill levels".

In advance of the the debate on the future for dinghy and one design sailing in Ireland at the National Yacht Club on Saturday, March 23rd we're keen to get your comments on this article in the box below.

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