#smallboatconference – Ric Morris's excellent five point analysis goes some way to identifying the direction in which we should be taking small boat sailing in Ireland writes Roger Bannon.
Perhaps one of the problems we have is that none of the so called adult classes, where most racing is occurring, have sufficient critical mass with maybe the Laser class being somewhat of an exception. Very few classes attract more than 25 boats to participate in events and this tends to encourage a parochial ethos with little interface between different classes. There has to be a strong case for classes to collaborate on hosting events, particularly regional and national championships. This would help to reduce costs, improve race management standards and enhance the enjoyment of onshore activities with the improved dynamic of increased numbers. It would also provide a showcase for individual classes to highlight their attractions. Most young people entering the sport have little awareness of the enjoyment, both social and sailing, to be derived from the established older style fleets such as the Squibs, National 18s, Mermaids, GP14s, Shannon One designs, Flying Fifteens, etc. It is worthwhile noting that the team which won the Mermaid Championships this year were all under 23 years of age! The Fireball and SB20 fleets provide great opportunities for youngsters to participate in exciting boats with good fleet sizes and highly competitive racing without any great financial commitment as boat owners are always looking for fit young crew. The "cradle to grave" RS family of boats is probably a good indicator of where we should be going with multiple RS classes catering for all ages and abilities sharing resources to host events and creating the essential ingredients to make events enjoyable and cost effective.
The "elephant in the room" that seems to be ignored by many administrators in the sport is cost! How can an entry fee of €190 be justified for a child to participate for 3 days in the Optimist National Championships? Why do we wonder why participation levels at this event have fallen so dramatically? Why are new recruits to the sport brainwashed into acquiring expensive new boats when so many acceptable second hand boats are lying idle in garages and sheds around the country and readily available in the UK. The Mirror class believes there are literally hundreds of old Mirrors not being used in Ireland. Many of these may be less than ideally competitive, but who cares, if a couple of hundred additional young people are able to get regular fun sailing in them. Why is it so expensive to participate in club sponsored youth schemes and to acquire Instructor qualifications?
I think we need to re-examine how we attract and more essentially retain young people in the sport.
Does it really matter what type of boats our kids are sailing as long as we have loads of them enjoying the sport in a safe manner?
Can we revitalise the traditional linkages of prior years between youth sailors and the established classes and attract them to make the transition?
The ISA has pursued a policy of developing excellence in our youth sailors by encouraging them to sail in high performance or very competitive boats, plucking the best from these classes and then supporting them as elite sailors who we ultimately hope will achieve Olympic potential.
From the ISA's perspective, this is a worthy policy to pursue, as success at international and Olympic level raises the profile of the sport which provides the justification to source substantial funding from various Government Agencies, notably the Sports Council, to sustain the organisation. However this approach disillusions the vast majority of young sailors who are not of elite standard and there is no adequate policy or framework in place to encourage these young sailors to continue their relationship with the sport. An unforeseen consequence of this policy has been the focus on encouraging young sailors to use single handed boats such as the Laser and Optimist, almost to the exclusion of multi crewed alternatives. This has also had the impact of not equipping youngsters with the basic skills of sailing in a team environment, leaving them with little experience of the roles in multi crewed boats and lacking the versatility to enjoy other aspects of the sport. It should be noted that this is in direct contrast with the RYA's policy of nurturing and directly supporting inexpensive classes such as the Topper and Mirror. They do this for 3 main reasons, the first being that so many of their Olympic sailors have come from these classes, secondly they recognise the best sailors in a large fleet are likely to be more talented than those at the front of a smaller fleet and finally multi crewed boats with conventional spinnakers provide a good foundation level of skills to apply to higher performance boats.
There is perhaps another factor at work in the RYA which has contributed to their outstanding success at Olympic and youth levels. The RYA people directly involved in devising policy and managing development programs are almost all exclusively extremely talented sailors who have enjoyed considerable racing success themselves and understand the environment which encouraged and motivated them.
Returning to Ric's suggestions, I think what is outlined above lends weight to some of his proposals.
· Serious consideration should be given to the establishment of a new Small Boat Racing Association to oversee and determine policy for small boat racing activities (excluding Olympic and elite support) as the ISA is ill equipped with personnel of the appropriate experience to execute a role in this regard. The founders of ICRA (Irish Cruiser Racing Association) decided this was the way to go for big boat sailing some years ago and it has proven to be a tremendous success.
· The ISA should be in a position to collate and disseminate vital statistics about participation levels in the sport and provide information on the performance and throughput of its training schemes in the form of a reliable database.
· An urgent review of the ISA's training schemes is required to put a greater focus on producing sailors with a broader range of sailing skills (probably over a longer period) to equip them to safely enjoy other aspects of the sport.
· Existing established classes need to consider collaboration with other similar classes to create a more exciting, cost effective and better resourced dynamic within which to participate in competitive sailing.