A radical racer weighs in

Sven Donaldson’s critical review of the current status of offshore racing (“Has racing gotten too radical?,” Issue No. 77) has clearly identified all its problems and a few proposed solutions, but does not acknowledge two important elements in the sport: evolution and excitement.

Just as windsurfers evolved from sailing relatively heavy platforms into wave jumping, most offshore sailors are no longer content to consider eight knots fast when speeds twice that high are attainable. No one is crying about the demise of the IOR rule because, simply put, IOR boats were not only expensive but slow compared to what the IMS has now yielded. The next Whitbread will feature a fleet of 60-foot level-raters; these boats are not being hampered by IOR-type rule requirements. Even in Mr. Donaldson’s backyard, the ULDB sled class is evolving toward boats that are faster and more exciting. Why should we mourn for the past? Was it all that great to be spending a lot of time and money to go slow?

Laying blame on professionals for driving the sport toward extinction ignores the simple fact that professionals need the sport too. For the most part, the application of their expertise and initiative is a response to what their clientele and the marketplace demand, whether by their direct sailing involvement or by offering innovative products to the market. Mr. Donaldson’s assessment that the escalating costs of the sport are the result of unnecessary pressure by professionals to go faster is ridiculous. Everybody wants to have something that is better and fasterit’s part of our nature as racing sailors.

Just as the price of the average automobile has doubled over the last decade, the price of racing yachts has also escalated in response to the addition of features that the market, not professionals, demand. Carbon spars, for example, are used on many current designs because they offer substantial performance and safety advantages over analogous alloy rigs. If the customer does not want to pay for this or other features, perhaps he’ll find an acceptable alternative in another designthat is the beauty of “market fragmentation,” which Mr. Donaldson unfortunately perceived as negative.

And, while quoting Rod Johnstone’s adage for success in selling offshore sailing yachts is commercially relevant, it has little to do with the driving forces in offshore racing. The Johnstones have been wildly successful in identifying what the mainstream sailor wants, and when the 1980s dictated race boats they built and marketed race boats. But, when the mass market got older and traded their sports cars for minivans, J/Boats adapted by offering the sailing equivalent. Some of their clients will still race offshore (in fact, I was a watch captain on Nick Brown’s 1991 Fastnet Trophy-winning J/44 Iona), but they will be competitively handicapped by having made a compromise decision to purchase a dual-purpose boat appropriate for non-racing use.

Take a look around: the cost of everything has gone up, and racing sailboats are simply not as important to people as their mortgages and their kids’ college funds. The downturn in participation levels is in all probability more closely linked to reduced disposable income than to professional involvement.

As for sponsorship, it’s hard to imagine how this has been a negative influence on the sport. In an era of belt-tightening, why shouldn’t we seek sponsors to offset the costs of the activity we enjoy? Besides providing money for Grand Prix-level programs, sponsorship has also allowed for higher-quality regattas for the Corinthian sailor. Yachting/Mount Gay Key West and Block Island Race Weeks, for example, are more popular than ever among the club racers. These would not be possible without professional management and sponsorship. In New Zealand, the world’s best sailors and offshore programs are produced out of an extensive grass-roots network maintained by strong ties to commercial sponsorship.

To acknowledge offshore racing as a sport prompts comparison to other sports, and for it to progress we must learn as others have from new fiscal realities and opportunities. With its amazing acts of athletic and technical prowess, sports as entertainment is at its immensely popular level due to media exposure subsidized wholly or in part by sponsorship. Does Mr. Donaldson also believe that games like football, hockey, basketball, and baseball have been compromised by sponsorship? Without signage and exposure, there can be no sponsorship, no prize money, no media coverage. In the Information Age does he think anything will grow without media exposure? No doubt he, like many American sailors, missed seeing Olympic sailing coverage on network television. But if he were in France, Italy, or New Zealand it would have been no problem, due in part to more highly developed and active commercial sponsorship of sailing in those countries compared with our own.

And while he also seems to rue professionals being on the same course as amateurs, it is in fact a unique and exciting feature of our sport. What weekend golfer wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to play with Greg Norman? Besides picking up a few pointers, imagine the ego gratification if you beat him on a hole or two.

Fortunately our sport has enough variables that pros don’t always win, and amateurs can use the opportunity to learn directly from them when they do. Finally, it’s unfortunate that Mr. Donaldson has also used the outdated name for the international governing body of the sport. The IYRU has since August been renamed the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), with the change prompted in part by the need to drop the word “yacht” from racing parlance. It connotes an anachronistic elitism which has not helped broaden the base of the sport, an important goal Mr. Donaldson has correctly identified. However, in his call for leadership, Mr. Donaldson has neglected to mention that criteria for international class recognition by the ISAF is in fact a quite rigorous process, not something promoting a “plethora” of classes. The “fighting tooth and nail” for market share is simply natural selection at workwhy should innovation and responsiveness to market demands be artificially repressed? And if so, by what criteria?

The concern that racing has gotten too radical has and always will be raised by those with some vested interest in preserving the past. Personally, I’m excited after 20 years of competitive racing to finally see boats that are simple, strong, fast, and actually fun to sail come into local fleets. And while the IMS rule is not perfect in assessing a boat’s performance, for the first time in history we at least have an objective system of scientifically evaluating it to an accuracy of within a few seconds per mile. Races are now often decided to within seconds. More than ever before, the constraint on performance lies more with the people than with the equipment, thus leaving space for everyone to set new standards.

Dobbs Davis is the production manager at J. Hamilton Yacht Co. in Annapolis, Md., and is U.S. correspondent of Seahorse magazine.

Sven Donaldson responds:

Mr. Davis, like almost every pro sailor I’ve encountered, obviously has a deep love of the sport and wants to see it flourish. He seems to agree with me in many respects, beginning with the parallels between the evolution of sail boarding and offshore racing from their low-tech origins to today’s spectacular state of the art. However, the reason I brought up the sail boarding example was to illustrate a very clear-cut inverse correlation between “radical” and mass participationa point that Mr. Davis did not address. So while it’s true that the turbo-charged ULDB sleds add glamour and excitement to racing here in my backyard (the Pacific coast), it’s also true that participation in last summer’s Victoria-Maui Classic reached an all-time low with just 14 competitors, sleds included.

Advanced design and construction is not a problem in and of itself. I heartily agree with Mr. Davis that it’s wonderful to have a new breed of race boats that are simple, strong, fast, and fun to sail. But the point I made in my article is that high tech must be cost effective. Carbon fiber masts may “pay their way”; carbon hulls quite often will not. There are plenty of people who would love to own great boats, but not, it would seem, when the price tag becomes too high.

Likewise, if a super-fast boat requires extraordinary skills to race successfully, weekend sailors may become discouraged and turn to other competitive pursuits. The old argument that amateur racers enjoy testing their mettle against the pros has been making the rounds for decades. But if this is true, why the overwhelmingly positive response to the new Mumm 30 class with its restrictions on pro participation? Why are many other class and event organizers considering similar measures?

Yes, I do believe that games like football, hockey, basketball, and baseball have lost something as a result of unbridled sponsorship and professionalism. Judging by the popularity of romantic baseball movies such as “Field of Dreams,” I’m not alone. Media coverage, particularly television, can clearly help the professional/commercial side of a sport to grow, but I’m not so sure it always helps the amateur side to flourish. And I don’t agree that television coverage is vital to the health of a sport. For example, over the past couple of decades, junior-level and amateur soccer in the U.S. has grown much faster than the traditional North American team sports despite very sporadic media exposure. I suggested in my article that the new age of pro sailing shows similarities to the pre-Corinthian era, so it’s ironic that Mr. Davis appears to view my position as a reactionary one. Perhaps there are some who seek to suppress technological development on account of “. . . a vested interest in preserving the past.” However, the way I see it, what we need is a high-profile Gran Prix element backed up by widespread participation at the amateur level. I’m concerned that the “driving forces in offshore racing” are causing the sport to evolve in directions that my preclude a broad amateur base.

By Ocean Navigator