We’re not supposed to be this excited about sailboat racing but right now it’s boom-time. As a casual spectator there’s almost too much to keep abreast of. I’m not supposed to be this excited by the RORC Caribbean 600…but I am. The finale of SailGP has more storylines than a Dan Brown novella and a million bucks on offer. Alinghi is back in the America’s Cup. The Olympics has gone turbo-charged on foils. Gitana is setting the pace and re-writing the record books. Slingsby’s got a new Moth and it looks insane. Ineos are announcing muscle from Arran. Even the RYA Dinghy & Watersports Show later this month has got me interested. Everywhere you look, it’s happening. The sailing patient got a shot of adrenaline after decades of pain and has decided to run a marathon in middle-age.
And I think this was beautifully summed up by Mark Jardine, the peerless editor of Yachts & Yachting who, more than anyone, has had his finger on the pulse of the recovery patient with more in-depth and hard-learned experience of the grass-roots than just about anyone when he wrote: “…we’ve been through a lot and habits have changed…boating has seen a boom which couldn’t have been predicted, and probably wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic, with people taking to the water in numbers never seen before. Dinghy sailing has changed, with club sailing taking centre stage, and those clubs which adapted have seen membership boom, and are thriving. It’s now up to us all to continue to learn from what has worked and roll that out to moribund clubs which need a boost to survive.”
And I think where Mark has it right, not just in dinghy sailing, but in wider terms is the need for clubs to focus on their membership’s needs. I’m privileged to be a member of a number of clubs and all serve their demographic well. As members we have choices. Clubs are fighting for retention and regeneration and the winners are growing healthily.
I look at a place like RORC which is probably by design the most highly focussed of any club on the planet and all I see is excellence. If ocean or coastal passage racing is your thing then there’s really no alternative and what they serve is a buffet that would grace the Ritz.
The Caribbean 600 has attracted the absolute elite of the offshore world with the glamour maxis and even cooler tris and is just another example of how well they’ve captured their audience. Later in the year they’ve got the Sevenstar Round Britain Race and The Baltic Sea Race alongside a monster programme that caters for every possible nuance in their membership’s minds. It’s peerless in sailing. The absolute gold-standard all round.
And then for us adrenaline junkies, SailGP thunders into view in the pitch-perfect setting of San Francisco with the world’s best athletes and mega talent taking the gloves off for a final fist-fight and an eye-watering prize purse. If you were a boxing promoter you’d be encouraging the trash talking to sell the event but sailing, and the sheer spectacle of life at 50 knots under the Golden Gate Bridge, is doing that job just fine. It’s a heck of a spectacle even before you overlay the characters and weave in the back-stories. Sailing has got it right almost by default.
When we tumble down the ladder, equally there’s so much positive. The Olympic classes are heating up at an alarming rate. I already know the names of at least five gold medallists who are nailed on. But I really don’t. There’s super-talent coming through all around the world and the next generation is better than the last, faster, fitter, and with absolutely no doubts whatsoever. Too close to call right across the Olympic fleets (apart from the women’s kitefoiling)…
At club level it’s really not a mixed-bag any longer. More people are getting out on the water in dinghies, cruisers and dayboats than ever before and what’s on offer is knowledge-sharing, encouragement, fantastic training opportunities, socials to die for, and people who want to see the sport flourish. It’s almost as though an “on” switch has been flicked. And the results are there to see. Omicron has hopefully decimated and relegated corona to a mild flu with more people confident to emerge from lockdowns and eyeing sailing as not only the ultimate healthy outdoor activity but are re-connecting with the sport at levels that perhaps they hadn’t considered before. As Mark Jardine says: “habits have changed” and I believe they’ve changed for the better.
At the very peak of this mountain of change, the America’s Cup is firing into life. With so much going on elsewhere, one could make a reasoned argument for “so what?” But it’s vital that the AC is the pinnacle…and it is. There’s no question that more eyeballs are generated through the Cup than anything else.
My personal view is that the kick-start of the sailing boom was AC36, viewed largely from a global lockdown with many of us mere spectators through a computer screen having the time and the opportunity (apart from the ridiculous pay-per-view diktat in the US) to see and re-connect with the event and sailing as a whole. AC36 was the adrenaline chemical that ushered in this new era of taking part, of dusting off the dinghy left to rot in the garage, of sanding the hull on that clinker in the yard or believing, quite wrongly, that we too can foil. How hard could it be?
The AC sold the sport magnificently. New Zealand played its part even better. The athletes didn’t disappoint. Sailing became relevant again and the history books of those strange and vapid times that we all lived through were altered by the determination of the AC to get away and put on the best show on planet earth. And it will do it again. 2022 will evaporate faster than nail polish on a painted lady with a flurry of announcements and team delineations before the new boats splash, the Women’s and Youth AC’s hog a brief limelight and then it’s game on for the greatest prize in sport.
What happened to sailing? It re-set the dial and went again. We’re living through the most remarkable time in our sport. One that we will look back on with fondness at the possibilities, the hope and the new tech that’s emerging. It’s brilliant everywhere you look.
Long may it continue.