Go to a kids’ soccer tournament and there on the far touchline, away from the rampantly competitive parents, are scouts. Some, like the Chelsea scouts, wear attire that is obvious – and for the record the Chelsea lot all wear brilliant-white, long puffer jackets with the blue emblem proudly on display – others are more conservative. But notes are being taken on clipboards and in moleskin books as skills, attitude and physicality are observed. The very good ones quickly get whisked into academies in the school holidays on the very acute understanding that only 2% make it to the pro ranks in the Premier League. Most get canned. It’s a brutal business.
In sailing, particularly in Britain and other developed countries, there have been clear, well-lit pathways through the youth squads, into the youth teams for international events and then for the elite and those that can bear the mind-numbingly boring training sessions at freezing puddles, reservoirs and Weymouth, the Olympic programme hoves into view and becomes an obvious option.
Temperament, physical ability, skill and knowledge is honed from a very long way back. Most of the senior people in the Olympic GBR Squad can name you the likely medallists way into the 2030s and perhaps beyond. They’re not always right but by golly, they’re close. It’s a formula that’s been running for thirty years or more and it’s wildly successful. The medal tables don’t lie.
But into this surety, suddenly the whole foiling game came thundering along and whilst it was largely ignored until Rohan Veal blitzed the Moth Worlds and Team New Zealand got a 70ft leviathan flying, it has quickly trickled down to become ubiquitous. World Sailing took its time but eventually cottoned on to the zeitgeist and in short order the foilers came into the Olympics – and they’re not done yet.
The well-worn pathway that started in Optimists and ended up in the Laser, Finn or 470, depending on your gene pool, has gone. Tomorrow’s superstars are kicking off in proper shaped, faster dinghies and once they’ve grasped the basics are eyeing the junior foilers. The International Moth suddenly came out of being the preserve of bare-foot sailing hippies launching off beaches with beards and became the king of cool. Funny how things change.
And right at the top of Everest, a few madman billionaires and visionaries, shorn of oxygen but awash with stock-market largesse, decided quite magnificently that we’d have a global series in bonkers F50s and AC40s and then quickly realised that these things are not for your average pro-circuit, day-wage sailor. No, not at all. They needed athletes at the very peak of performance and as it all evolves, the sailors will be getting younger and younger. Peak age will be 25 in short order – mark my words.
But where will they find the eager youths and the outstanding female athletes to crew these fire-hose inducing monsters of foil? Well, if I were involved in the management of an AC or SailGP team, I’d have my scouts out looking at the Waszp fleet on the Inspire programme run by SailGP in San Francisco this weekend. That’s where the talent is. That’s where the outstanding female athletes of tomorrow are. That’s where your next Tom’s Jimmy’s or Nathan’s are hanging out. That’s where you need to be if you want to find success in short order.
Yes you can scout some recent Olympians and tick a few boxes to your corporate governance and sponsors and perhaps sleep better at night but if you want to win, you need to see what these youngsters are doing and how they are changing the game – and all with a smile on their faces.
The sailing programmes that most of this fleet are running, would put us all to shame. The hours on the water, or should I say – above the water – learning tricks and skills, tweaks and pulls and building in that innate talent and reaction time that can only come from 10,000 hours of dedication are where we will find the winners of AC39, AC40 and multiple SailGP titles in the foreseeable future. It’s like Formula 2 in motor racing and I wonder just how long it will be before works teams in SailGP and the Cup start backing explicitly some of these athletes to build long term for their franchises. Can’t be long, surely?
I think one of the hardest conundrums of this next AC cycle will be finding the Youth and Women’s talent. Opportunities aren’t brilliant at the moment. There’s a nervousness around selection and I get a sense from the AC teams that they are all struggling with this one. Twenty-somethings have a lot on their plate – university is the main stumbling block, but then there’s the draw of the Olympics and the AC is just another gig that feels a lifetime off.
SailGP has brought female athletes onboard, mainly in the strategist role owing to the sheer, brutal physicality of the current boats, and that’s to be applauded, but when the AC40’s are launched with a load of stored power, you can’t just go around the Olympic squads and pick out four or five sailors, you have to have sailors who really, truly, wholeheartedly understand foiling and have it running through their veins. Disaster and steep learning curves await if you cut corners here and back the usual horses.
San Francisco this week is a massive shop window – it’s Harrods, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s combined. But the shop window is not only a glimpse into the established brands of Slingers, Spithill and Outteridge, it’s a showcase for the likes of Neus Bover, Hattie Rogers, Rinko Goto, Zeno Marchesini, Brook Wilson, Lennart Frohmann, Zac Blomeley, Sofia Caputo, Eliott Savelon, Jaime Haguindey, Sean Herbert, Emilie Bouchet and Mathilde Robertstad to shine like diamonds. It’s their big chance to impress and stamp their personal brands on the sport.
The Waszp Grand Final is almost more relevant for the long-term future of sailing at the apex than the main event itself. The team bosses would be wise to look closely, to scout efficiently and to watch intently at the sheer foiling talent on display. There’s gold-dust in there and if the sailing pathway really does exist then it should be a short journey onwards and upwards into the F50’s and into the AC40s due to start delivery in August. That’s not far away.
Believing in youth is not hard. Backing youth with cold hard cash, and then giving them the opportunity to shine is the leap of faith that has to be taken. What Larry and Russell have done is set out the stall and kick-start the programme. The athletes will perform. Now it’s time for those with spaces to fill and crew rotations to consider, to pluck from the rich talent pool on display. What have they got to lose? It’s a marvellous opportunity that should not be wasted.
The future is there before our eyes – and I have to say, there’s real, raw, outstanding talent out there right through that Waszp fleet.
Believe in youth. It never lets you down.