Dalton Bergan posed that excellent question a couple days ago as we were sailing in from some frostbiting. The survey we did here on sailish.com got a lot of attention, and revealed a few important elements that might be holding Northwest handicap sailboat racing back, and the comments were generally on point and showed a lot of passion. But the question remains, now what?
The survey made it clear (as if it wasn’t already) that racers are concerned about the future of the sport and open to change. Sure, we can go on putting a happy face on what we do have and just sail along on the same course, or we can make some changes and see what happens. From my standpoint, a few small but significant changes can act as catalysts, and energy and participation will follow naturally. The game is great. Boats and equipment are better than ever. We are blessed to live in one of the world’s great sailing venues. Some of the changes are simple and obvious, we just have to get our butts off the rail and do them.
I’ll kick it off with things that became clear in the survey and that I feel can be easily changed. In the end, though, it’s up to racers stepping up to create the solutions through clubs, fleets and race organizers. Remember, this sport (and in our region in particular) was do-it-yourself in the first place. A few people had boats and thought racing them would be fun, so they came up with courses, rules, clubs and handicap systems. And that’s how we can get it back on track, by taking the initiative.
More Welcoming Atmosphere
One of the things that came out of the survey, and it will be a surprise to many, is that our sport does not present a very welcoming atmosphere. It’s a no-brainer that this must be changed. How to do it? How about setting up “greeters.” Kind of like Walmart but with more to offer.
Every yacht club, handicap system, broker, rigger and sailmaker should have a list of greeters. Sailish.com should too. As soon as someone expresses interest in racing, a greeter should be in touch and help them get involved. Specifically, if you’re willing to do this, get your name to your club, sailmaker etc. When someone expresses interest, the clubs etc should send in the greeter.
The greeter can give the lowdown on the clubs, race schedule, basic regional tactics etc. I have a feeling once this gets started, it’ll take care of itself.
Light vs. Heavy
This was one of the clearest issues brought up by the survey. It’s just no fun sailing a 15,000lb boat with accommodations vs a <1000 pound boat. There’s no way to properly handicap those kinds of differences. Race organizers, split those light sportboats from heavier boats with accommodations. It might mean bigger rating spreads or smaller classes, but it’s what the sailors want.
According to the survey (in particular the comments) finding crew is a big issue. To their credit, clubs and organizations around the area have crew lists, but they’re spread out and underutilized. There were some specific solutions suggested in the survey responses. I’m going to get one going on sailish.com and see if I can make it the go-to. It’ll take some work, but I’ll shoot to have it up and running before Center Sound.
Note to clubs: Racers indicate they’d like new courses. It wasn’t all that long ago that Race to the Straits and Round the County were “new.” Hanging onto traditional courses is easy, but racers are ready for some new challenges.
What about thinking really outside of the box? It worked for Jake Beattie and the R2AK.
Bergan and Ben Glass have been contemplating some kind of adventure race, maybe involving running up mountains as a leg of the course. As a runner, I’ve always been fascinated by the Three Peaks Yacht Race in the UK. There are enough sailors/runners/cyclists/skiers that all sorts of things could be imagined.
Two-thirds of respondents think more single and double-handed racing would boost participation. Look at how popular Race to the Straits is!
Race Organizers have offered shorthanded classes, but if history is any indication they’re not going to promote them and are a little leery of the whole thing. It’s up to the singlehanded and doublehanded racers themselves to grab the boat by the pulpit and get organized. You might emulate the Great Lakes Singlehanded Society. This year’s singlehanded Solo Mac Race had 27 starters and 24 finishes. This is an extremely tough 300-mile race. But it doesn’t go through the usual club scene. With a more active and organized shorthanded group, I’ll bet the clubs bend over backward to accommodate.
The most successful classes in every country have strong associations and senses of community. In Seattle, the J/24 and Thistle are great examples. Internationally, it’s hard to beat the Star and Snipe classes. The Fast 40+ Class in England is the high-end version of such a community.
You can organize by boat type, yacht club affiliation, rating band etc. We’re talking chalk talks, bbqs, post race parties etc.
Yacht Clubs are the obvious places to start, but I’d suggest if that’s not easy, maybe hosting a BBQ for other boats in your size/rating range or boat type. The Seattle J/105s have regular post race gatherings, which no doubt is a big reason for that fleet’s growth.
This sense of community enhances everything.
Get Kids Involved
If we want to produce young racers, we have to get them onboard. Talk it up with your own kids or neighbor kids. Call the local community sailing program and ask if they know of any kids who want to go racing.
And – this is important – take them onboard sometimes, even if it means a couple kids are sitting on the low side down below on a beat.
Community sailing teachers and coaches – if you know of a kid who just can’t get enough time on the water in his/her FJ, give a call or two or come to the sailish crew page (when it’s operational!) Let’s hook them up.
Here’s one more thought, skippers head down to the local community sailing center to offer some coaching or support. Maybe you’ll run into a high schooler who will end up being your port trimmer for the next five years.
According to the survey, cost was not as much an impediment to racing as one might expect. It was still there.
Partnerships Want to race but can’t see spending all that money on campaigning your own boat. Find a partner. For every unhappy partnership there’s a happy one and the cost savings are immense. Take turns with the boat. Have the resources to “do it right.” This also speaks to the time issue. Many of us don’t have time to do full-on racing program. But half the races might be possible.
Lease program See all those J/80s out there? The Seattle Sailing Club has an interesting J/80 program. You can buy a J/80 and put it into charter. Moorage is paid, the bottom gets inspected weekly (and scrubbed monthly) and you get to race it. Owners usually have two sets of sails, one for use when the boats are in use from club members, and of course the racing set you bring onboard for the racing. This type of setup has a lot of appeal. Check out the SSC info here. Some clubs around the world have their own fleets, which are available to members and maintained by dues and fees. Solutions like these seem very appropriate with the rising costs.
Boat of the Year
One thing that has been missing around Seattle is a real, codified boat of the year award. My friends at 48 North Magazine have their Top 25, but with the vagaries of PHRF ratings and class assignments it loses a lot of its meaning. I suggest that either a body like the Seattle Area Racing Council or Vancouver Area Racing Council set up ORC class breaks in advance, and a boat of the year racing schedule. This could also be done if clubs could work together.
(Yep, that ORC comment is a hint of what I’m going to take on next time, handicapping issues. Oh boy.)