Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nights of the Long Knives

Guaging the health of a class such as the Star, I can't think of a better window into the question of Who We Are, and is there an Us.

With all the Olympic classes in play at the ISAF Annual Meeting (but the Star seeming secure), the decisions to be made have effects all the way down to the weekend warriors. Otherwise we wouldn't have Star Class president Bill Allen writing to his membership, "Everything has become so professional, it's difficult for the Star class to keep being what it used to be. Of concern to me is the possibility that some of our members have started to feel that the Star Class is 'only for the pros.'

"Many of us love the challenge of competing against the best, but at top events now, the level of competition is such that the weekend sailor struggles to make the top half of the fleet and never sails in clear air."

Allen goes on to assure his constituents that he will be at the ISAF Annual Meeting "to keep 'Mens Keelboat' as an Olympic event. Hopefully, the Star Class can continue to be one of the few classes that serves both the elite sailor and the weekend warrior."

We'll come back to that, and a Bill Allen/KL conversation about the Star, "As a place to go to grad school after you hit age 25 and 200 pounds."


I've observed the growing consensus that 470s are the vulnerable class as ISAF seeks to comply with pressures from the International Olympic Committee to downsize and focus Olympic sailing. The first meeting was held last friday, thus:

Friday, November 2, The Palacio Estoril Hotel
Olympic Classes Sub-Committee
(closed to observers)
Park Suite A

It's a complex thing, isn't it? With the IOC pressuring our sport to give good TV or else, and with ISAF, our international governing body, depending upon Olympic revenue for the way it lives and operates, Olympic sailing could logically be relaunched on an X-Games model, the way that the Winter Games now include judge-ranked tricks on snowboards.

Won't happen.

Not soon anyway, and following that line of "logic" would be destructive. I'm too much a traditionalist to welcome a version of "the Flying Tomato in the Halfpipe" to Olympic medal sailing. That said, it's high time to recognize kites as Us, and ISAF is lumbering forward. The minutes of the September ISAF Executive Committee Meeting (published October 29) include this reference, to be considered in the meeting that continues through Sunday, November 11:

Emergent Sailing
The Executive Committee noted that Submission 055-07 would enable ISAF to embrace emergent forms of sailing, such as kite sailing.

Totally awesome, dude. ISAF is finally ready to see kite sailing as sailing (I hope). The Olympic debate, meanwhile, is rolling down a different track, and we are far from any X Games model as ISAF considers the "equipment," as they call it, for the 2012 Olympiad. So far, turning the final day of Olympic sailing competition into a near free-for-all for the top ten boats is as close as the sport has come to a radical solution to the problem of giving good TV. And that does not begin to address the issue of how to make the act of sailing, itself, look exciting. "Us" is wind junkies, and wind is not guaranteed. How would it go in downhill skiing if sometimes you went to the mountain, and the mountain was flat?

No lack of drama here. Stars under the lens of Fried Elliott . . .

© Fried Elliott

Let's be clear. Delegates to the Annual Meeting won't be choosing boats for 2012; they'll designate categories, and then, for a good time, we can sit back and watch as selection proceeds through 2009 while a passel of entrenched interests vie to still have a chair when the music stops.


Keelboats represent the majority of sailing. I said that, and so did Star Class president Bill Allen. That in itself is an argument for featuring the Star (not some other keelboat, let's not even go there) in the Games. Four years shy of its 100th anniversary, this 22-foot development class continues to attract many of the brightest and best. Who's the 2007 Star world champion skipper? Why, two-time Laser gold medalist Robert Scheidt, keeping his game alive.

The Star, which sailed its first Olympiad in 1932, is unique. I look forward to hearing the TV commentators in 2012 talking about the 101-year tradition of the Star.

Star Europeans 2007 as photographed by Fried Elliott

Bill Allen again: "As the 2007 season winds down in the northern hemisphere, it has become more and more apparent to me that our class is feeling some pressures that primarily relate to our Olympic status. Now we have over 30 countries in the Star Class alone seeking to qualify for the Games, and over 70 interested countries in 11 medal events worldwide. This has resulted in a huge increase in the time and monetary commitment by many individuals seeking Olympic medals . . . Of more concern to me is the possibility that some of our members have started to feel that the Star Class is 'only for the pros.' Many of us love the challenge of competing against the best, but at top events now, the level of competition is such that the weekend sailor struggles to make the top half of the fleet and never sails in clear air.

"The nature of the Olympics has changed dramatically," Allen says, "from the days when a handful of guys would gear up for a couple months, qualify for the Games, sail in the Olympics, and return to their recreational sailor status."

One of the strengths of the Star is that local fleets rule. Lose that and you lose a lot. When I chased Bill Allen down for further comment, he was in a car, on a cell phone, but it wasn't hard to hit the theme. He said, "Sixty or seventy percent of Star sailors are still of the mind set that competing against the best is the best kind of sailing. But there's been a bit of a shift. You take the guy who once in a while used to get a top five finish, but now the pros have widened the gap, and there are more of them, and there are people who are thinking that they're just not having as much fun when they go to the big regatta and they're always sitting second row.

"Olympic classes are predominantly filled with elite sailors," Allen said. "You don't have any other Olympic class to match the Star, where there are 3,000 members including 50-60 interested in the Olympics.

"This is an evolution. It's not a make-or-break crisis. But sailing is up against a lot of competing activities. One design sailing is not exactly a growth industry. I say we should shift our goals. I'm encouraging people to not focus so much on the Worlds. Let the elite sailors take care of themselves--and they will, very nicely.

"The Star fleets that are doing well locally are the ones that are promoting fun races with a social component and a view toward involving the family. Some of the most successful fleets have morning races so a guy can have his sailing and still make the kid's soccer game in the afternoon."

Hmm, not so different from promoting PHRF.

Notes from the minutes of the most recent ISAF Executive Committee meeting:

A proposal that ISAF supply all boats to the Olympics was rejected as "unviable."

A proposal that true one-design "out of the box" boats should be selected for Olympic sailing received support and was referred to the Events Strategy Working party for further consideration.
(I don't think my friend Bill will like the sound of that one.)

A proposal to hold the combined ISAF Sailing World Championships every two years instead of every four years was supported, and a further proposal will go forward. (Star sailors were mildly traumatized by changing their Worlds format every four years, but they adapted and no doubt would re-adapt. Bill Allen on the Olympics: "This is our history. This is who we are and, I believe, this is what most of our members want us to be.")

The big bad ocean

It's an exciting time in shorthanded ocean sailing. The Barcelona World Race doublehanded fleet is standing by in the south of Spain for their start on Sunday, and the doublehanded Transat Jacques Vabre fleet is already at sea on an Atlantic crossing from Le Havre, France to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. While there's something less than a rich feast of race updating available at the event web site at the moment, this link - Transat Jacques Vabre - will get you past the irritating, triple-click, slow-load intro pages. Rich Wilson (USA)and Mike Birch (Canada) represent the field from this side of the pond. Their Bernard Nivelt Open 60, Great American III is also entered in the 2008 Vendee Globe. Wilson will singlehand that race, which starts almost exactly a year from now, on November 9, 2008.

Open 60s left Le Havre on Saturday, and on Sunday the top eight of 17 Open 60s were reporting distance-to-go within two miles of each other, which is about the same as calling it a dead heat. Multihulls started on Sunday in a reported four knots of northerly breeze.

And what about amateur sailing in the USA, so much closer to home? Howzabout the 69-boat J/105 North American Championship fleet on the Chesapeake, where the fleet was split into gold and silver divisions (for the health and safety and better competition of all), and then there's the sold-out IRC East championship fleet, also on the Chesapeake and wrapping up on Sunday with the Storm Trysail Club.

Turnouts like that ought to be rather heartening, methinks. And here is a look at the proposed new clubhouse for Southern Yacht Club, New Orleans, to replace the one that got Katrina'd. The membership is scheduled to meet Monday, November 5 to vote on the rebuilding proposal—Kimball