Sacrilege - Somebody's Gotta Do It
There has been an ongoing discussion about the decline of racing - on Salinet (a few times) and on SA (most of the time). Many are trying to come up with ways to increase the interest and participation in the sport both here in the US and it worldwide.
The main question in this debate is: why the decline?
My sacrilegious hunch? It's all pretty damn boring from a spectator standpoint. I mean - SUPER boring.
I watched the Olympics sailing events. Boring. I've watched many of the SA videos of various races. Boring. You've got a pack of smallish boats moving at 6-12 knots (if that) around a course. It's all kinda like watching this crap:
And now, as US27 just pointed out in another thread, "Morning Light" was COMPLETELY ignored. Disney's sailing movie for the masses...canned.
On the other hand, you've got extremely exciting and compelling races like the VOR and the Vendee. DEFINITELY NOT BORING. And they are covered pretty well. These events, in my opinion, could attract a far wider audience and interest in the sport. But these haven't been able to bust through to wide coverage (at least not here in the US). Why?
Now racing is obviously appealing to racers themselves. But that's obviously not enough to regenerate a dying sport. It's gotta be about the spectator I think.
To that end, I know exactly what I'm talking about here - because I AM a spectator (not a racer). I love sailing. I've learned a bit about it. I have a boat and I sail it (at a greenhorn level). And, though I've never "formally" raced, I'd like to eventually do it for kicks (although more passage racing than course racing). So - this makes me a truly vested spectator.
So the first question is...why is anyone surprised that lower tier racing is dying when it's so damn boring to watch? And the second question is...how can the more exciting races be promoted to build general interest - and eventually feed the lower tier stuff?
I don't watch much sports on TV, but I am interested in and would watch sailboat racing and bicycle racing.
Both of those sports get very poor, if any, coverage in the US. I've "heard" neither of them are all that interesting to Americans (our notoriously short attention spans???).
I've also heard they're very expensive to cover on TV because of the equipment involved over large courses/venues. The Tour de France comes to mind. What coverage we do get to see is pooled video, which strikes me as an ideal way to spread the cost. Do they do the same for sailing coverage?
There's no question the interest of the masses for either of these two sports cannot rival those getting the top TV coverage in the US. I think most folks, since they don't participate, don't understand the rules and tactics of the sports. I think a simple introduction to the sports televised early in the season would go a long way to increase interest.
Finally, the sports federations could also do a lot to raise interest. In bicycle racing, for example, I (and others I know) have lost interest because the federations are making a pharmaceutical farce of their sport.
In sailing, the AC coverage a few years ago was stalled what seemed like forever because they couldn't decide if they were going to race on a day-by-day basis. I was interested in watching but eventually lost interest.
About once per week, I go on the Internet TV guide and search "sailing" and "yachting", rarely finding anything (watched Captain Ron again last night!!!).
It'll be interesting to see the comments to this thread you've opened!!!
I haven't seen the A-S thread. But it's not just the racing -- it's sailing in general. The decline is inter-related, but I will try to keep the comments specific to racing.
I disagree that it's the "boring" factor. Racing is actually a blast, not so much to watch, but to participate in. The fact that it is not a spectator sport is one aspect that makes racing so much fun to engage in.
Because it's a "participation" sport, it's like being part of an exclusive club, or secret society if you will. There is an immense exhilaration and adrenaline rush that is hard to achieve elsewhere, made more special by the knowledge that our land-bound brethren can never understand it. Successfully executing a port-pole-starboard-set of the spinnaker at the crowded windward mark, then surfing it down to the leeward mark, peeling it, then snugging down smartly for the windward slog again -- it's hard to beat without bumping up to some of the seriously dangerous activities, like base jumping.
But you're right. It's in decline. And the primary reason in my opinion is the advent of "sport boats" and the costs associated with campaigning them successfully.
When I first got into it, the racing circuit was dominated by typical production boats of the "club racer" variety. These were boats that could be both competitively raced under various rating systems (PHRF, Portsmouth, etc) AND comfortably cruised by a family. Pearsons, Catalinas, Beneteaus, various J-Boats, Frers, NYs, Rangers, Albergs, etc etc etc.
In days past, it was not uncommon to see some racers towing dinghies, particularly on the port-to-port or "destination" races. Folks sailed the sails they had, upgrading a single sail every couple years to both stay reasonably competitive and keep it affordable. Many of the crews were just families, or a bunch of friends out for fun and competition. The boats had decent accommodations, so staying overnight on the boats was pretty typical.
By the mid-90's or so, "sport boats" had very much arrived on scene. These designs took sailing to another level of speed and competition. No question, they are fun and fast to sail. But all that performance came at a big price -- and to stay competitive in these one-design fleets sails and other equipment need to be upgraded constantly.
It's like an arms race. Very expensive, constantly draining resources. And, increasingly, those without the unlimited resources simply turn away, with the knowledge that they don't have the big wallets and simply can't be competitive.
Also, unlike the club racers of yesteryear, the sport boats are minimally "accommodated", and as such they are no longer a destination unto themselves, but function simply as a platform to complete a race. They are not an inviting destination where a family or friends linger to commiserate about the race, or simply enjoy the camaraderie of fellow sailors and the innate satisfaction of being aboard a well-found vessel. They are a different breed of boat, a "let's get on and off quickly " sort. Something inherent and essential to the "sailing experience" is lost.
So it's been my general impression -- obviously not one I've worked hard to articulate given the lack of coherence here -- that sport boats and their ilk have been bad for racing and sailing in general. There are other factors in play, of course -- some more in the domain of "cruising" -- but that's a larger topic.
Racing and sailing in general seem to be on the upswing here in the midwest. Our Commodore's Cup race on labor day weekend was bigger than ever last year. People were lined up on the deck at the clubhouse and had lawn chairs set up on the hill. Most of them might have been waiting for the final boat to cross the finish line so the party could start, but hey, whatever it takes.
John - I think you bring up an excellent point. Sport/race boats and super-high technology are not what it's about. Okay - so your race boat weighs as much as a meth-addict-anorexic because EVERYTHING is made out of CF. Who cares? It still only goes 14 knots!!! It's not exactly an F1 machine...right?
I think that's why the Vendee and VOR are so appealing. It's not really about the boats per se - it's about the BIG sailing. Watching expensive boats crowd around a mark in relative slow motion is not fun (though I grant it is surely a major blast actually DOING it as you say). On the other hand, watching a single-hander slam through 30 foot seas down around the 30's at even 10 knots is pretty damn amazing.
But then you get into the technology issues...like the weight factors (who want's to add the weight of production equipment to their boat for the Vendee? How would you "crew" it?) - and the technical logistics of covering something like that (great analysis BTW AE).
So it's definitely about the "destination races" as you say John - not the club stiuff. But the question is - to AE's point - how do we cover these kinds of races to make them exciting?
Chall - if you read this chime in. You're in the biz. It would be great to hear your perspective!
Yacht racing will never be a major spectator sport in this country, because people who have never sailed can't relate to it. In order to really get into a sport, you have to relate to it. You can't really relate to a sport unless you have played it, and most people in this country have never sailed. Even many cruising sailors don't understand the appeal of racing a sailboat. People who have never played golf often can't understand it's attraction, because they don't appreciate how difficult it is to hit that little white ball, and make it travel the right distance in the right direction. People who love a sport don't care whether spectators enjoy watching it. They play the sport purely for the love of the sport.
Yacht racing is not a physical sport. It's a cerebral sport. It's an extremely complex sport. The winner of a yacht race is not the one who is strongest or most fleet of foot. The winner is the smartest racer who knows the most, and who accurately reads the wind and the course conditions and uses that information most efficiently to move the boat from point A to point B.
Smack, I hear what you're saying, but I think I know enough about you from your participation on this forum to be able to say with confidence that, if you ever get on a racing sailboat and participate in some races, you'll be bitten by it. It's difficult to describe the thrill of sailing in the queue before the start of a race, weaving in and out through dozens of big, expensive boats, and maneuvering the boat into the best position for the start. As the start nears, the boats are all maneuvering aggressively to get into the one ideal spot to cross the line, but they obviously can't all be there at once, so they start yelling rules at each other, and it becomes a test of wills. The mark roundings in a big race are exciting, as 3 or 4 boats hit the mark together, and fight for room and position. Good racers will be constantly adjusting sail trim, playing the sails in and out to maximize boat speed all around the course, and to keep the boat driving in light air or in choppy seas.
Crew on some racing boats in a few races with decent winds, and you'll be hooked. Most people don't enjoy light air racing, because it's the most difficult to do, and not many people are good at it, but, if you learn how to keep the boat moving in light air, you'll love it as much as racing in big winds. Yacht racing isn't about speed - it's about skill.
I guess a point I didn't make too well in my previous post is that sailboat racing has NEVER been a spectator sport (not in the conventional, mainstream sense, anyway), yet in decades past participation was much higher.
In trying to come up with an explanation for the decline, we should be looking at what has changed in the sport between then and now. The lack of spectators is a constant, not a new factor.
We should recognize that extrinsics significantly effect sailing and sailboat racing. As the population in the US ages participation is falling for sailing and most other active sports: skiing, golf, tennis, etc. Certainly the societal shift to a longer workweek and to the two earner households make time goblers such as sailing harder to schedule. Even our children's fully booked schedules makes it difficult for them to find time to sail with their family.
We should also look at what's working. One obvious bright spot is time-shared racing of boats like the Ideal 18, where the club owns and maintains the boats. These boats aren't particularly high performance but maintenance is farmed out, costs are reasonable, the vagaries of PHRF handicapping and the Portsmouth Yardstick are eliminated, and short courses ensure tight mark roundings. You just punk down your money and pick the night of the week you want to race.
A similar if less dramatic bright spot in our area is weeknight racing of the PHRF fleet. It has almost totally eclipsed weekend regattas.
PJ O'rourke really nailed it:
"The America's Cup is like driving your Lamborghini to the Grand Prix track to watch the charter buses race."
It is a rich man's sport.
It is a slow, rich man's sport.
It is a slow, boring, rich man's sport.
It is a slow, boring, big, rich man's sport.
Which conspires against success with the masses, which means success on TV, and vice versa.
What the sport needs is the equivalent of NASCAR. Short races, small courses, easily televised, with some personality.
Better yet, get rid of all of the rules, the handicapping, the protests, the pedigrees, the egos, the attitudes the challenges, the yacht clubs, and start a new series with a real simple premise:
40' length. 9' beam. No more, no less. Weight, balance, rig, is all open. Oh yeah, trapezes are mandatory- it makes slow look fast and exciting,and this is all about the visuals. This will appeal to the novice spectator, who has no idea what a 12 metre boat is, or a one ton, but understands and covets a 40 foot yacht- THAT he gets, and his eyeballs are what the sport needs to get, so make it simple, not elitist. Also, it means that the boats can be land transported from race to race, increasing eyeball exposure, acting as billboards for the series.
Hull cost under 6 figures. No privateers, all hulls must carry sponsorship, but no sponsorship can be greater than $25k. One hull per team per season. You break it, you fix it, or drop out. Two suites of sails per season. It keeps the costs contained and the racing interesting.
a crew of 4. no more, no less.
Three cameras per boat, on every boat, with open mics. When you hear the scrambling, the yelling, the cursing, the skewed POV from a trapeze, slow can be gripping and exciting.
Small course. Helicopters are expensive, so aerial, big picture coverage is expensive. A small three point course can be covered by a blimp or a drone.
A race every weekend, from harbourfronts, not club based. Inland as well as ocean racing. Maximum exposure, and maximum excitement. You could create a freshwater/saltwater rivalry- How well do you think Dennis Conner would do on Lake Lanier, for example?
No qualifying. If you can raise the budget, and outfit the boat, you can race. period. Maybe it will get a little more personality into a bland sport.
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