The recipe for multiplying sailors, racing and cruising: fun


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It sounds like the egg of Columbus, but it is not. Sailing where there is fun, where sharing wins over competition, could be the solution to avoid the phenomena of youth dispersion and the “stampede” from clubs and race courses.

Easy? No. Sailor and journalist Lamberto Cesari, a careful scholar of the “grassroots” and its dynamics, explains why in his opinion, fun is the key to making sailing more widespread and popular, in all its forms. From racing to cruising, from Olympic classes to family outing in a cabin cruiser.

The only way to “pop” sailing is fun

by Lamberto Cesari

How to make the number of sailors at zonal and local regattas in Italy grow again? How to avoid youth dispersion after the Optimist years? And how to manage to win more than one medal in three editions of the Olympic Games? How to broaden the “base” of sailors at every level, from dinghies to cruising boats? Are these topics related or do they have nothing to do with each other? And the Federation, in all of this, what role does it play?

The complexity of the questions just asked is probably directly proportional to the amount of times it has been asked, discussed among enthusiasts in circles, on social media, and among the docks. Ours is a wonderful sport, but it brings with it practical and institutional difficulties that make it closed or unattractive, and it is not uncommon for people who have experienced the thrill of sailing to continue to frequent the beaches but through simpler and less formal means of racing such as windsurfing and kitesurfing; as clubs empty out, participation drops and volunteers are no longer found to organize regattas.

The “dilemma” of the Optimist class.

Let us try to analyze some aspects of this problem, which is complex and deserves several reflections. First of all, the Italian Sailing Federation is funded through Olympic medals, and this makes sure that the bulk of its resources are invested on Olympic teams and cascading to youth classes with the goal of supporting this path.

photo by Fulvia Bernacca

A parenthesis on Optimist activity should be opened at this point, which in Italy is pushed not so much by the Federation but by the class itself and the sailors who gravitate around it (professional coaches, shipyards, sailmakers) and is funded largely by families, in a movement that on the one hand is very beautiful and widely participated in, on the other hand has reached such levels of exasperation (between number of sailing days, trips, material changes, clinics) that it should prompt some reflections, first of all on why nations that consistently win medals at the Olympics do not invest in the Optimist (at the last world championship Great Britain and Australia were outside the top 60).

The result of this is that once a boy or girl shows talent or passion for the sport they are placed on a path that begins to take them to zonal, national, and international regattas. Sailors are taught a rulebook and how to use it in their own favor against their opponents, taught to take care of the boat, to make sure there is not even a scratch on the dinghy, and to keep the sail from flapping to prevent it from being ruined.

The concentration of circles, coaches, media spills over to that small percentage who win because they are the chosen ones to enter that path that should lead to the Olympic classes, while the vast majority of kids who physiologically do not have that ambition but enjoy the company or pleasure of sailing are taken along for the ride but slowly lose interest (in this case, the Kinder circuit must be credited with the communication work that focuses heavily on inclusivity).

In any case, if a boy or girl simply wanted to take the boat out for a sail, or swimming with friends, wing the boat on the first beach to play; it would no longer be allowed under the current system. Or try sailing at night with a masthead light or trying to mount a trapeze on a laser: what keeps many people connected is the fun, the sense of participation and the pleasure of going to sea and the risk is that by no longer allowing this the dropout becomes automatic, combined with the costs involved in post Optimist activity.

Sailors. The creation of the basin

The impression, however, is that this discourse is also permeated in the Federation (with the limitations and constraints mentioned earlier), in recent years important work has been done by classes and coaches to enhance the less “competitive” youth classes as O’pen Skiff (formerly O’pen Bic) and Feva, an active part of the youth championships in singles and doubles, and I believe it is critical to keeping a large number of sailors, children and families in the environment who are not interested in the competitive level of the Optimist Class.

passionate sailors
Water features on the bow of an Open Bic. Photo by Martina Orsini

This is both to increase numbers of sailors in the sport but also to tap into a larger pool at a later age (Our recent Olympic gold medals are examples of this combination, with Ruggero Tita out of the “official” supply chain e Caterina Banti came to sailing via a more playful class like the Hobie 16).

But wanting to look at more successful nations than ours, and I take in this case the example of the Norway which in winter sports is by far the nation with the most medals per capita, children are pushed to try as many sports as possible while keeping costs low for families. Under the age of 13, no race results are allowed to be kept and there are no trips or national competitions, and it is part of a policy document that says “children must receive a positive experience every time they take part in sports.” Promising teenagers then can specialize in a discipline and receive high-level training, and anyone who follows alpine skiing knows the quality of Norway’s youth pool. As in the same way it cannot fail to jump out at how few Optimist champions make it to the Olympic teams, we are not talking about medals.

The shift in focus from competition to entertainment at a younger age would thus have a twofold effect, on the one hand it would enable the Create a larger and more solid base (of athletes and families), on the other hand it would allow Focus resources on kids who are not only talented but also motivated during the most critical years such as the teenage years.

If we look at excellence, the Optimist class has the merit of forming an elite of sailors who arrive really prepared for the youth classes (where we have been steadily among the strongest nations in the world for at least 20 years), but it is there that we seem to lack the support necessary for the transition to the Olympic, where the meritocracy of the race field clashes with an economic commitment that is difficult to sustain by families who with sacrifices have managed to support the youngsters in previous years; class change contributions are unfortunately not enough help and the selection of sports groups already happens at results acquired in the Olympics. It would be nice to think of sailing as a democratic sport where talent and commitment can lead to a medal, but in the current state of affairs this is unfortunately not the case.

It is never too late

I take some cues from a particularly enlightening article published by Rod Davis in Seahorse to extend the discussion to adults and show how the problems are similar in Italy as in New Zealand.

Sailing has one virtue over any other sport: it allows you to enter even at an advanced age, in your 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. So we would need pathways to incentivize adult sailing, create more relaxed environments to experience the sport, Stop with the marketing of exclusivity which is only counterproductive: anyone in Italy thinks that sailing is a sport only for the rich because companies and communication have done nothing but present it that way for decades.

If we spent some of the resources we invest in complicating sailing with ratings, classes, limitations in trying to make it more convivial and fun people would enjoy boating more.

The Hobie 16 delivers pure fun

The classes that have the widest success are not those of the fastest boats, but those that are simple, inexpensive, and have a nice social context ashore, of parties that bring young and old together: the great success of old style classes such as Windsurfer and Hobie Cat 16 are examples of this. There are many sailing, kite, and windsurfing schools in Italy that escape the aegis of the IVF, some as famous as Caprera and all the other schools affiliated with CSEN and UISP. These entities are involved in sports promotion, but if they then also participate in creating the “pool” that creates the sailors and racers of tomorrow, the Federation could seek a more collaborative and inclusive approach to these entities.

Where there is adventure there is success

Also, why are offshore regattas becoming so successful? Because the values for which people participate are adventure, team spirit and challenge, not victory. We should focus on this, and clubs should also think of more creative ways to bring people together: regattas starting from the beach, night sailing, arriving at a night spot at anchor and returning. Anything that promotes interaction by lowering barriers to entry.

Adventure cruise
What motivates enthusiasts to participate in offshore races, such as the Middle Sea Race? The sense of adventure, about everything.

And always keeping one thought in mind: let’s not ask what the Federation or the class or the club can do for me; let’s ask what I can do for the sport of sailing and for my community. All of us who live and love the sport can do our part, in our circle or in our classroom.

I close with a quote from Davis that made me smile. “My grandfather was shocked that I didn’t know how to rig a mast on the third, my dad that I couldn’t make a point with sextant, and me that children don’t know how to rig a tangon. We all have to let go, and look forward not backward.”




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