How World Sailing's Classification Database Defines Professional Sailors and Amateurs

The State of Classification

I recently came across a book I was given for my 10th birthday 58 years ago, Successful Yacht Racing by C. Stanley Ogilvy (W.W. Norton & Co., 1951). Ogilvy was an accomplished Star boat sailor, a Ph.D. mathematics professor and a prolific sailing writer. In his book, he wrote, "Aside from winning a token prize [for winning a race] there is no material reward for excellence. No professional managers wait on the dock, anxious to sign up the day's winners on their teams. No scouts cluster around waving contracts. The lack of tangible assets connected with winning is the best thing that could have happened to the sport. It means there is no place for the chiseler afloat. In any other kind of race, referees and officials swarm over the course to see that nobody fouls out. In yachting there are no referees."

All these years later, the sport of sailing has changed dramatically. Professional sailors are ubiquitous, as are umpires and judges. Trying to ascertain who is actually a professional has been a work in progress. If sailing is to thrive in this new environment, defining the difference between professional and amateur is essential. If we don’t do this properly, too many amateurs will fade from racing.

Paying for racing-crew services and individual ­coaching was virtually nonexistent between the end of World War II and the early 1990s. Over the past 20 years, however, we’ve seen far more pros out on the water. In my town of Annapolis, Maryland, some owners are even paying for experts to crew in Wednesday-night races. One can argue the trend has gone too far when professionalism reaches weeknight club racing, and I’ve heard from many owners who grew tired of writing checks and eventually left the sport. This might be the unintended consequence of relying on professionals, as Ogilvy writes, for “the reward of excellence.”

World Sailing classification database
J/70 class racing today is a robust mix of amateurs and day-rate and industry professionals who rely on World Sailing’s classification database.Paul Todd/ outsideimages.com

Our formal system for classifying sailors as ­professional or amateur has been in place for more than 25 years. The need to define individuals who race as a profession is important as regatta organizers and classes try to accommodate both. The classification system was originally put in place by US Sailing, but oversight migrated to World Sailing in 1997. Consequently, the definition of a professional sailor, and the process for making that determination, also has been evolving, but there is still not a perfect application.

A true amateur or a true professional is fairly easy to define. The many sailors who exist between the two groups present the greater challenge. At one time, there were three categories: Group 1 were amateurs, Group 3 were professionals and Group 2 sailors were defined as not being in group 1 or 3. Unfortunately, regatta organizers too often lumped Group 2s in with the Group 3 professionals. Recognizing the problem, World Sailing eliminated the Group 2 category in 2008.

When I joined the board of World Sailing in 2012, sailor classification was one of the areas I was assigned to follow. I’ve been working with Classification Commission chairman Tom Rinda for the past five years. Rinda and his 10 commission members (plus two ex officio members), along with the World Sailing staff, have been fine-tuning the definitions and improving the administrative process since dropping the Group 2 classification.

At this writing, there are 17,662 registered Group 1 sailors in the world, from 153 countries. Only 1,195 sailors are classified as Group 3 sailors. Rinda and his commissioners would like to see more sailors registered, which would allow them to upgrade and improve the database in order to constantly tweak the system to “be as fair and diligent as possible.”

Rinda would then like to expand World Sailing’s ­services beyond simply assigning a classification. “We need to offer more to sailors,” he says. “Being on a list should help professional sailors and coaches merchandise their skills. Our program might serve as a clearinghouse to help put owners and professional sailors together. We could also offer financial advice, like you find in other professional sports. This might include how to handle international banking. We could also provide both parties with a template for contracts. There are cases where sailors have not been paid. We should be able to help.”

Coaching has become a viable career for many ­talented sailors, and while they provide good value to those who want to improve their performance, they also need to be classified as professionals, because they work to enhance performance, even if they are not on the racing boat. Being registered can help them advertise their services.

In the past, only the chair of the commission was known to sailors, but World Sailing changed its policy two years ago, and now all commission members are publicly listed. The commission meets each year to review its methods and classification criteria. I attended its most recent two-day meeting in February at World Sailing’s headquarters in London. Attendees spent a considerable amount of time discussing the criteria. Among the issues, and questions they reviewed, was an insightful letter from Donald Finkle, vice commodore of the Youngstown YC in Upstate New York. Finkle takes particular issue with the Classification Code’s Appendix 4, which defines that a Group 3 individual has been paid to work (except coaching) in a marine business or organization that requires knowledge or skill, is capable of enhancing the performance of a boat in a race and can be utilized by the competitor while on a boat when racing.

“The problem with the language is that it is too all-encompassing and catches in its net many sailors who are not paid to sail but who work in the industry in some capacity,” wrote Finkle. “The paid professionals sail many more days and miles each year than the majority who work as brokers, riggers and others not paid to sail. It is time to limit Group 3 to paid professionals.”

Finkle has a valid point. The question for the commission is how to draw the line between the professional and the amateur. The gray area is where industry workers reside. Trying to define whether someone enhances performance versus acting to service or maintain a boat is important. I have long maintained that most people in the marine industry have learned it is extremely difficult to make a living and still have time to enjoy the water. The commission is studying the issue. There is an appeal process to handle classification disputes. Three members of the commission are assigned to review each case. Further, there are a number of questions with answers to help sailors understand the criteria found on World Sailing's website.

In 2017, World Sailing determined that any sailor over the age of 70 would not be classified as a Group 3 competitor. This year, the commission is advancing a new submission that says anyone turning 22 can be in Group 3. Currently, the age limit is 24. There are many sailors between the ages of 22 and 24 being paid to sail as professionals, and yet they are classified as Group 1.

The volunteer commission members take their task ­seriously. “We work in the spirit of fairness,” says Rinda. “We don’t want to act as detectives. We rely on the ­classification questionnaires being answered honestly.”

Rinda is confident that 95 percent of applications are accurate. “But it is never going to be perfect, and that is why we keep updating our methods every year,” he says. “The sport is always changing, and we work to keep up with all the changes.”

I suggest all professional sailors register and work with the commission to help further their careers and improve the experience for current and future boat owners. Many high-end racing boats need professional sailors to keep everyone safe, as well as competitive, and there should be consistent and clear understanding of who is a professional and who is not. Mr. Ogilvy might be surprised how the sport has changed since he wrote his book in 1951, but I’m confident he would be an advocate for making sure the sailing was always fair, and that everyone continued to improve their skills on the water in the interest of excellence.