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Past the Horizon

With a look to the past, we can look forward to what will define the sport of sailing for the next 50 years. Jobson Report from our October 2012 issue.

October 20, 2012
Sailing World

SW 50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago, at the age of 12, my parents set me on my way in sailing with a brand new Penguin dinghy and a subscription to One-Design Yachtsman magazine. My Penguin is long gone, but to this day I have every issue of this magazine in my library. Title changes aside, the magazine remains true to its soul: It’s about the passion we have for competing on the water. As I often do from time to time when I’m home in Annapolis, I recently read through dozens of past issues. The one thing that struck me is how the sport has faced the same challenges over the years. You’d think we would have learned from our history and solved at least a few of them, but as it is, there’s plenty we need to do in the years ahead to ensure that the sport is still vibrant and healthy. I’d like to a share a few of my action items and some thoughts on where we’ll be when Sailing World celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Handicap rating rules will . . . allow for automatic rating adjustments for specific conditions. Arguments over handicap rating rules have been ongoing for more than a century, and I suspect this will be a way of life in our sport as clever designers and architects will always be one step ahead of any rule. In the age of advanced computers and measurement tools, however, we should be able to more effectively and inexpensively measure boats, and recalibrate these measurements according to sailing conditions and design trends. I’m cautiously optimistic this will happen in my lifetime, but in the near future, I think we’ll see the best racing either in one-designs or narrow rating bands in similar types of boats. This will work when, and if, race organizers and boat owners work together to define the kinds of boats that should be raced. The best rating rule should favor boats that sail fast and are safe.

Yacht clubs will . . . play a critical role. Our yacht clubs will continue to exist 50 years from now because they are the cornerstones of the sport, but there will be many issues to address along the way to ensure sustainability. For one, regulatory and insurance requirements will likely increase the costs of maintaining waterfront facilities. The greatest obstacle facing yacht clubs today, however, is the aging membership base, and unless measures are taken today to attract and keep young members, yacht clubs will be vulnerable to the influence of waterfront developers eager for prime real estate. Proactive steps—such as providing fleets of boats, focusing on sailing instruction for all ages, and working with local communities to provide waterfront access—will be keys to survival.

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One-design sailing will . . . be ruled by traditional classes. The original title for this magazine was a good one. I think one-design racing will thrive thanks to the power of tradition that fuels classes that were introduced more than 50 years ago. I’m willing to bet the Lightning, Snipe, Star, Ensign, Laser, Sunfish, and E Scow classes will each stand the test of time. But classes must have the courage to upgrade. The E Scow class, for example, added asymmetric sails. This month a new version of the Comet class is being introduced. One-design racing will thrive at clubs that limit the number of classes. The alternative is to use the Portsmouth system so many different small boats can race together. Reach legs seem to have disappeared in recent years, so perhaps the America’s Cup will inspire different course configurations with reach legs.

Climate change will . . . impact the landscape of lake sailing across the country. Climate change is a hot political issue, but anyone who spends time on the water will agree that wind patterns at many historical racing venues are now different than they were 50 years ago.

On the whole, winds seem to be lighter, while powerful storms are more frequent. Rising sea levels along the coasts, and drought inland will likely play havoc with our sailing waters. Rising temperatures in the winter could reduce the amount of ice for ice boating. The most popular classes will carry more sail area to make up for less wind strength. Shallow draft might be necessary in places that have water-level restrictions. There’s an upside, however: Burning fossil fuels will be a big issue in the future, and as fuel prices continue to soar, sailing has great potential to be a more attractive alternative to those seeking to spend leisure time on the water.

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Speed records will . . . be broken in the near term, but stand for much longer. Over the past 50 years we have witnessed tremendous gains in speed, but there will be a plateau once the power of foils, wings, and kites have been fully exhausted. The tremendous leaps of late will be difficult to emulate. At this writing, a kiteboarder has skimmed across the water at a staggering 55-plus knots. But still, there is far more opportunity in ocean-sailing records. This year an “old” boat (Rambler) raced 635 miles from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda in 39 hours and 39 minutes. Last year, the trimaran Banque Populaire V went around the world in 45 days. These records are incredibly impressive, but sailing from New York to the Lizard, England, in 100 hours is certainly possible, especially with the right conditions and the right boat—something flying on foils, perhaps?

The America’s Cup will . . . be nationalistic. With 161 years of competition on the record books, the America’s Cup will continue to thrive well into the future. There will be lapses along the way, but so long as two individuals have the drive and wherewithal, there will always be a match in some shape or form. The America’s Cup has always been about speed, and I have no doubts that the Cup’s earliest protagonists would embrace today’s multihull match.

I expect the America’s Cup protocol will return to its roots, with nationals representing their own countries. The regatta will continue to be match racing, and the boat, in whatever form, will be fast. Most importantly, people will pay attention. Over the next 50 years the regatta will travel, perhaps back to Europe, or Asia, or even South America, and here is a bold prediction: At some point in the next 50 years, the America’s Cup will be defended off Newport, R.I., once again.

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Olympic sailing will . . . have far different events and racecourses. During every quad there’s talk about whether sailing will continue as an Olympic sport. The first modern Olympics in 1896 featured sailing off Athens, Greece. Unfortunately, according to the history books, there was little wind that year. Fifty years from now, sailing will still be in the Olympics, but the boats and race formats will be much different. Including kiteboarding for Rio in 2016 is already a step in this direction. I’ve long wished for a team-racing discipline in the Olympics. This would be a great spectacle and an opportunity to showcase athletic, coed sailing. A three-on-three event format would work well, especially if the boats require athleticism, speed, and could be raced on short courses. As it is today, the final race must determine the medal winners.

Sailing electronics will . . . allow us to “race” without going on the water. At the rate we’re going, we might actually be able to race without having 0400 watches or suffering from seasickness. We can sail virtual races against competitors sitting at computers around the world. But what a novel idea it would be to reverse the trend and race boats without electronics. If we want to develop sailing skill then we should issue a compass, telltales, and a chart. Computers reduce the skill needed to excel, and the old adage of “sailing by the seat of your pants” has always worked for me. As computers take over, we can’t lose sight of that.

Read more from Gary in his column, Jobson Report.

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