For Better and Worse

The competitor classification system now used in several classes has been a crude but effective instrument for protecting popular big-boat classes such as the Farr 40, Mumm 30, and J/105 from unrestricted professional programs. I use the term "crude" because if you've raced under US SAILING's optional Appendix P ("Definitions for Competitor Classification") your group categorization was based on your line of work, not directly on skill or if you were paid to race. I've suggested before that the system should be refined so it wouldn't arbitrarily label every racer who works in "performance-enhancing" marine businesses as a Group 2 or 3 professional. It's left many enthusiastic but non-pro-caliber sailors on the dock, and unfortunately, their future doesn't look any brighter, because now the system has gone international.Despite its failings, which include at least limited abuse by owners who offer Group 1 amateurs generous expense payments and other non-sailing compensation, the International Sailing Federation adopted an extremely similar classification approach because US SAILING's was working well for classes and rapidly spreading overseas. Until last winter, a big fight was brewing over the transition for two ISAF classes--Farr 40 and Mumm 30--from the US SAILING system to ISAF's new "Sailor's Classification Code." The classes were reluctant to convert due to the more automated and untested nature of ISAF's code. And they were especially concerned that one benefit of US SAILING's system--handling potential disputes before the regatta--would disappear. Acrimonious protests over eligibility at a regatta would quickly squash owner enthusiasm for the next event.Oddly, the fight was avoided when US SAILING shut down its system and transferred users to ISAF. Contrary to what you might've expected, ISAF didn't strong-arm the U.S. leaders; instead, US SAILING was reacting to potential litigation. The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act requires that US SAILING not have "eligibility criteria related to amateur status that are not more restrictive than those of the appropriate international sports federation." With a simple acknowledgement of a potential legal problem, US SAILING made the change.What could have been a transitional trauma for classes seems to be working out more smoothly than anticipated. Antony Matusch, chair of the ISAF's classification committee, gets high marks from Nelson Stephenson and Jim Richardson, Mumm 30 and Farr 40 class presidents, respectively. Matusch told them ISAF will honor current US SAILING classifications until they expire and will expand the number of panelists available to review questionable ratings. Even more useful, ISAF will respond to requests for reviews of posted ratings from competitors and class organizers before a regatta. Only late crew changes might then be liable to cause protests.If you sail in a class and need a rating--or want to get a new one--there's no charge to apply at www.sailing.org (click on "classification"). There will presumably be some teething problems, but the only long-term problem I see is for those who work for riggers and sailmakers, yet aren't so skilled as sailors that they make a boat go any faster than many Group 1 amateurs. Classes don't have to use the code, and many smaller-boat classes have their own ways of determining, for example, who can sail in championships. But no global, viable alternative has arisen. For better and worse, this classification code is here to stay.