A Matter of Control

Am I the only one who appreciates the quiet way that the International Sailing Federation president notices a problem, makes a point, and thoughtfully engages his organization in a new initiative? In an ISAF website article last May (www.sailing.org/isafcal/Article_content.asp?ArticleID=2363) that made more than a few headlines, ISAF President Paul Henderson charged that cheating among Olympic-class sailors, particularly Rule 42 (propulsion) violations, was "out of control."

Henderson may be right that we need tougher on-water jury enforcement in Olympic classes, but I wonder how we’re going to know for sure. He hasn’t produced class-by-class surveys; he visited a couple of regattas and talked with a few sailors. Now, I wonder, will he create an open, deliberative process to study the true extent of the problem and consider potential solutions, or will he simply shoot from the hip, bring in tougher judges, and consider the job finished?

The president and I have debated his communications style in the past, and after eight years in office (and two to go), I don’t expect him to change. I give him credit for shaping up ISAF and keeping his finger on the pulse of sailing’s key issues, but his usual leadership approach seems unlikely to be effective in the development of sound improvements to one of his principal targets, Rule 42, which limits the use of kinetic energy in sailing.

Henderson has long been an advocate for eliminating kinetic sailing. In 1979, as a vice president of the IYRU (precursor to ISAF), he made a radical proposal to abolish all kinetics, including roll tacking. The only exception he made was to allow pumping the mainsheet to promote planing.

While Henderson’s proposal failed to become law, Rule 42 has been substantially rewritten a couple of times since then, and it’s also been modified by classes over the years to suit their particular boats. For example, the International 470 class has had some success with a yellow-flag rule that allows unlimited kinetics only when the flag is flying (usually above 12 knots of wind). But it’s a work in progress, as it should be, because Rule 42 is often still violated, hard for competitors to enforce, and difficult to judge consistently. For all these reasons, solutions aren’t likely to be simple--or simply a matter of tossing more sailors. And any debate can’t ignore the fact that solutions for the Olympic classes will have an effect right down to the local level.

President Henderson will miss an opportunity if he doesn’t lay out an inclusive, deliberative process for classes in which kinetics make a big difference, ranging from the Olympic to the Optimist. He should put the weight of ISAF into surveying in detail how the rule’s been applied, modified, observed, and policed in each class. And he should ensure the process generates wide input toward solutions, not only through the international classes but also through national bodies like US SAILING so that grassroots-level sailing is considered.

If rules observance is going south as fast as the president says, this isn’t an issue for ISAF’s executives to sort out with their limited, Olympic-oriented perspective. It needs time for serious, creative thinking by sailors everywhere, who through their participation are the owners of the sport. Take it slow, Mr. President, and be sure the sailors get that chance.

To read an interview with Paul Henderson from 1979, as well as his proposal to ban nearly all kinetics, and a counter proposal by then 505 world champion Steve Taylor, see www.sailingworld.com/sw_article.php?articleID=1000