Response to One-Design Heresy

Laser sailor Walt Kramel and others talk back on issues raised by the Editor.

"One-Design Heresy," your May editorial, is a subject long overdue for discussion among members of the sailing community. The status of one-design racing, and its potential for growth, is a very complex issue because it involves many interacting variables. A few such issues include access to water, cost of a boat, an individual's acceptance for membership in a private yacht club, cost of belonging to a yacht club, availability of community sailing programs, availability of school and collegiate sailing programs, and others items such as the public perception and acceptance of sailing. All of these topics cannot be addressed at once. Hopefully, your column will stimulate discussion about the future of one-design racing. (Here's a link to the column: www.sailingworld.com/sw_article.php?articleID=891.)

We need to promote our sport if it is to grow, and not decline. We need to make some changes if we are to encourage the growth of one-design sailing. Here are a few ideas for consideration:

With all due respect, I disagree with your comment that one-design sailing is "over-rated." I also do not agree that "competing in a strong class is a hell of a lot of work."

"Over-rated?" One-design sailing is one of the most fulfilling activities I have experienced. What other activity challenges the mind, the body, and the senses to meet the challenges of the wind, the waves, and the great outdoors? None that I can think of. "A lot of work?" Not necessarily. It depends upon what we sail. A Laser can be sailed competitively in local fleets without obsessing over the bottom finish, or spending a small fortune on hardware and sails, or recruiting a crew. Same with a Penguin, or many other simple boats. In fact, the Laser class specifically prohibits changes that are not authorized by class rules in order to prevent an "arms race" of expenditures. Perhaps other one-design classes would benefit from similar rules. Granted, one-designs such as the 505, the Star, or Melges 24’s are more work, but they also appeal to more sophisticated tastes in boat design and performance. Let’s begin by focusing on what steps we can take now, to strengthen the growth of our sport for the immediate and long term future.

One-design sailing can be fun and affordable. We need to focus on getting people into smaller sized boats such as Lasers, Penguins, Vanguard 15s, El Toros, or JY 15s, to name a few, that are fun, challenging, inexpensive to own and sail, and can provide a strong nucleus of local activity to foster the growth of one-design sailing. This is a "bottom up" approach to building participation in our sport. Dinghy sailing offers a great platform for enhancing all one-design, as well as PHRF or other "big boat" racing activities. To succeed, it will take a focused effort by yacht clubs; a more "open attitude" by yacht clubs toward public participation in sailing at their private facilities; and more public-access programs such as community sailing, junior high school, and high school programs.

Your comment that one-design sailing will benefit by adopting a handicap rule such as the Portsmouth Yardstick is a valid point; so long as the intention is to introduce people to sailboat racing, or encourage fleet participation at clubs where turnout is characteristically low. However, handicap racing can never, in my opinion, substitute for the challenges, the excitement, and the competitive spirit of true one-design racing. As you correctly noted, wherever racing programs are simple and fun, people enjoy the racing experience and participation grows. This "fun factor" is maximized in boats like the Laser, the El Toro, JY 15 and other one-designs that enable sailors to race and have fun, while they learn and grow from the experience.

At the risk of offending some groups, one-design sailing suffers a dilemma; it has traditionally been sanctioned by yacht clubs that are typically private organizations. The yacht club is necessary because it has water access and shore facilities, yet a private club also restricts the potential number of new participants, which limits the growth of our sport. One positive solution is the growth of community or public access sailing facilities. Over the years, Sailing World Magazine has encouraged this trend, along with growth of school sailing programs. The result is many new sailors are introduced to the fun of one-design racing, and one-design sailing is slowly gaining more public awareness. However, we need to do more work if our sport is to ever acquire the participation that it truly deserves.

It has long been my observation that yacht clubs can do the most to help or hinder one-design racing. Unless there is a core group of sailors who enjoy one-design racing in small boats and promote fleet growth, a yacht club can evolve into a social club or country club, with the result that new members are not encouraged to participate in one-design racing. If new members learn to sail in a Penguin, Laser, J/22, Lightning, Snipe, etc., and view these boats as "trainers" or something inferior, they will transition out of one-designs, or perhaps out of sailing altogether. Yacht clubs can do much more to encourage one-design sailing by working to promote local fleets of one-designs and day sailers that are inexpensive and exciting to sail. I see no reason why a private yacht club cannot sponsor a community one-design fleet, and allow people to sail out of the club facility. This would build community support for one-design racing, and sailing in general. Yacht club members can also become political advocates on the local level, advocating for community facilities such as parks and launching areas that would provide community access for one-design racing.

Our sport of one-design racing has suffered for too long under a confusing and misleading public perception. This is made manifest in the media coverage of America's Cup sailing, and other big name venues that manage to get limited exposure on cable T.V. In my opinion, a paradoxical result of media attention to the America's Cup program is to heighten the public's awareness of big, expensive sailboats, as the epitome of sailing. One-design sailing is overshadowed or altogether ignored in terms of popular media attention. It takes growth on the local level, from the "bottom up," to generate increased public awareness of one-design racing among non sailors.

Some yacht clubs do an excellent job promoting one-design sailing. During the early 80s I lived in Seattle and belonged to the Seattle Laser Fleet and also sailed at Corinthian YC. Both had active programs that emphasized one-design sailing and reached out to the community to welcome new members. I witnessed a similar experience at Richmond YC in Richmond, Calif. RYC used to run (and I believe they still do) a community program to invite non-sailors into the club to learn to sail, learn to race, and become active in the one-design community. The result is that both Puget Sound and the San Francisco Bay area have several sailing clubs that appeal to a broad spectrum of boating, sailing, and social interests. Both areas have reasonably large numbers of one-design fleets and promote one-design sailing. Other geographic areas, such as Long Island Sound, have similar traditions of one-design activity that do a commendable job promoting our sport.

Today, sailing is in competition with many other recreation activities. As consumers, we spend time and money where there is a return of utility or gratification. I am convinced that one-design racing can successfully compete against other consumer options such as golf, video/computer games, soccer, movies/videos, after school sports, after work parties, watching auto racing, watching TV, health-club activities, "hanging out with friends," after school sports, and other events that compete for our recreation time and dollars. However, to succeed, one-design racing, as well as mixed-fleet racing, benefits the most from a yacht club or community sailing program that already possesses the necessary facilities, and possesses a membership that reaches out to the potential sailors in our communities.

One final thought: US SAILING has a big stake in this issue. US SAILING, as the national authority of our sport, might adopt a proactive policy of exerting its friendly influence on yacht clubs to encourage the growth of one-design racing. By encouraging or "mildly pressuring" yacht clubs to adopt a more sailing friendly attitude toward the public, we could increase accessibility to the sport for more people, thus facilitating the growth of one-design racing as well as sailing in all of its forms. Growth of the sport of one-design racing benefits all of us; the sailors, the boat and equipment manufacturers, and many other related interests.

I am painfully aware that many yacht clubs are private organizations, whose members will not share my perspective. However, their policies influence the future of our sport, for all of us, for better or worse. Many of them will need to be encouraged to change their attitudes and policies. The resultant growth of the sport will benefit all who play the game.

Thanks for offering a forum for a timely topic. I hope your editor’s letter solicits creative ideas and constructive feedback. We need new ideas, we need new blood in our sport, and we need to change some old attitudes in order to promote the growth of a sport that so many of us dearly love.

Walt Kramel
Milwaukee, Wis.
member, International Laser Class Association