Weighing in on the Weigh-in

It’s time to change how we weigh in. The current system encourages crews to do alarmingly unhealthy things to "make weight" and is fraught with problems that exacerbate inequities during racing. Virtually all keelboats perform better with a surprisingly large amount of human ballast. Even in moderate air, more is better, or at least no worse, because the upwind gain overrides any downwind loss. In grand-prix classes, regardless of the venue, top boats strive to hit maximum weight.

Losing a few pounds to make that weight is a laudable goal for many sailors, but the current system of pre-regatta weigh-ins has created one of the silliest and most potentially harmful features of grand-prix racing. Grown adults are going through weight loss routines that would make a high school wrestler proud. Starvation, dehydration, and medication are the most common methods.

Weigh-ins are a nuisance for competitors and race administrators. Many classes with crew-weight restrictions use the honor system for less important regattas, which I support. The present system favors crews willing to make major and sometimes unhealthy sacrifices to rapidly lose weight. This requires draining the body of its fluids. If a sauna isn’t available, there are many creative methods employed. For example, at a recent event, a certain team was far over the limit. After popping diuretics, they practiced in the hot sun all day without consuming a drop of water. That wasn’t enough, and with no sauna in sight, the crew donned its foul weather gear, packed into a tiny rental car, cranked the heater, and hit the road. A few hours later, they made weight.

According to America’s Cup veteran Rock Ferrigno, a medical student, these extremes are not healthy. "Dehydration sets off a chain reaction of compensation to ensure adequate blood flow to the brain and the rest of the body," says Ferrigno. "If the person is adequately healthy, this poses little long-term risk unless they’re taking certain drugs. For the out-of-shape sailor who smokes, drinks alcohol, and may have some baseline cardiac disease, dehydration puts them at risk for a cardiac event."

Dehydration is devastating to the body and mind. On weigh-in days, you see crews walking around like zombies. But this weight comes right back--so the crew that barely weighed in will be heavier during the regatta. Is this how we want to play the game, where the teams willing to do the most bodily harm, or at least suffer the most discomfort, have the biggest advantage? No way. We must remove or diminish the incentive for rapid dehydration and give crews a better shot of being equal in weight. A solution for major regattas is to have two scheduled weigh-ins: one midway through the event for all, and a second for the top 20 percent on the scoreboard at the conclusion of the regatta. If a team comes in overweight at either weigh-in, they’re assessed a 20-percent penalty for each race sailed before that weigh-in. If a crew is overweight at the halfway point, they must return the next morning in compliance, possibly with a replacement crew.

Some scales weigh inaccurately and others can be tweaked by creative leaning. Organizers should be required to use accurate scales that cannot be cheated. This would also allow a crew to get a preliminary indication of their status on any scale. The official regatta scale should be available to competitors before and during the regatta for unofficial checks.

With such a system, I suppose a masochistic crew might dehydrate before each weigh-in, but their performance on the water would suffer. I’d certainly like my chances racing against a "dry" boat. I’ve come full circle on this subject. I was once in favor of a single weigh-in because it seemed so simple--make weight and you’re in. But given the extremes to which teams will go to take advantage of the system, it’s time to change.