• Jim & Tom Colley – MJ NSW State Champions.
    Jim & Tom Colley – MJ NSW State Champions.


At the end of this month, sailors both young and old will gather at dozens of sailing clubs around the country to compete in the annual national championships of more than 60 different classes of boat.

That’s one reason why this issue is packed with tips from sailing champions such as David Dellenbaugh, Michael Blackburn, Jordan Spencer and Tony Bull. A major role of this magazine is to help you become a better sailor and class nationals are the ultimate guide to how well you’ve done.

It’s also interesting to read articles in our Clubs & Classes section which often extoll the virtues of a particular class of boat. In this issue the Manly Junior Association takes great pride in pointing out the honour roll of MJ alumni, which includes Malcolm Page, Nathan Wilmot, Jimmy Spithill and Olivia Price.

The MJ is a terrific boat that has stood the test of time. It can be sailed one-up or two-up and has three sails, giving ideal preparation for bigger boats in later life. It’s just a shame that no other country sails the class.

In some ways the wide variety of craft that are sailed from our beaches enhance the sport. There is something for everyone, from a slow and safe tub for the conservative amongst us to a flying skiff or multihull for the more adventurous and sometimes plain mad!

But the plethora of designs makes it very hard for sailing to be taken seriously by the mainstream media.

I recall a situation in 2010 when Tom Slingsby had just won his third Laser World Championship and an Etchells World Championship within two weeks of each other. I contacted the sailing writer for a major Australian newspaper to point out Tom’s successes, one of which was achieved on his birthday and the other of which was accomplished with John Bertrand, the first non-American skipper to win the America’s Cup. The journalist in me said this was a damn good story.

“Yeah, I heard about it,” came the reply, “But I’m a bit busy with the Commonwealth Games at the moment…”

I’m convinced that the reason we aren’t taken seriously as a sport is because there are just too many “championships”, both here and around the world. The really important and hard-to-win ones get swamped by the also-rans, which are given the same prominence and importance by our governing bodies.

Did you know, for example, that to become an ISAF-recognised keelboat class (over 15m) you need only two boats in each of three countries on two continents. I’m guessing there’s a financial benefit to ISAF involved in having lots of classes – it’s certainly not in the best interests of the sport.

Below I’ve floated some ideas on how we can correct this “problem”. Some of them might not hold up to scrutiny from better-equipped brains than mine, but I think it’s important we at least debate the subject.

As I said, having thousands of people of all ages sailing a whole variety of boats around the country isn’t a bad thing. But you don’t have to be sick in order to get better. I hope you’ll read the article and have your say.

And if you are competing in a national championship over Christmas, whether against four people or 400, I wish you all the best.


The article on Manly Juniors in the December issue makes interesting reading. That’s quite an honour role, producing four Olympic medallists and an America’s Cup winner in the last four years.

Of course, the Sabot Association will immediately point out that Tom Slingsby, Nathan Outteridge, Iain Jensen and Mat Belcher all had their first success in Sabots (although Outteridge did sail an MJ when he was only four).

Then the Cadet people will agree that a two-up dinghy is the right way to start kids off, because a novice can learn alongside a more experienced kid, but will claim that their design is better than the MJ. And two months ago we ran a story on the Pacer, with the also quite legitimate claim that putting kids in a boat with an adult was a better way to teach them than by yelling at them from a chase boat… 

And then there’s the Optimist, sailed by literally thousands of kids world-wide and favoured by Yachting Australia as the preferred learn-to-sail class. The Opti has alumni that includes the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, Ben Ainslie, and allegedly 80% of the gold medallists at Beijing 2008. Australia has never won a medal at the Opti Worlds and if memory serves me correctly our best result is in the 50s somewhere – because so many of our top young sailors have been competing in MJs or Sabots or Cadets or Pelicans or Minnows instead.

Is it a problem?

Perhaps having such a wide choice of craft is actually one of the reasons that Australia does so well at sailing. Perhaps… but I can’t help thinking that if Belcher, Jensen, Outteridge, Page, Slingsby, Spithill and Wilmot had all sailed Optis, one or more of them might have won the world title.

I am NOT saying that we should trash all other learn-to-sail classes and only sail Optis. What I’m suggesting is that there needs to be a mechanism whereby EVERY young sailor in Australia can compete against each other. Because strong competition engenders strong competitors. And it’s a lot more fun.

Our sport is similar to motor racing in many ways. There are lots of different designs and the aim is to go faster than the next bloke (or woman). They race “open” and “one-design”, and improvements made on the race course filter down to make the family car safer and more economical to run.

But you don’t find motor racing holding separate Australian and World championships for every design from every era. There’s no Australian champion for “Fiats 1975-1980” for example. But there would be if sailing clubs ran motor sport.

All in the same boat

So here’s an idea which you can support or rubbish by commenting below. Surely some mathematical genius can come up with a box rule for one-person beginner dinghies – one into which will fit Optimists, Sabots, Minnows, etc, etc. Then instead of having state and national championships for every class, we have state and Australian Junior Championships. (Split it into Under 10, Under 12 and Under 14 if you like.) The kids can show up with whatever they currently sail and have a go.

For those that think sailing should always be a team sport, we can do the same with the two-handers and even three-handers – hold an Australian Junior Championship that welcomes all classes currently being sailed.  In fact, hold them at the same time so the next Nathan Outteridge can win the single-hander in a Sabot, say, then jump into an MJ and win the double-handed class as well.

Of course, kids (and parents) being what they are, whichever classes are quickest will quickly get adopted by all the others and some of the slow classes will fall from favour. (Or will change their rigs so the same hull goes faster.)

Our mathematically-enhanced guru will be able to come up with a yardstick so the slower boats can compete on handicap with the quickest ones, meaning they don’t become obsolete overnight. I could be wrong, but the way I see it this would lead to a rationalisation of classes over a period of about five or six years.

It would mean that any sailing club could compete against any other sailing club. It would give our juniors more experience in big fleets, and would pit the best against the best.

Do that, and we’ll secure our place on the Olympic podium for many more years to come.Or am I totally missing the point? 

- Roger McMillan 

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