Two recent decisions by the governing body, World Sailing, could have long-term repercussions for the sport's future. In particular, they could see a huge reduction in the number of people participating in traditional forms of sailing.
There are five sailing events at the 2018 Youth Olympics. Rather, I should write: There are five “sailing” events. Because four of the five do not involve sailing as I know it.
The events are male and female windsurfer, male and female kiteboard and mixed multihull. Only the multihull bears any resemblance to traditional sailing.
I understand that the powers-that-be are trying to make sailing relevant to the next generation. But in my opinion, replacing equipment like the Laser and skiff with kites and boards is not the answer.
I know several America's Cup and Olympic sailors who have a kite in their garage. Using a kite is fun and it takes place on the water. But it is not sailing.
I am surprised that World Sailing has not realised they are being used by the kite associations to gain back-door entrance to the Olympic Games – at the expense of two traditional sailing classes. Once in, they will immediately begin lobbying to break away from sailing, taking two of our medals with them.
I may be wrong, but I can't imagine that in 20 years' time there will be people crewing in the America's Cup or on a supermaxi in the Sydney Hobart who started their “sailing” career hanging underneath a kite.
They are much more likely to come from those who started in an Opti and progressed to a Laser or a 49er.
Surely, in the Youth America's Cup, there is room for a skiff class like the 29er? That is a pathway to the Olympics, to keel boats like the MC38 and TP52, to offshore events like the Volvo or the Vendee Globe and probably to the new 75ft America's Cup boats.
I had to use inverted commas again there. This week World Sailing was loudly trumpeting how clever they are to be at the forefront of eSports – computer games designed to keep our children indoors, glued to a screen and having no face-to-face social interaction with their peers. The governing body of our sport, tasked with getting more young people out on the water, is running a world championship that encourages them instead to sit on their arses in front of a phone or computer screen.
Coincidentally, in yesterday's Daily Telegraph there was an article citing research that showed five hours a day in front of a screen increases the chance of a child suffering from depression by a staggering 71%.
The eSailing World Championship release conjured up some depressing thoughts for this writer. I imagined a family in Melbourne who owns a club racer, let's say. Dad says to the son or daughter, “Do you want to come out and watch the Volvo boats arrive?”
“No,” replies the child. “I'm busy now. There could be a sail change needed in my Virtual Volvo race and I don't want Tommy at school to beat me.”
Or perhaps an even worse scenario could take place, where the child is dragged out on to the boat and as some of the world's best sailors match race up Port Phillip Bay at 20 knots on exciting 65ft keel boats, the child is glued to a phone screen or tablet, missing all the action and excitement.
Surely we should be encouraging our kids to get out there and experience the thrill of real sailing? To enjoy the camaraderie and banter on the rigging lawn and in the clubhouse, making friends for life. To build their character bobbing around in the hot sun or cold rain, waiting for a fair course to be set. To handle the joys of winning and the pain of losing, to learn to read the weather, to feel the wind and to make their little boat fly.
Kites and eSailing are fun. Real sailors often do both, for a bit of light relief.
But do we want to take the risk that actively encouraging these things will not increase participation at all? That in fact it could cost us an entire generation of people who actually sail?
- Roger McMillan, editor.