A parting of the ways

OFFSHORE BY DAVID SALTER

Our sport of ocean racing may be coming to the crossroads. The potential for a serious parting of the ways is both real and imminent. Competing forces are now so firmly counterpoised that a schism seems inevitable.

Alarmism’ I don’t think so. There’s just too much recent evidence that the offshore community has starkly divided positions. We’ve reached the point that the divorce lawyers like to call ‘irreconcilable differences’.

Put broadly, it’s a stand-off between amateur and professional ethics. There’s one camp that believes competition should be totally unbridled by any limitations on the size of boats, their technology or crews. On the other side are the Corinthians ‘ those of us who’d like the sport to remain within reasonable dimensions where the participants race for the love of yachting, not money.

In the past, the authorities controlling local ocean racing have attempted to placate these competing standpoints by organising the occasional meeting of owners. Everyone is invited to let off steam. Earnest promises of further consultation are made.

Nothing happens. The sheer power of the cheque book ‘ both of millionaire owners and squillionaire sponsors ‘ soon overwhelms what may have been genuine efforts to forge a consensus aimed at bridging the fundamental differences now threatening to permanently divide the offshore fraternity.

This is not a new problem. In a sport dominated by such competitive and strong-willed personalities as ocean racing, it’s always been impossible to sustain a truly level playing field. But, as the huge Sydney-Hobart fleets of previous decades demonstrate, there was once enough common ground in blue-water sailing for everyone to feel they had a fair chance of testing their skills and endurance against like-minded competitors.

Not any more. This unfortunate split into an ‘us and them’ mentality was clearly reflected in a number of incidents surrounding the recent Gosford-Lord Howe race.

In the published NoR for this year’s event, the race committee (of which I am a member), announced that while entries from canting-keel yachts were welcome to compete for line honours in 2006, those boats would not be eligible for any rating prizes.

That decision came as a direct response to the repeated concerns expressed by owners who’ve been loyal to the Lord Howe race for many years that they didn’t believe there could be a fair handicap contest between their smaller, more wholesome yachts and the new breed of 100ft hi-tech maxis. (The Wild Oats 2005 Hobart clean sweep was clearly still fresh in their minds.)

Immediately, the two canting-keel yachts that had already notified the Gosford Sailing Club of their intention to compete ‘ Skandia and Ichi Ban ‘ withdrew those entries. A stark line in the sea had been drawn.

Soon after that decision I fielded a telephone call from Michael Spies, who runs the racing campaign for Ichi Ban, Matt Allen’s upgraded Volvo 70. Spies is a full-time professional sailor paid to win races. He was rather angry that the strictly invitational nature of the Lord Howe event meant that the Gosford club could spike his big-money guns so easily.

‘Spiesie’ and I sailed together on Apollo back in the early 1980s so the conversation was civilised. He argued that the club’s decision was unfair, divisive and possibly illegal. I responded that Ichi Ban was more than welcome to compete for line honours, but that the Lord Howe race was traditionally amateur in spirit and the club intended to keep it that way. We agreed to end the debate at 15-all.

As always, the event went ahead and everyone had a good time. Then, at the presentation ceremony on Lord Howe Island, it was time for the Corinthians to have their quiet say. Bruce Dover, owner/skipper of EZ Street (accepting the trophy for second place in the PHS division), commented that the LHI event was ‘one of the last great amateur yacht races’ and that he hoped it would continue to support those principles. It was obviously a sentiment shared by the assembled skippers and crew. They gave Dover’s little speech an enthusiastic round of applause.

A more pointed observation soon followed. Ed Psaltis, a Sydney-Hobart winner (and recently honoured by the Cruising Yacht Club for his 25 Hobarts), took the microphone to publicly declare that he thought the Lord Howe event was ‘better run’ than the Sydney-Hobart.

The current CYCA Commodore, Geoff Lavis, was standing only a few feet away. It’s to his great credit that Lavis greeted that pointed remark with a gracious smile. Psaltis has been perhaps the most prominent critic of the CYCA’s rule-bending and reluctance to concede that canting keel super-maxis are not fair competition for smaller, more conventional offshore yachts like his own Midnight Rambler.

Back in early 2002, I wrote in this magazine: ‘The rumbles of discontent from unsponsored owners and crew are growing year by year. Their concerns now colour virtually every conversation in the club bar. They are fed up with being ignored by race organisers and the media.’

Those tensions between the professionals and amateurs are now coming to a head. The essentially Corinthian offshore sailors feel like outsiders in a sport they’ve supported for a lifetime. The win-at-any-cost brigade resent any limitations on their quest for glory. It would be a tragedy if the fleets divided, but something has to give.

Meanwhile, the unofficial cruise-in-company movement continues its steady growth. A record fleet of 12 yachts signalled their intention to join this year’s BBQ toddle over to Lord Howe Island and return. There’s a lesson for us there.

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