Stop the gravy train, ISAF, we want most of you to get off

ISAF turns down technology. By Roger McMillan.

After three days at this farce that has been the ISAF World Championships in Santander, I wrote an opinion piece about starting technology (see Related Content). It was prompted by a general recall under Black Flag, where several sailors were thrown out of the race but others who were over the line were not.

I suggested that it should be possible to adapt the marvellous technology developed by Stan Honey and his team for the 34th America's Cup, to provide an electronic line and sensors on every bow that would tell the race committee exactly who was over the line. In the AC, it was accurate to within 2cm.

Well now the plot thickens. According to ACEA Race Director, Iain Murray, the technology was offered to ISAF. Stan Honey told them they could have it for less than it would cost to send all the startline officials to Santander and put them up in hotels.

Apparently, the reaction couldn't have been more violent if he'd suggested sleeping with their sisters. What? Stop the gravy train? Deprive all those elderly souls of their free junket? Just to give the sailors a fairer race?

“By the way, Stan, we don't think we need you on that ISAF sub-committee any more. Heretics have been burned at the stake in Spain before, you know.”


We've had live tracking of yacht races for at least five years. It has worked perfectly at Sail Melbourne since 2009, as it did at Perth 2011 and the 2012 Olympics. It even works globally – you can find the Volvo Ocean Race boats when they're deep in the Southern Ocean.

But here at Santander the 2D tracking hasn't worked at all and the 3D kept locking up – if you could get it to load in the first place. There were people sitting up until the small hours of the morning in Australia to follow the races – only to find the technology didn't work.

So I was very surprised to hear that SAP offered ISAF their superb analytics software, which has been proven at Extreme Series and the 505 Worlds. According to my very reliable source, they didn't even get the courtesy of a reply. SAP didn't want money – they were even prepared to pay to have their techs here to make sure it worked.

It's not just a great system for followers of the regatta. It's also a superb resource for coaches and sailors who can use it to review their races and see what they did right and wrong.

Gravy Train

There is only one reason why a governing body would turn down offers like these, that would make the event better for the sailors and help promote the sport to a global audience. Technology costs jobs. People who get flown around the world to wonderful venues, who stay in good hotels and enjoy catching up with all their old mates (whom they sailed against 140 years ago) would have to stay home.

A cynic once told me that women's match racing was selected for the London Games ahead of multihulls because more officials were needed for match racing. At the time I laughed. Now it seems plausible.

It would be OK if all the old duffers were efficient. But they aren't. See Related Content for the list of race management stuff-ups at this regatta.

I'm reminded of a great interview when Australian swimming legend Dawn Fraser was elected to the NSW parliament and was asked what she'd do if she was the sports minister. “I'd make it illegal for anyone over 40 to hold a position in a sporting club,” she replied. (This article is written by a bloke who turns 60 next birthday, in case you think I'm being unfairly “age-ist”.)

I'm sorry ISAF. The model is broken. The sport is about today's sailors, not those of us who did it 40 years ago. An ISAF appointment should be aimed at making the sport better. It should never be a reward for long service.

Please embrace this new technology now. Don't create another committee* and fly them around the world to meet 14 times before they recommend you stick with the status quo. Make a bloody decision. And stun the sailing world by making the right one.

Stop the gravy train, ISAF. We want most of you to get off.

– Roger McMillan in Santander

* On top of 17 different categories of “committees”, the ISAF website lists 45 “working parties” comprising, by my count, 237 members. One working party has 15 members! That can never work. I know some of these people and they are excellent at what they do and no doubt make a very positive contribution to the sport. But I'd bet that at least 50% of them are “surplus to requirements” and simply there because someone in authority owed them a favour. See the full list at

(Judging by the number of people in ISAF polo shirts here in Santander, the embroidery budget alone would bail out the economy of a small third world country.)

FOOTNOTE: I have been approached in the boat parks by a number of sailors from around the world who have thanked mysailing for speaking out about all the issues from this event.

They don't want to say anything officially themselves, in case they get victimised. The class associations can't afford to rock the boat – the equipment committee has the power of life and death over Olympic classes. The national bodies are reluctant to go out on a limb. So it's up to people like me, who have got nothing to lose except our accreditation (and imagine the trouble I'd cause THEN), to tell the truth.

I don't enjoy bagging ISAF. There are a lot of good people involved who are doing their best. But the model IS broken. And it needs to be fixed. Now.

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