what would elvstrom think?

The State of Our Union

When asked why I thought sailing was such a cool sport I always used to answer ‘The right kind of people play our sport’’.

I then went on to say it is nothing about money, I am hardly a millionaire myself, but it was about the attitude to fair play and helping each other. Perhaps something to do about the lore of the sea.

Back when I was young in sailing, rules being broken in high profile events were big news, and relatively rare. The I’Punkt affair being notable and when an Enterprise dinghy appeared at an early 70’s Enterprise Europeans at the Royal Tay Yacht Club in Scotland with a boat that you could fit your fist between the hull and measurement template at station 2, it went all the way to the IYRU (with the trophy being withheld if I remember correctly) and led to the nicknames Benterprise and Slenderprise although doubtful if many readers are young enough to remember those issues.

Perhaps I watch what is happening in the upper echelons of our sport more than I used to but I am not alone and have recently challenged by people I know with “You told me this was an honourable sport so why are people cheating”  and I have to start to agree with them and that disappoints me.

It is very hard to ignore the lead in king posts, the round the world racers mousing their halyards, sailing with nav lights switched off at night, leaving behind a crew member in the light at multi race regattas or the multitude of other infractions one sees or hears about.

And some of the breaches are clearly well thought out and pre-planned. Deliberate is the word I think I am looking for.

At one Laser Regatta, at least one competitor had tied the dead end of their mainsheet to the toe-straps and was gently flicking his feet all the way round the course causing an almost continuous and almost inconspicuous flick to the 4th corner of the mainsail.

He was undone when a judge came alongside and took a snapshot of the arrangement. Suffice to say that if there was no on the water judge they would have got away with it.

I have even had a world champion boasting to me he won because he was able to ooch better than others. To give him credit when he described his actions it was more like legal kinetics than illegal body movements but the fact he felt it was no problem to say he was ooching was concerning.

Even coaches seem willing to stretch the rules with their athletes, or perhaps don’t have the fullest knowledge of the rules themselves. I remember one discussion where a coach felt a penalty could be done at the competitor’s convenience rather than “as soon after the incident as possible”. Lord help us.

The problem is perhaps not new but does seem to be on the increase to such an extent that World Sailing even produced a manual on the subject “Misconduct Guidance”. If misconduct wasn’t such an issue, why have a manual?

We are all aware that, in many parts of the world, numbers in our sport are not growing as we would like, in fact in some parts of the world they are apparently falling to the extent that books have been written on the subject (very good books like ‘Saving Sailing’ for example) and if the playing field is not seen to be fair not only may it chase people from our sport but also prevent newcomers entering in the first place.

And it is not just competitors that are culpable. I have been in ‘the room’ where the Chairman (an IJ) didn’t declare the protestee was an associate and even forcefully told one of the witnesses to shut up. Or being on the water with an IJ and spotting a competitor ooching so obviously it would have made a perfect “How to” video. Instead of opening the throttle and awarding a penalty they dropped the engine to ‘idle’ to widen the distance. (The competitor was a fellow national of the judge). The very next day when with a judge of a different nationality I highlighted the same competitor doing exactly the same thing. Result? Throttle up and a 720 penalty. In fact had the other judge done the right thing the day before then that penalty should have been a DSQ or even a DNE. Smelly!

An extreme example perhaps, was the awarding of redress by an (incompetent or complicit?) race officer after a competitor claimed an on the water judge (who the SI’s stated their decision was final) made a wrong decision. No paperwork, no protest committee, a unilateral decision by the Race officer to award 5 point redress even though the GPS trace showed the competitor’s penalty turn cost zero places. The upshot was over 20 rules and sub rules broken and the third place prize of a 23 foot Sportboat going to a fellow national of the race officer. Attempts to protest these actions were blanked all the way up to the CEO of the company which organised the event.

So what’s the reason? Frankly, I don’t know. Perhaps it is the additional money that has crept into our sport, where frequently the sailor’s income level, either at a particular event or potential  in the future is based on results. Perhaps I was just blind to it (I love this sport) and am noticing it more these days with my involvement in writing and officiating, either way it is not a good look.  

Of course, on the high side, these occurrences are not everyday. If they were they wouldn’t be noteworthy but they still dishonor our sport and I haven’t even got started on electronic devices working or not working.

So what’s the solution?

Our sport may not be unique  in being self policing. I have seen golfers and snooker players calling fouls on themselves but the number of sports that DON’T have an official, whether called a judge, an umpire or a referee is pretty small.

Could you imagine the mayhem that would exist on a soccer pitch with no referee? That sport has even gone to ‘goal line’ technology and a 4th official for video replay – let’s hope our sport never has to extend to those sorts of measures, I doubt if we could even afford it. And soccer isn’t unique, quite the opposite.

I do notice that the number of regattas that have “on the water judging” with the “judges decision is final” written into the sailing instructions appears to be on the increase but the wrong type of official is usually used and it shouldn’t (in my opinion) even be judging.

There are now only around 60 – yes, I haven’t missed a zero – only 60 people who are qualified as both International Judge (IJ) and International Umpire (IU) in the whole world. And using a judge to officiate when the skills of an umpire are what is required is rather like someone used to sitting on the bench of a county court doing duty as a traffic cop.

I am not doubting the rules knowledge of judges, far from it but the additional required skills of boat driving, positioning and wake avoidance are not something that a judge practices regularly along with the sometimes lack of awareness of the concept of “last known point of certainty”. Additionally, just as a county court judge lacks the experience to ‘smell something going down’ where a street cop would then the same applies to the relative skill sets of a sailing judge or umpire.

Having performed the roles of both umpire on the water and judge in the protest room I am quite aware that while there is significant overlap in terms of knowledge required, however there is somewhat less overlap with the practical skills.

Sometimes as an on the water ‘judge’, just being there keeps people honest and at a number of regattas it has been noticeable that the officials are quite busy on day 1, or even just race 1 but by the time day 2 dawns they are just trundling round with the fleet with their flags lying in the bottom of the RIB and their whistles virtually unblown.

Would we ever have to go to the extent of having actual ‘referees’? I for one certainly hope not but the reliance on someone protesting and more worrying, those who don’t sometimes being more pilloried than the offender (real or supposed) hardly benefits anyone except perhaps the trolls who sometimes populate internet chat rooms.

We are one fifth of the way into the 21st Century and our sport still largely depends on an honour code that existed at the beginning of the last century.

I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater but at the very least, in my view, that minority which disrespects our sport by knowingly NOT following ALL the rules needs to be brought to heel in a firm and uncompromising manner.

Good policing prevents crime, perhaps the time has come to ramp up those who are on the water just to ensure a fairer, more level, field of prey.

Food for thought. Comment here