Sailing challenged to adapt to winds of change

Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 00:00

Sailing:At last weekend’s agm of the Irish Sailing Association (ISA), a motion from two prominent dinghy sailors prompted widespread debate.

Norman Lee and Bryan Armstrong outlined a series of small yet significant issues they believe have contributed to a decline in dinghy sailing, and are having knock-on effects on the wider sport among amateur and club sailors.

The pair raised a dozen and more points that found support at the meeting, though there was little scope there for debate to establish specific common ground. The solution was an ISA commitment to air the issues at clubs and classes within the next month: it is hoped this might lead to a plan.

However, a doubt lingers over whether this will be sufficient to address what is now being openly acknowledged: Irish sailing is at a crossroads.

Beyond the dinghy debate, there are the challenges of falling numbers of participants in other areas of sailing, plummeting club membership levels, reduced disposable income and the sport’s growing irrelevance to younger people.

At the heart of the Lee and Armstrong motion lies a well-argued case that, as the national authority with a declared aim of promoting sailing, the ISA is failing in its mission.

Wrong tack

They argue that concentration by the ISA on the high-performance pathway aimed at delivering Olympic success is disproportionate, leaving few resources for maintaining a grassroots following of the sport.

Lee and Armstrong correctly identified junior training as the feeder for adult participation and bemoaned the abandonment of the racing log-book, as well as the poor standard of some sailing instructors at club and sailing school centres around the country. These have become, in effect, glorified summer creches with little long-term commitment to training lifelong sailors.

It seems the ISA is to blame for the proliferation of classes: dinghy, one-design and keelboat. On current estimates, there are about 45 ISA-affiliated classes, each entitled to stage a national championship, each with its own dedicated following: and woe betide the administrator who dares suggest that a dozen entries does not a championship fleet make.

However the story is more complex than this. The crisis – for that is what it is, albeit in slow-motion – extends beyond Irish sailing and is replicated worldwide. Nor is it a sailing-only issue: few sports can claim they have cracked the problem of retaining their youth following into adulthood.

Yet not all is lost. A large, experienced and highly dedicated volunteer cohort drives day-to-day activities around the coast. There are more than 50 training centres. Ireland can rightly boast of great sailing and boating waters.

Haul of medals

The Irish high-performance squad had its best haul of medals ever last year. There was an Irish winner of the Volvo Ocean Race, a Commodores’ Cup winning team not so long ago and David Kenefick begins an important single-handed series this weekend in France.

Lee and Armstrong’s motion may also be seen as a boiling-over of pent-up frustration but its inherent challenge highlights a certain cosiness that allows individual members of the ISA family to shrug-off any notion of collective responsibility.

Ultimately, a solution will hinge on the need for more participants and a visionary leadership to drive the change needed in a change-averse sport.

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