Striving for a Wider Future
At Toplevel Sailing we believe we have enjoyed a progressive period in sailing, where a greater cross section and a growing demographic of people have had access to sailing, people of all abilities, all races and cultures are able to compete in our great sport.
We travel a lot, and see places developing where it begins with a Laser or Optimist on a beach, and within a short time “the place”, wherever it may be, gets people sailing in a reasonably proper manner and we have a growth period. Now, our idea of a growth period of the sport is for it to last forever, maybe with some plateaus, but always upwards. It seems that many people in power positions do not share this view, although many would claim to do so.
Lets just examine the growth of sailing and accessibility from the 1800s until towards the end of the 20th century. Sailing was a minority sport, until around the 1960s without any real ambitions to be adopted by smaller countries, with the normal gang of wealthy countries with exclusive sport (think equestrian, shooting, skiing etc) happy to duke it out for the medals every four years at the Olympics.
The contrast between the decades of stagnation and small growth of the Olympics, lets talk particularly sailing, to the halcyon days from the 90s onwards is stark. We saw little change in numbers of nations until Laser began to go evangelical in the 80s, with windsurfing following to many nations who we never thought would enter the market. Suddenly, instead of being exclusive to Yacht Club members, who were an insignificant minority of sailors, not just sailing but racing became very accessible to a vast section of the population.
To enable this massive demographic expansion, classes changed. The way boats are built changed and became more efficient and less subject to local artistry through wood. Molds were near identical, and the age of glass fiber revolutionized the accessibility of the sport. As performance increased it became obvious that classes were often size dependent. The old yacht club members would gaze in awe from their cruisers whilst boats sharing really only the power of propulsion effortlessly cruised by them. The age when having a Rolls Royce guaranteed respect on the road was gone, as Minis roared past Rolls. It was an exciting time. Of course Rolls Royce improved their own performance, but not at the rate of the millions of affordable cars. Boats followed this path. Dinghy planing followed windsurfing and became commonplace. Wind performance became accessible to all those who could afford the new, cheaper versions of sailing.
So we see two distinct models – a sport which is exclusive by economic status with hand built boats, Yacht Clubs who were equally exclusive based often on social rank, and participants who were also an exclusive clique, followed by an approach of inclusivity as sailing struggled to compete with inclusive sports driven by track and field, but including many other sports.
Sailing changed. More clubs opened. People tried sailing, liked it and adopted it. “Even” sailors with disabilities were relatively commonplace. All sizes and shapes, and just as importantly females engaged in this previously exclusive sport.
The PlayStation age has made sport popularity more of a challenge to most sports. As we see an interruption of expansion of most sports, we see an opportunity to make things easier for people to engage in a more time efficient manner. The sports that do this will emerge stronger, those that don’t will be probably be marginalized.
Our latest Olympic slate shows an inclination to return to the good ole days. More expense, fewer competitive young participants and less easy access has led us to question the motives and wisdom of reintroducing keelboats to the Olympic slate.
It has also highlighted the fact that Paralympics – a really important and inspirational part of Olympic sailing, carried the additional handicap of keelboat base. The exclusion of all athletes over 85kg from engaging in dinghy racing, following the exclusion of disabled sailing from the Olympics, may be a good time for the power politicians to reflect upon how we succeeded over the last few decades, and get back to a winning and inclusive participation ethos.
Toplevel Sailing believe in sailing for everyone. We see the massive joy and positivity of people improving and consequently engaging more. We see that a lot of places we visit who have great aspirations and are putting resources into sailing don’t have marinas or facilities for keelboats. We see a new opportunity for better designed classes and more affordable ones with ever increasing performance. It would be great if World Sailing could share this view, and exploit it, rather than return to an age of exclusivity. Walls are not healthy, as most would agree.
Top-level sailing asked Alex Hovden, a guy who participated in the boom of sailing, to share his experiences and opinions. He is a young guy, switched on to the PlayStation age, and happens to be one of the most qualified observers with constructive opinions on how we need to progress in sailing. He also happens to be disabled, which probably makes his views on the big picture more valid.
Paralympic Sailing: is there a future?
Firstly, allow me to briefly introduce myself. My name is Alex Hovden. I’m 26, and from Surrey in the UK. I started sailing properly aged 13 at Papercourt Sailing Club, where I was well and truly bitten by “the bug” of competitive sailing. Since then I’ve competed at a national and international level, winning a few national titles, and one European title. I’ve also been part of the British Sailing Team for a couple of years, and missed out on Paralympic representation for the 2012 Paralympic Games in the SKUD 18 Class.
The question in the title, for me, is about identifying and addressing the systemic challenges and barriers faced by sailors with disabilities. Since 2015, when Paralympic Sailing was dropped by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) from the events list for Tokyo 2020, I think it’s safe to say that World Sailing, and indeed the worldwide sailing community as a whole, has come on a bit of a journey. Some were quite shocked at the decision that was taken. Others, like me, weren’t. When faced with the hard cold facts that emerged a few days later thanks to the work of Geoff Holt MBE via the Reinstate Paralympic Sailing Facebook page, it became clear that the organising authority had failed to grow the sport enough to fulfill the IPC criteria for inclusion.
Since then (just a couple of months ago), it was announced that, sailing would miss out for a further Paralympic cycle, as it had been ruled out for the Paris 2024 games too.
Many people are asking the question: how can sailing be reinstated as a Paralympic sport? The answer to that is obvious: by growing the sport such that it fulfills the IPC criteria. How you do that is more challenging, and there is no right or wrong answer. I’m not going to answer that in this blog; instead I’m going to identify two of the major systemic barriers, and put forward the questions that need to be answered by the powers that be to be able to start to take down those barriers.
So the first barrier (and I’d argue the biggest) is money. Most economically developed countries such as the UK, America, Canada, Australia etc have pretty advanced programs for people with disabilities, and indeed, competitive sailing programs in general. Throughout the last 3 years, these programs have largely continued. The challenge is encouraging countries with less developed economies to take a bit of a leap of faith and invest in programs themselves, in the hope that the IPC will reinstate sailing. Of course, the large majority of investment in programs means buying boats for people to go sailing. This, in my opinion, is the biggest issue of all.
Let’s take a look at the three boats that were used in the Paralympics for the 2008, 2012, and 2016 games. There was the single person keelboat: the 2.4mR. There was the two person keelboat: the SKUD 18. Then there was the three person keelboat: the Sonar.
With a 2.4mR, you’re looking at at least £12,000 to buy a new one. With the SKUD you’re looking at at least £24,000 to buy a new one. With the Sonar you’re looking at at least £30,000 to buy a new one. They’re all keelboats too, therefore they require infrastructure to take them sailing. Infrastructure is not cheap either. So already you’re looking at an extraordinary cost, just to go sailing. The cost of a new SKUD 18 made me spit out my drink when I first heard it (at the age of 17), so imagine how a sailor with a disability from India, or Malaysia must have felt? It was only thanks to the very kind support of the Kelsey Trust (a charitable organisation whose mission it is to support disadvantaged youngsters to participate in physical activities) that we had access to such funds. How are sailors based in countries without such charities and or developed sailing programs supposed to buy a SKUD, or a Sonar or [insert your favorite boat here]?
The affordability issue goes beyond the initial outlay of equipment. In particular it relates also to the expense of campaigning and the importance of keeping up with living costs whilst campaigning. This is relevant to Olympic Sailing as well, of course, but the added cost of having a disability (according to research undertaken by Scope – a leading UK disability charity – the cost of having a disability is on average £540.00 per month) makes a Paralympic campaign even more challenging. Only those with the ability to either be self-sufficient, or be very very bold with rattling cages of money will be able to focus fully on what they need to – training and racing.
So I guess that the real question that comes out of this that will need to be answered at some point if sailing wants a serious chance of reinstatement is as follows:
How can World Sailing and member national authorities thereof, take away the additional financial barriers faced by sailors with disabilities, so that Paralympic campaigning is as affordable as Olympic campaigning?
And as a follow up question, which is relevant to recent decisions that, in my personal opinion, will detrimentally affect the range (mostly related to body build) of sailors able to aim for the Olympics…
How can World Sailing and member national authorities thereof, make Olympic campaigning (and, by extension Paralympic campaigning) affordable, such that a sailor (of any ability) from, for example, Malaysia has equality of opportunity of reaching the pinnacle of our sport, with a sailor (of any ability) from, for example, the UK?
If the powers that be can answer those questions within the next 4-6 years, taking into account the views of grassroots participants from right across the globe, then we will be putting Paralympic sailing in an excellent position to be reinstated for the 2028 or 2032 games, and we will also be putting both Olympic & Paralympic sailing on a much more financially sustainable footing for the next 20-30 years. The sustainability beyond that time frame will very much depend on the ability of those same people who answer the questions, to be able to continually review and improve those answers.
There’s a second major barrier that is faced by sailors with disabilities. This barrier is by no means uniform within countries, and it actually applies mostly to the grassroots of our sport, but the elite Paralympic sailors are sometimes affected by it too.
Let me explain this as follows: I mentioned in my opening introduction that I had started sailing properly aged 13 at Papercourt Sailing Club. The “properly” is significant here, because I had been to two other separate sailing clubs, where my desire to learn and eventually go sailing on my own hadn’t really been taken seriously. I was seen as a “no hoper”. I was taken for a ride, and then sent on my way with the job of the sailability group having been done – another poor disabled kid taken for a sail to experience the wind on their cheeks. It was only when I went to Papercourt Sailing Club, at the recommendation of one of my Scout leaders, that my keenness ability to learn was noticed, and I was quickly progressed onto the RYA Level 1 + 2 course, and subsequently into racing.
Two factors combined: our willingness to try another club, and Papercourt’s determination to teach me to sail and subsequently race, and to give me the opportunity to do these. Without these two factors coming together, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog post.
Papercourt’s determination and willingness to give me those opportunities isn’t unique – otherwise I’d be the only competitive racer with a disability in the world, and that certainly is not true. But it’s certainly not normal. Far too many sailors with disabilities are not being given the opportunity to learn to sail, and subsequently race. This is often due to political issues within clubs, where clubs would go into a panic if a person with a disability asked to join, or where they worry that allowing sailors with disabilities to join in the weekend club racing would result in the reputation of the quality of racing, declining.
Both of these reservations are frankly unacceptable. They are the kinds of arguments that the white supremacists deployed for segregating and excluding people of color from society in America in the middle of the 20th century. They need to be firmly rebuffed. The challenge is that very few able-bodied sailors will stand up to such arguments being made. To begin to take on these arguments, it isn’t enough to tackle the clubs who are arguing along such lines. What is needed is a cultural change within every single club around the world, so that it is recognized globally that a sailor with a disability has as much of a right to participate in all club activities as an able-bodied sailor, and that therefore the onus is on the clubs or organizing authorities to make adjustments to allow the full participation of sailors with disabilities.
The benefits for individual clubs are potentially huge. I firmly believe that many sailors with disabilities would be prepared to join a sailing club if given the chance. That provides opportunities for clubs to grow their membership list, and therefore the diversity and skill set of their members. And the thing is, people with disabilities talk to each other… A LOT! One positive experience can lead to more people with disabilities joining, which obviously has financial benefits for sailing clubs too.
The question is, how can we, as a worldwide sailing community, drive that cultural change at the grassroots level? Many clubs are rightly resistant to someone from their respective member national authority coming in and telling them what to do. So it needs to be a “conversation” rather than a “lesson” (if you follow my logic there).
The question comes out of that is as follows:
How do we structure the global conversation on encouraging people with disabilities to participate in the grassroots of sailing, so that as many voices are heard as possible, whilst ensuring that individual learning points are in the right direction?
And as a follow up question:
What is the correct balance in terms of World Sailing vs member national authorities vs individual clubs participating in and influencing that conversation?
I’d like to close this blog post with a quote from Christopher Columbus:
“You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Sailing has come on leaps and bounds over the past 20 years. From technological advances, such as the foiling cats used in the Americas’ Cup, to the digital coverage of sailing which has exploded.
Now, the sport faces a challenge in terms of participation in the sport, and the absence of a universal pathway to the Olympics and Paralympics, where each participant in said pathway is treated equally. As discussed, to create this requires the removal of both financial and cultural barriers. Tackling these is going to be uncomfortable territory for the governing bodies; a light touch has traditionally been operated in respect of cultural and financial issues. Nevertheless, World Sailing and the member national authorities undoubtedly have the resources to take a more proactive role – the question is: are they prepared lose sight of the shore, so that they can cross the ocean?