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Gladwell's Line - Oh, and by the way we won a million dollars

by Richard Gladwell, NZL on 14 Jul 2016
Phil Robertson celebrates his team's win at the World Match Racing Championships. World Match Racing Tour, Marstrand, Sweden. July 9,2016. Ian Roman / WMRT
July 11, 2016 - Sailing history has been made by the New Zealand crew of Phil Robertson, Stu Dodson, Will Tiller and James Wierzbowski in winning the richest prize ever offered in sailing - $US1million (NZD $1.37m), with their nail-biting win in the World Match Racing Championships in Sweden.

While Robertson and his crew join a long list of top New Zealand sailors to win the World title, the $1million payday is a new benchmark in a sport that has eschewed prizemoney almost since its inception.

Surprisingly the feat has almost gone unnoticed amongst the Kiwi media (Martin Tasker and TVNZ - being a notable exception). That ambivalence over a world championship win is even harder to understand given the general media's obsession with money from the demands as to how much members of Team NZ earn to the adulation that follows when a professional golfer wins on the circuit.

Robertson's win is a significant benchmark for the sport - whether it flows over into other sailing events remains to be seen.

However regardless of that - there is no doubt that professional sailing remuneration is right up there, and when the New Zealand sports rich lists are compiled there is usually at least one sailor in the top three.

Sir Russell the Evangelist
One of those in the Rich List is Sir Russell Coutts, now resident in Tindall's Bay north of Auckland. His latest project has been to fund, lead and evangelise a project to get kids into sailing using a fleet of O’pen BIC Class yachts.

Getting kids into sailing isn't a new project and since time immemorial there has been a raft of designs built with varying degrees of success - probably the most notable being the Optimist and with a raft of New Zealand designs almost all of which have made their mark and pulled new sailors into the sport.

The Coutts project revolves around having a fleet of O'pen BICs which can fit into a container and be shipped to the next venue.

Those who have been involved in kids sailing know there are several boxes which must be ticked for these projects to work.

First, the chances of a project succeeding using volunteer built boats is virtually zero. For sure these projects started many a fine fleet 20-50 years ago, and it is sad that society has got to the stage where people can no longer use their hands, or learn to use their hands to build their own boats. So to be successful, the boat must be available off the shelf. It's a lot easier to raise money than to build boats.

Second, the boats have to be capable of being sailed one, two or may three up - for two reasons. Firstly a lot of kids are afraid of water - a fear usually installed in them by over-cautious parents. But they are quite happy to buddy up with others and go along initially for the ride and then work it out from there. Nothing new about that plenty of NZ and world champions have started their sailing life being told what to do by others.

Third, the boats must be capable of reasonable performance - essential to give those who are more adept sailors some challenge and for them to feel the thrill of sailing fast and free.

Fourth, for any program where the boats are loaned to the sailors for the day need to be relatively easily maintained - something made easy if plug and play parts are easily available. The cost of the BIC O'pen seems to be comparable with a new Optimist. The trick is how much punishment the boats can withstand. A boat in a learner situation takes five maybe ten times the punishment/wear and tear of a regular Optimist that is used and looked after by a single owner. The extra wear comes from being used for two sessions a day, five times per week by learner sailors, compared to the one or days a week plus some weekday coaching by a single racing owner.

Of course, the difficulty with learn to sail is not so much getting kids into a program - it is what happens next, and how do you retain them in the sport, have them sailing regularly and get them to fall in love with the sport.

That's where some new thinking on boat ownership needs to come in.

Who says you can't match race cats?
Phil Robertson and friends' win in the World Match Racing Championship closes the first chapter in the new life of the World Match Racing Tour having made the switch from the rules and umpire dominated sport that began in Long Beach in 1965.

Most sailing fans were scratching their heads as to whether the shift from a variety of monohulls to M32 catamarans would work.

The simple answer is that after a small period of adjustment and tuning the new WMRT has worked well and the racing in the final on Saturday night (NZT) was as good as you'll get and very, very exciting to watch live.

Quite whether it is sustainable is another matter, as these events often run well while they enjoy a major financial underwrite. But remove that crutch and expect the event to wash its face financially is another matter again.

Of course, the underwrite has to go in for the first few years to get the event established as a 'product', and to be able to show the viewership, exposure and fan following statistics needed to get sponsor interest and backing at a level that is commercially viable on an ongoing basis.

Racing jib-less catamarans in match racing context where the race determining factor seems to be the quality of a tack is certainly a new way of playing the game. A far cry from who had luffing rights, or how an overlap was established. On TV it certainly seems to work - giving five of six opportunities a beat for one crew to make an error which can cost their lead - or for the other to win it back.

There is certainly plenty of drama - and tacking the M32's cleanly requires very good and well-co-ordinated crew-work - which surely should be one of the tests in any sailing event.

The M32 also seems to be a very strong design in negotiating the 'Valley of Death' as all high-performance boats turn the windward mark and accelerate rapidly downwind - often with the real chance of a nosedive even in moderate winds.

Again it comes down to crew coordination and skill, coupled with the ability to really put the power in and maybe accelerate past a more timid opponent.

Downwind the M32 is not easy with very good crew coordination again required, plus the ability to sail on confidence and really drive the boat hard, with the ever present risk of a node-dive costing the race - as New Zealand's Chris Steel found out in his semi-final against Taylor Canfield (USA).

Going after the Cup fans
Of course Robertson's win in the World Match Racing Championship, sailed in multihulls sits very comfortably alongside Emirates Team NZ's lead in the America's Cup World Series - and Chris Steele's semi-final place in the WMRT adds a bit more depth to Kiwi claims of superiority in this style of multihull racing - given that both types are strict one-design.

The other point of note is that a second and maybe third event have stepped into the void created by the America's Cup stepping away from its sailing fan base.

The Volvo Ocean Race and WMRT have gone after the sailing fans who have been largely ignored by the America's Cup organisers as they have ignored the traditions of the event chasing a more general sporting audience.

While the VOR definitely requires a full-on professional operation, the cost is a fraction of an America's Cup campaign, and the exposure for sponsors is more than comparable with the AC, which has made some very curious decisions in respect of its coverage, and thus far has failed to capitalise on the platform that was created in the tail-end of the 2013 America's Cup in San Francisco .

The World Match Racing Tour does not a professional team require - just skill and talent - with several of the teams claiming to be self-funded including winner Robertson Racing.

Similarly for the up and coming event, the GC32 circuits - which have a way to go to catch up to the level of the VOR and WMRT, however, the essentials are there - a fast foiling boat which looks spectacular, but which can break down into a container for transport between venues.

Good sailing!

Richard Gladwell

This editorial was first published in Sail-World NZ's e-magazine.

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