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Paris 2024: (Un)Intended consequences for Mixed Offshore event?

by Richard Gladwell/ 28 Sep 2019 05:46 PDT 27 September 2019
Alexis Loison and Jean-Pierre Kelbert on JPK 10.30 Léon - 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race © Paul Wyeth

"I think the argument that the Offshore Committee have around not having an Arms Race is going to have the opposite effect completely and will create a fast track for one nation, probably France to get an advantage over everyone else," says David Abercrombie, CEO of Yachting New Zealand and member of World Sailing's 16 strong Events Committee.

He's commenting on the decision, last November, by World Sailing's Council to insert a Mixed Two-person Offshore keelboat into the Events slate for the 2024 Olympic Sailing Regatta which will be sailed from Marseille, France. The submission 037-18 was passed by a single vote majority (7 votes to 6 with 3 abstaining) before going onto the Council Meeting where it received a 79% majority support (75% required) in a decision which is now being considered by World Sailing's Ethics Commission with an investigator appointed by the Commission.

By endorsing a late Submission from the Board, the Council effectively ended the 64-year inclusion of the Finn class, and with it the Olympic aspirations of Male sailors weighing more than 85kg.

While the talk at the meeting was for a three-day, two-night race around the Mediterranean to prevent crews "sprint racing" for 36 hours or so. Little was put forward as to the boats to be used for the event, and how the country qualification would operate - given that the new Event doesn't slide easily into the conventional Olympic sailing program.

The two options for Olympic Mixed Two-Person Offshore Event and Equipment [Class] selection are to orientate the Event around a class, or to define various criteria for the Equipment for an Event and then make a choice of class based on that criteria.

While World Sailing has published some criteria against which potential classes can be benchmarked, the Mixed Offshore class will be easily the most expensive item of Equipment in the 2024 Olympic Games. And under the approach adopted by World Sailing there is no certainty that either the class or event will survive to be at Los Angeles in 2028.

With sailaway boat options tipped to cost in the range of €135,000 - €145,000 plus, the focus quickly turned at how to prevent an "Arms Race" with wealthy countries, clubs, owners purchasing several of the new Olympic class and running an intensive program ahead of the 2024 Olympic regatta.

"There will be a lot of pressure come onto World Sailing to make sure that they do have a boat that's exciting, and takes a high skill level to sail, and is cost-effective," says Abercrombie.

After the Council decision, World Sailing's response was to invite classes, who fitted some basic criteria to put their names forward for consideration by World Sailing, who would then anoint some to be suitable classes for training and selection process in their region. An initial list of Qualification Event suggestions issued by World Sailing included the Rolex Sydney Hobart race.

To head off the opportunity for a "arms race" to develop once the 2024 Olympic offshore keelboat was announced, World Sailing proposed delaying the announcement of the class until late 2023 - six months or so before the start of the 2024 Olympic regatta.

The Host Nation, France, has been very active in promoting the Offshore Olympic event. As Host Nation, France has direct entry into the Olympic regatta, and the regatta will be sailed in their home waters. Adding to that advantage is the fact that France is the world's pre-eminent short-handed sailing nation, and the new class may also be French-built and supplied. To many, that sounds like a fast-track to an Olympic Gold medal.

Free of the nuisance of qualification, France can concentrate its efforts on ensuring that it is "La Marseillaise" that is played at the medal ceremony for the Mixed Two-Person Offshore Keelboat.

"World Sailing will discuss a Continental based selection the two-person keelboat at its Annual Conference in November. But Selection Trials have to be in the same Equipment as will be used in the supplied fleet for the 2024 Olympics," Abercrombie says.

"Do World Sailing put fleets of say L-30's in each continent? Or will a central venue fleet be used?"

(The L-30 is the design being used for the inaugural European Mixed Offshore Championship, in Venice, early next month, and for the first World Offshore (Mixed Two-person Championship) sailed as part of the 2020 Malta Sea Race.)

Offshore an Outlier

One of the issues with the Olympic Offshore event is that it doesn't slot easily into the Olympic Sailing Qualification program.

For the Offshore Keelboat, a Continental/Regional qualification system has been proposedusing supplied fleets of equalised boats.

That is quite a different system for the other Olympic Events, where country qualification is via placings in one of two successive World Championship regattas. One place per continent is also available at a designated regional regatta in those six continents. Typically these Regional Games places are taken up by the so-called "developing" sailing nations.

For the Mixed Offshore Keelboat, the long-standing World Championship Qualification system is to be dropped and replaced by a yet to be determined regional/continental qualification process.

The regional qualification idea originally floated by World Sailing, was that they would sanction various local classes as being suitable for training and use in selection trials, with the Olympic Equipment being kept confidential until late 2023.

Yachting New Zealand's CEO would rather have the boat confirmed as soon as possible so countries can develop their programs, and make their own decisions.

"Are there going to be six Continental qualifiers? Or do you have two or three Qualifying regattas in one venue?" Abercrombie asks.

In fact, the permutations are a lot more numerous.

If the qualifiers are going to be sailed in Marseille in a supplied fleet (common to all countries), will nations be restricted to entering a single crew?

Or, will multiple national crews be allowed to be entered, as happens in other Olympic event qualifiers, so selectors can see how their crews perform compared to each other, and other nations, at the Olympic venue, in the Olympic boat?

A Marseille-based continental qualifier also plays very much into the hands of the European based competitors with the advantage that they are training and competing virtually in their back yard, in a sudden death event where local knowledge will play a big part.

"They don't have to spend the same money that the Southern Hemisphere countries have to do to compete", says Abercrombie. "This has to be addressed at World Sailing level."

"There is a disparity in the way that South America, South Africans and Oceania get treated, and virtually ignored, which I think is appalling.

"World Sailing need to look at this carefully and get realistic about the fact that there are countries who sail, other than Europe."

"We are trying to create opportunities for the Pacific Islands countries, for instance. It is hard enough for them to sail in their own region, let alone get to Europe.

"Australian and New Zealand are determined to try and help those countries access coaching opportunities and boats."

"This new Mixed Offshore event is one they are quite excited about. Fiji does a lot of offshore sailing - a small group of people - but they would love to be part of this."

Qualification inequities

Whatever Regional/Continental qualification system is used, there are significant/unacceptable downsides.

World Sailing itself is split into 17 regions for the purposes of voting at Council level. Using the same geographical split for the keelboat - plus the Host Nation - equates to an 18 boat fleet or 36 athletes for the offshore event.

However, those 17 regional groupings (known as Group A - P) range from just two nations in one regional group to 26 countries in another. World Sailing says a "continental" system of qualification will be used with up to 20 nations on the start-line at Marseille.

The inequities of a single entry per region would see Denmark, Norway and Sweden pitched against each other along with five other nations in North Europe. Australia and New Zealand would go head to head in SW Pacific with only one going through. Similarly with the USA and Canada in North America.

Six of the above countries are listed in top ten in the Olympic Sailing medal winners table. It would seem that one entry per WS Region would see a significant reduction in the quality of the Olympic Offshore fleet.

In the current Olympic Qualification system, one place per Continent is awarded via Regional Games, or similar, regattas held in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe, North America and South America.

Two entries per Continent equates to 12 crews or 26 athletes (plus the Host nation, France). Three entries per fleet equates to 19 boats or 38 athletes. Even with three entries for Europe, they would be contested between 51 countries - which is clearly inequitable.

Under any system, Host nation France bypasses the requirement to compete in a European Qualifier.

The downsides with any regional qualification system are that many strong sailing countries go head to head, within their region, and with the possibility that their expensive Olympic Offshore program comes to a premature end, before even reaching Marseille in 2024. And yet the entry list is dotted with "low-achievers" who make the 2024 Mixed Offshore fleet by virtue of their geography.

For Europe, the issue is particularly acute with 51 countries contesting just three places.

"Say Oceania had two Qualification spots - that is effectively just handing two places to Australia and New Zealand," Abercrombie points out. "What do you do with everyone else in Oceania? It is just not right. The rest of Oceania doesn't have the chance to qualify at all."

"I believe that our area (Oceania) should have three places," says Abercrombie.

Expensive freebie

That being so for all six regions, then probably 20 boats minimum are required to be built (allowing for one spare) for a supplied fleet at a sailaway value of €3million or NZD$6million.

It is believed that World Sailing expects the Olympic offshore fleet to be supplied free of charge by the manufacturer. To avoid repercussions from selecting an Event and equipment that is well beyond the reach of most developing sailing countries, World Sailing have intimated that there will be no Equipment cost to competing countries in Marseille 2024.

Currently, the fleets are supplied for the Men and Women's One Person Dinghy and Men's and Women's Windsurfer. However those are well-established classes used for both the Olympics and annual Youth Worlds, and the boats can be sold off after the Olympic Regatta. The value of the supplied Olympic Offshore keelboat is around three times the combined value of the four supplied single-handed classes, based on 2016 Olympic entry numbers.

Stalling the Arms Race

One of World Sailing's proposals to prevent an arms race developing is to hold off announcing the 2024 Offshore Equipment and keep boat confidential until late 2023.

"But what happens for 2028 - do they ditch that boat? Abercrombie asks. "That tends to give lie to the intention to prevent an arms race."

"I asked that very question at the Events Committee meeting - "you're telling us that you are not going to use the same Equipment from 2024, going into 2028. And it's not going to become an arms race??"

"I think it is just ridiculous", Abercrombie continues.

"Name the Equipment now. Let countries build fleets within their own country. Try and grow the sport. By not telling people what the Equipment is, you are ham-stringing the sport."

"Sailor body weight and the expected conditions in Marseille are also a key part of the selection process. That is why, in this country anyway, we have multiple selection events. There might be three pinnacle events - and whoever comes out on top of that process usually gets selected."

"By delaying the class (Equipment) announcement, I don't believe World Sailing can delay an arms race.

"It will be hard to build 25 boats in secret for an announcement in late 2023. Someone will know that there has been an order placed for boats, and people will find out early. Either they will build something similar, or they will try and purchase it."

One of the options is that World Sailing will do a deal with the manufacturer and Olympic aspirants won't be able to buy the new Offshore keelboat before the Olympic Regatta.

"But if that is the case, then someone is going to know that you are building 20 boats that are never going to come on the market."

"The sailing world is too small, and the word will get out."

Expensive build up in Marseille

The selection process to be used by the Continental groups is also unclear. The logical approach is to hold the Qualification Regattas in the Olympic supplied fleet, in the Olympic regatta venue of Marseille.

"If there are qualification regattas in supplied boats, how much time do you get for practice on a boat that most people have probably had no experience whatsoever ?"

For qualification and selection, the boats need to be supplied free or at a minimal cost. Otherwise, the smaller nations will be excluded from the new event which has become too expensive.

"For everyone who is in Europe or the UK, it is logical to have trials in Marseille - which is a "drive-up" regatta.

Anyone outside Europe will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to attend a qualification series in Marseille. Those serious about being selected will set up in Marseille for several months before the Olympics. The exercise will be repeated the previous year to check the weather in August 2023." [That is without knowing which class will be used in 2024.]

"Everyone is going to want to go in and have the use of charter boats in the Olympic period, during August 2023."

"Going in before or after that period in 2023 doesn't mean you are going to learn anything, apart from maybe how the boat sails," Abercrombie adds.

Keen interest

Domestically, Abercrombie says there has been enormous interest in the new Mixed Two Person Offshore event, with Yachting New Zealand being approached by several clubs and classes.

"With the Offshore boat, we will try and work with clubs and run the program like RNZYS do with their youth program. The clubs will put together two-handed campaigns. We still have to manage the process, but we think we can manage costs by working with partners in that respect.

"Quite a few people are starting to get a feel for it', he says. "Two clubs have come in to find out what the Qualification process might look like - as the first Offshore Worlds [as part of the Rolex Malta Sea Race] are next year."

"We don't have a good two-handed boat in NZ that could be used for an event like that. We see it as an opportunity to create a new class. I personally would love to have a competition between New Zealand and Australian designers for a two-handed 35fter, with a lifting keel that fits inside a 40ft container. It has to be decided whether it is weight dependant or not - which is one of the big issues at present."

A further complication is the vexed issue of whether self-steering gear, or autopilots will be permitted.

"The talk is that there will be no self-steering gear - so for three nights and four days - someone is always going to have to be on the handlebars. Is that a good thing or not?" he asks.

As many have noted, allowing self-steering gear creates the potential for images of the racing to go out of a boat sailing with no-one on deck.

"I think there are a lot of areas that World Sailing are missing out on here. I would love to be able to see what the Equipment is and allow countries like Australia and New Zealand to build a fleet each.

"We could have a fleet in NZ that we could charter for Oceania as could Australia.

"I know that there are at least two clubs in New Zealand who would immediately build four or five boats. Those boats would have reasonable resale value. While there might be a first up investment of $200,000 per boat, but if a production model is going and we create fleets, then they will, I believe, have significant resale value.

"And you'll have a boat that can be sailed two-up or four-up - and has many opportunities for different people to sail," he adds.

Big step up to Olympic level

Where the Mixed Offshore crews will come from is another moot point. With the Olympics being a big step up from what is currently largely a recreational sport, outside France.

"Stamina, fitness, weather expertise, campaign commitment, navigation ability and with both crew needing to be able to drive and trim keeping a boat going fast 24/7, not just when the best helm (arguably) is on the handlebars. We also have the challenge of the mixed crew that I believe will prove interesting going forward," says Abercrombie, who had a long career at the sharp end of professional sport, including the All Blacks, America's Cup and two Olympic teams before joining Yachting New Zealand in late 2010.

"I think we will see retiring Olympians looking at Offshore sailing as an option and there will be women who might find this a good option - perhaps after having a family and still wanting to compete at the highest level. I do believe we have grown up considerably and that more men are likely to support their wives or partners into competitive sailing if that is their dream."

Usually, any new Olympic class or event fits within the existing Olympic template - has a ten-race Olympic event, is sailed during daylight hours, fits into a circuit of major international regattas each year, and dovetails into the Youth classes progression.

Training and coaching is done within the context of the other Olympic dinghy and board classes organised by the national federation.

The Offshore event has little that fits that template, and given the cost, logistical complexity and inherent unfairness of the competition, many countries outside Europe may elect to sit out the 2024 event.

Excluding the Host Nation, there were only three countries that contested all Olympic events in 2016, one more than 2012. In both years the USA was one of that number, for legal reasons, entering every class in which they qualified.

A further issue for the state-funded programs, which are judged on results, is that a more expensive class program such as an Offshore event, is harder to justify than a lower-cost program such as a single-person Finn.

Next steps

The first question that will be asked by Olympic Offshore keelboat aspirants is "how and where will they obtain a boat"?

"You can't," replies Abercrombie.

"In NZ we have the likes of the Young 88 Association thinking about reconfiguring boats, as are the MRX's to a two-person configuration - so both classes can be used for training, and potentially for selection."

It may also be an option to adapt the simulators used by America's Cup teams and adapt those for the Olympic Offshore event. That could include putting crews through various weather scenarios that can be expected in Marseille during the month of the Olympics. Given the cost of running the standard Olympic program in the Offshore Keelboat, some form of simulator for crew training and selection may be a better option.

One issue that will have to be sorted out with the Olympic Offshore boat is whether it is bodyweight sensitive or not. That cannot be really determined until the design/boat is announced and analysis is done, which is fed into crew selection. The weight issue also has to be overlaid with the expected weather in Marseille for the period of the Olympic Regatta.

That is why countries who are serious about medaling in the Mixed Offshore event will have to set up in Marseille with multi-boat programs, in order to be able to answer selection questions of that type.

With a close relationship with their America's Cup team, Yachting New Zealand stands to be the most affected by the loss of the Finn class from the 2024 Olympics.

Currently, two 49er sailors and two Finn sailors run parallel Olympic and America's Cup programs. Three sailors were on both the winning America's Cup boat and competed at the 2016 Olympics.

"We will lose the ETNZ guys out of the Finn program", Abercrombie admits. "There's talk that windfoilers can take 90-95kg sailors. I don't know if that is realistic for a 95kg sailor compared to one weighing 70kg in 6kts of breeze."

Several sailors are coming through the development programs, who weight more than 85kg and will have to make some tough decisions.

"One option is they go straight into a professional sailing career and bypass the Olympics completely. We all know how many Finn sailors are in America's Cup programs, TP52's Match Racing, Maxis or RC44's - there is a level of sailing that a Finn teaches you that other classes don't.

"We have to be careful not to place too much emphasis on the Olympic games. To many people, it is the epitome of their sailing career and sailing success. But there are a lot of other rewarding sailing competitions to be involved in. The Star has maintained a very competitive and successful circuit - and there are others like that.

"Whatever happens to the Finn, I think it will continue to be an incredibly successful class."

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