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Gladwell's Line: Sailing's Brexit continues at Bermuda

by Richard Gladwell, 30 Oct 2019 19:59 PDT 24 October 2019
One of the test team makes sailing the Starboard iFoil look as difficult as driving Miss Daisy - World Sailing - Windsurfer Evaluation, Lago di Garda, Italy. September 29, 2019 © Jesus Renedo / Sailing Energy / World Sailing

This week, Sailing's Brexit, otherwise known as the 2024 Olympic classes selection, continues for yet another round at the World Sailing Annual Conference in Bermuda.

Several key decisions are on the agenda.

The first is the choice of Equipment for the Men's and Women's Windsurfing event and whether the incumbent RS:X, will retain its place.

That call was to have been made at the May 2019 Mid-Year Meeting, but the World Sailing's Board had three times rejected a recommendation from its expert Equipment Committee to at least hold trials for the Windsurfing Equipment. However, the Council did not agree with the Board's re-nomination of the RS:X for 2024, and called for a set of Evaluation Trials to be held, ready for a decision this week.

The trials at Lake Garda appeared to be well conducted with an excellent panel of sailors in the 20 strong test team. While some of the criteria for the new Equipment, such as being able to race in 35kts, were not met, the gear was tested in winds of up to 25kts.

The upshot of the Evaluation was that the majority of the sailors in the trial opted for foiling over planing boards, and for the Starboard iFoil over the other two options the Windfoil and Formula Foil.

Perhaps the most telling statistic was that the RS:X was scored with more disadvantages than advantages from the sailors who made up the test panel (13 points for, and 14 points against). The Starboard iFoil had 17 Advantages compared to 11 Disadvantages.

RS:X sailors dominated the Evaluation Team, and if there was ever a group with a vested interest in seeing the RS:X anointed for 2024, this was it. The salient point is that the Evaluation Team backed the windfoiler choice, even though individually it would lose them money in their current RS:X equipment investment.

The consensus from the three foiling options was that they didn't much care, which of them was chosen, provided it was a foiler - presumably on the basis that a rising tide lifts all boats. In the end, it was decided that a one-design option was most likely to be accepted, despite the higher cost.

Read the full report of the Evaluation Trial

Assuming the Windfoil does receive the blessing of Council, four of the ten events at Marseille will be foiling.

The second issue is whether the proposed new Governance model for World Sailing will be accepted.

The proposal does go a long way to addressing the Conflicts of Interest which riddle the world body like cancer. But, it does place more power in the hands of a CEO and splits the current Council into two entities - one of which handles Olympic matters only.

Many of the representatives at the Annual Conference will be only too well aware the current Council structure does provide a backstop against the Executive and Board, particularly when they go against the advice of expert committees without good reason. That lack of trust is the fuel of resistance to wide-ranging governance change.

The Finn class currently does not appear on the Events slate for the 2024 Olympics. The exclusion of males weighing more than 85kgs from Marseille is regarded as acceptable collateral damage, by gender equality hardliners.

The Finn class organisation has put up several submissions which open the door for it and above-average weight males to be on the start line in Marseille. Whether any of those options get support remains to be seen.

In yet another verse in the Mixed Two-person Offshore Keelboat opera, a joint submission from the Chairs of the Equipment Committee and Oceanic and Offshore Committee attempts to lock the decision-making process over the vexed Equipment issue.

The Submission proposes that a set of criteria for classes to be used in both regional training and selection published by December 2020 along with "examples of equipment which meet the criteria." The Submission proposes that a second set of criteria will also be published by December 31, 2020 "that Equipment for the Olympic Event shall meet."

Then three years later the Council (presumably the Olympic Council under the proposed governance model), will choose the keelboat to be used for the event in Marseille in 2024.

Of course, the whole event hinges around being able to make the offshore boat decision in complete secrecy, which is a massive ask of World Sailing - let alone when there are supplier negotiations involved.

The criteria-based approach takes World Sailing away from its previous position of naming suitable classes and then picking one of those for the Olympic event. While not a perfect method, at least an astute choice could be made at a regional level, knowing what had been approved for Europe/France from where the offshore keelboat will most likely come.

Missing from the Submission is what happens come 2028 and the Los Angeles Olympics. Do a new set of criteria get devised and promulgated? Does the 2024 Equipment get ditched?

It would seem that the selection of the Equipment will be paper-based, with no Evaluation Trials held as has been the requirement for four of the 2024 Olympic Events, so far.

Of course, the issue for the national bodies trying to put together a 2024 campaign in the Mixed Offshore boat is one of crew weight. Will the chosen class suit Whales or Whippets? Given that World Sailing concedes that conditions in Marseille are likely to be light, the latter is more likely.

Most competitive one-design keelboat classes now stipulate a maximum crew weight - will this be one of the criteria to be announced, for the Olympic Offshore keelboat in December 2020?

If so, what happens with countries who have already purchased boats for training in the seven months from the December 2023 announcement, to the start of the 2024 Olympic regatta? Do they get dropped onto what will be a flooded market?

Or will World Sailing lock in the 2024 Mixed Offshore Equipment for Los Angeles 2028?

The nagging issue is whether the Mixed Offshore event will be a one-Olympic wonder as was the Women's Match Racing in 2012?

The logic behind the change is stated to allow "recently introduced" Equipment, or for the Equipment lists to be "continually updated". That is the very thing that sailors and national bodies want to avoid - the constant fiddling and adjustment that just creates uncertainty, and helps those with inside knowledge to gain further advantage.

And all for a very expensive Olympic event which has yet to stage a World Championship.

However, the irony of the Bermuda World Conference is that it began with a forum on Women's participation in Sailing, and will likely end with the confirmation of an Event slate for 2024 which excludes above average weight male sailors. Worse, it is a deliberate exclusion made with full knowledge of its effect from the outset.

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