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Risk and reward

by Mark Jardine 20 Mar 12:00 PDT
Hot Stuff broaches in the Solent © Ingrid Abery /

I've yet to meet a keen sailor who hasn't at some point banged a corner, usually after a poor start, and come out top at the windward mark. Nine times out of ten it won't work, probably ninety-nine times out of a hundred in reality, but that one time where it does certainly brings out the smiles.

Regattas require consistency though, and unless the venue is one where a certain side always pays, when everyone bangs the corner, going off on a flyer may win you a race, but won't win you the event.

Risk and reward have to be weighed up the entire time when sailing. Crossing a starboard tacker when it's a bit tight risks penalty turns or a protest, but the reward may be to avoid a pair of tacks and gain that clear air you'd been searching for. Flying the kite on a relatively tight reach may reward you with an extra knot or two of speed, but risks a broach or capsize. A port tack flyer on the start line risks having to duck the fleet, but the reward when you do get to cross them all is the 'whoop, whoop!' shouts and being the centre of the bar chat that evening.

Then there's the ever-increasing risk assessments, safety protocols and paperwork needed to run sailing events - especially junior and youth sailing - but the reward is the sense of fulfilment, and seeing the joy and happiness of enabling people to get out on the water.

Sometimes the higher the risk, the greater the reward. Last year when we got the kids out to 'Thread the Needles' at my local club we knew it carried an increased risk over one of our usual youth sailing sessions, but they still talk about it and it was the first event we got in the diary to run it again this year. I would never advocate a gung-ho attitude; it did take far more planning, coordination, and concentration than any of the events we do. The kids were tired after a long and challenging day on the water, but the leaders and RIB teams were shattered.

When it comes to competitive sailing, the margins get tighter, and the risks increase. With the step-change in speed in top-end sailing due to the foiling revolution, we've seen remarkable moments, such as when the British AC75 crossed the Italian team on the downwind leg, caught in the incredible photo above.

With SailGP we're now seeing these kinds of hair-raising moments with the boats approaching each other at up to 50 knots. The risks have certainly increased, but with one million dollars going to the winner of the SailGP Grand Final, so have the rewards.

While the prize money may seem a huge incentive, the F50 foiling catamarans aren't cheap, and collisions have to be avoided at all costs. Not to mention the risk to the sailors themselves, who are relatively out in the open. Thankfully a tightening up on the rules and punishments, combined with the skill of the sailors, has kept incidents in a minimum so far. Let's all hope it stays that way.

In my opinion, by far the trickiest balance of risk and reward comes with bringing up young sailors in competitive sailing.

Winning an event is reward, but losing as well can be an opportunity for developing valuable life skills: learning from mistakes, building resilience, composure under pressure and understanding that however good you are at something, there's (usually) someone better, being just a few.

The risk is losing young sailors to the sport altogether, and there has been far too high an attrition rate in junior and youth dinghy classes where the focus is all on the top sailors. As I've said more times than I can remember, and many much wiser people have said before me, sailing is a sport for life, and it's a tragedy that people can leave the sport before they've even reached 18, when their journeys on the water haven't even had the chance to properly start.

Part of this pressure has been due to funding models, where governing bodies are rewarded for success on the biggest stages, such as the Olympics. The more medals your sport achieves, the higher the funding received. This inevitably leads to concentrating on those who show 'medal potential', with others being ignored.

Thankfully this attrition in participation is being slowly recognised, and the focus is being redressed. Making competitive sailing more interesting for the bulk of the fleet doesn't have to come at the cost of reduced success at the top, and both goals can be achieved at the same time.

Much of it comes down to recognising what an individual young sailor is looking to get out of their time on the water. Some are naturally competitive, and will always push themselves to do more, while others are looking to just have fun with their mates. Understanding this, and adjusting how you communicate with them according to their goals, will increase their engagement and enthusiasm.

Kids (and adults) can develop their competitive natures at very different ages, which is why having a primary goal of keeping the majority of the fleet happy is good for the top as well. Apart from the obvious point that sailing in bigger fleets is better practice, those who may have taken it less seriously to begin with may become successful sailors a bit later than others. There are many cases of top sailors who had no results to their name in the Optimists.

Risk and reward are inexorably linked. The potential reward that you receive from an action is often proportional to the amount of risk that you are willing to take, but taking too much of a risk can also be detrimental. Keep in mind that different people have different goals, and understanding what drives an individual will help keep them engaged in sailing. If we can keep more people in the sport, then the rewards are great for everyone.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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