Jun 13, 2012, 11:44 AM
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Seahorse magazine - July 2012 issue
Seahorse magazine - July 2012 issue
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By Andrew Hurst, Editor
Breakfast of (offshore) champions
Something interesting has been happening in international sailing. During the late 1970s and 1980s, and on into the early 90s there was a steady flow of talent from dinghy and Olympic classes into offshore sailing. The best young helms were in steady demand onboard the good offshore racers of their day, both as helmsmen and to sharpen up the tactical armoury. Other good small boat sailors found their sail trimming knowledge had set them up for successful careers on the end of a genoa or spinnaker sheet. Many also then moved sideways into the sailmaking industry.
Having cut their teeth and survived the hard yards, absorbing the new skill-set needed to perform successfully on larger boats, day and night, fair conditions and foul, many of these younger sailors went on to make names for themselves in the America's Cup and in the great Whitbread and then Volvo ocean races. Many of them will still be found there today either leading big projects or high up in a range of related businesses.
But then in the late 1990s and 'naughties' something changed. It is a personal view, but I believe that at this point Olympic sailing became so refined and specialised that, underwritten by the much greater funding that was becoming available, it began to offer the prospect of a career in itself. Also, to succeed in this now more heavily invested Olympic atmosphere, there was little time to learn parallel skills; and if there was then there was little appetite.
Fewer good sailors made the transition offshore, or into the Cup. Many were complacent, others tried offshore sailing and not unreasonably decided it wasn't for them (tough to argue when the choice is a wet night on the rail or a warm hotel paid for by your national authority). It is hard to fault the conflicting forces that stopped many from risking the move. And the Olympic standard was still rising fast; as one former medallist and offshore champion said in 2005, "Today's Olympic sailors may no longer be able to do much other than sail a Laser or a 470, but they do that very well indeed."
But now the situation is changing yet again and for the better. Since the 49er has been a part of the Olympics another new breed has emerged. Maybe it's the greater 'adventure', maybe they are just tougher (no rude letters, please), but whatever the reason, quite a number of skiffies like Chris Nicholson, Martínez and Fernández, Rob Greenhalgh, even one-time 49er sailor Ian Walker have been stepping up and doing so very successfully.
Perhaps today's much faster big boats and A-sails play their part in terms of familiarity for skiff sailors, but I believe it is more than that. Do skiffs demand a different set of fundamental human qualities, more mentally flexible and pragmatic, perhaps less perfectionist, than, say a 470 or Laser? Whatever it is, these guys seem more able than predecessors to adapt quickly, and tolerate the discomfort as they do so.
It is all a dilemma! But it is just good that we are coming out of a lean spell. Also, now that the girls finally have their own Olympic skiff for Rio 2016, let's hope the change in tone will help to end today's almost complete absence of women sailors on the best offshore and AC programmes. That too is long overdue.
And in Cupland
There is similar good news in the Cup, and some reward for the organisers of AC34. Not financial reward, nor those much longed for viewing figures, but in terms of the sailing feelgood factor...Which must be nice!
Step by painful step, many of the big names of recent America's Cups are stepping aside for younger talent. Not all, fortunately, and Dean Barker and Terry Hutchinson are among those showing that age and experience are still a tough match for youth (particularly in a game as complex as the Cup). As in the Volvo Race, many of these younger sailors are coming from the skiff fleets ¬ more so even than from cats. Again, reaction times, an instinct for downwind angles and a high pain threshold are easing Nathan Outteridge, Chris Draper, Phil Robertson and their peers into brilliant new opportunities. And more will be lining up after London 2012.
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