Saturday, February 13, 2010

Organized Racing Without the Organization

Everybody involved in sailboat racing understands that the following statement from US Sailing is obvious and boringly self-evident.

For most races in the country, a yacht club is the organizing authority. … As a host, the yacht club provides the venue and facilities for the regatta, and may or may not the responsible for the duties of the organizing authority. When it is not the organizing authority, it usually provides the facilities, the equipment, and the race committee to conduct the racing to the organizing authority…… - US Sailing Race Management Handbook (9).

Yet, as I was driving home from an informal meeting where sailors were organizing spring laser sailing, it occurred to me there was no yacht club involved - and no organizing authority either! A bunch of sailors had decided it would be fun to race lasers together and had gotten together (starting last fall) to figure out how to make that work for the most people. Doesn’t sound like the US Sailing version of organizing racing, does it?

And as I thought about it some more, it seemed I could rattle off many examples of regional laser sailing happening outside the auspices of yacht clubs.
  • Duxbury spring and fall series – self organized using Duxbury Bay Maritime School facilities
  • Winthrop Frostbiting at Cottage Park Yacht Club – where virtually no winter sailors (lasers or interclubs) are members of the club but there is a symbiotic relationship between the groups (maybe good customers at the club bar)
  • Newport Frostbiting – self organized fleet using Sail Newport facilities
  • Sail Salem is a public sailing organization promoting a laser fleet
  • New England Masters Regatta is run from a public beach with help from sail Newport and other individuals
  • Frostbiting and summer sailing in Bristol – self organized, but using yacht club facilities (especially the bar) in the winter, and no connection to any yacht clubs in the summer
  • Saltmarsh Regatta is run from New Bedford Community Boating – is there a yacht club involved? Does Community Boating take the lead in organizing, or are the facilities just “borrowed?”

There may be more.

In my limited experience, this seems to be unique to lasers, at least to the degree to which it seems to be happening. Why is the relationship between yacht clubs and laser sailing any different than between yacht clubs the sailing of other boats? What’s up with laser sailors, or the boats, or the yacht clubs?

Some solid hypotheses:

  • Simplicity of boats. The boats are very portable and mobile. They are light and easy to car top or trailer, usually by only one person. They are quick and easy to set up and launch. They are self rescuing and therefore need little or no rescue support (depending on conditions of course). It only takes one person do decide to go sailing. However, this is all true for Sunfish too.
  • Simplicity of race management. With less need for rescue support, fewer people are needed to run a race. In local racing, the races don’t need to be long. A starting line, windward mark, and a leeward mark make a fine racecourse. One person can do it. Some fleets eliminate the starter altogether and do rabbit starts.
  • Out of season racing. A lot of laser sailing is frostbiting or spring and fall extensions of the yacht club summer season. Clubs are closed or barely interested in the off season. Those with bars have more interest.
  • Sailor enthusiasm. In addition to sailing when others have put their boats away and sought indoor warmth and comfort, laser sailors seem willing to travel long distances (100 miles or more- wow!) for a day of sailing. They sacrifice convenience to find good competition. They also seem to self-organize as needed to immediately satisfy their sailing habits, rather than depending on others (including slower moving yacht clubs) for help.

Other more speculative and perhaps cynical explanations involving potential character flaws in both laser sailors and yacht clubs:

  • Laser sailors have less need for boat storage and therefore don’t have compulsory ties to yacht clubs.
  • Saying you are a yacht club member says little about your interests in sailing. Calling oneself a laser sailor is a meaningful description. Laser sailors have a stronger allegiance to the class than to a club they may belong to.
  • Some yacht clubs may historically not have had enough laser sailors as members to establish a critical mass within the club to satisfy laser sailors.
  • Laser sailing is growing in popularity faster than yacht clubs can organize to keep up.
  • While yacht clubs continue to support some of their long standing fleets in spite of diminishing numbers they don’t appear interested in hosting and supporting newly self organized laser sailing. Laser sailors don’t seem to have enough clout at clubs to get them interested.
  • Laser sailors can be independent and self indulgent to the point of not tolerating certain yacht club organizational sluggishness. They seem to lack the patience required to work with the staid traditions of yacht club organization and would prefer to “just do it”.

I love that laser sailors are self organizers. It’s good for the sport, good for the organizers, and good for their fellow sailors. Sailing should be supported and promoted in every way it can, inside yacht clubs, in public sailing organizations, and in independent sailing without organizations. Isn’t that the whole idea?


  1. Well said. It's a trend that I've noticed too but you beat me to the gun in writing about it. I've a sneaking suspicion that this style of sailing is going to become more and more popular.

  2. How do you deal with rule 89.1?
    I'm not saying I don't approve, but what about protest and/or appeals?
    If you're not sailing under the RRS how do you handle these?

  3. Good points Jos. In every instance like this where I have been invloved, we all think we are using the RRS. In the most informal racing, I think we have an unwritten provision in the unwritten sailing instructions that deletes rule 89.1. In the case of the New England Masters I think the organizing individuals qualify as an "other organization affiliated to a national authority." (89.1c) In that serious regatta the sailing instructions commanded everyone to behave like gentlemen and do penalty turns when appropriate. It worked out fine. In some other instances protest committees were formed from other competitors. And in others cases disputes are discussed and sometimes resolved at the bar after racing. Obviously, at some point the stakes become too high and too serious to be fast and loose with the rules.

  4. A small community with lots of shared values can do a pretty good job of self-regulating. But what happens if people get differences of opinion that can't be solved easily, or get good enough that being able to use the rules precisely becomes important, or if you get people who don't do their turns, or if you get a group who are really mixed in their skills and temperaments and don't have so much in common?

    An organizing authority doesn't have to be a traditional brick-and-mortar clubhouse with bars, trophy cases, and blue blazers. It can as easily be a "paper" sailing or yacht club or community sailing association.

    What it does provide is some "back up" or supplement to deal with breakdowns in a purely consensual, casual group.

    (1) an OA is essentially an ISAF/MNA (US Sailing) franchisee of the Racing Rules of Sailing and is plugged into the appeals process.

    If you get a "sea lawyer" in your group, he/she could try to say that any group not affiliated with the "system" has no standing to interpret or enforce the rules. Trying to kick a jerk out of a really casual group may be difficult and any long-running arguments or controversey could drive people away.

    (2) Clubs typically provide insurance coverage to protect the race organizers in case something goes horribly wrong.

    (3) The "system" is the main source of training for people to learn how to run regattas and interpret the rules and deserves some sailor support for this role.

    (4) Having the resources of "the system" behind you may discourage some jerk-offs from going off on strange tangents or trying to get away with bullying.

    (5) Laser and other strict one-design classes do depend less on clubs than handicap classes. With handicap racing, there's much more need for "systems" or authority to try to maintain some sort of level playing field.

  5. One more sort of related item: In our inland state, the State Parks Department controls access to most lakes and requires that anyone having a regatta submit an event permit and have insurance. Having some link with an organized group can make a difference in getting access to water and in dealing with bureaucracy, law enforcement, and other people on the water.

  6. Pat, I'm all for getting support from "the system." I went to RC school and became a certified race officer, so I'm a believer. I think a lot of laser groups just get ahead of "the system," which hopefully catches up. It all has to stay low key or very gentlemanly until "the system" gets involved. I think everyone will be unhappy with the "sea lawyer," including the "sea lawyer." Self-organized groups usually find ways to stay below the radar. When that becomes impossible, formal organization becomes necessary.

  7. I also believe that the clubs are shooting themselves in an embarrassing place by not embracing Laser sailors and benefiting from new blood. I could see a smart club offering cheap dinghy racks and funny prizes and have the old farts out on the balcony cheering the dinghy dudes.