Heading across the Solent to the RORC clubhouse for a meeting, I was delighted to come across the winning smile of London Olympic 470 silver medalist, Luke Patience. We had last met in Nassau at the Star Sailors League eighteen months previously. Ahead of us was the entire RedJet crossing to talk sailing and the talk, inevitably turned to the Olympics and the possibility of a keelboat.
Luke admitted that he had enjoyed racing the former Olympic two-man keelboat, with just one reserve. “I needed to get stronger to pull the last two feet of mainsheet home,” he confessed, “it makes such a difference to the mainsail leech.” By the time we reached our destination one gathered that he would not be averse to seeing the return of the Star to the five-ringed circus.
That, however, is not the attitude of those in charge of our sport, if the noises emanating from the World Sailing are to be believed. It is my understanding that the keelboat was dropped from the 2016 Games because it was too expensive, so where under that reasoning does World Sailing get the idea that a 31ft foiling keelboat costing in excess of £100,000 is a suitable alternative? It’s a long time since I purchased a Star (back in the early Sixties, John Fisk and I bought number 34 for £125.00!), but I fancy for the price of one foiling 31-footer you could obtain a handful of Stars.
They would also be untried, and just as importantly, will not have had a World Championship from which a general assessment of the class might be obtained, and also provide an opportunity for possible competitors to adjust and improve their techniques. This is particularly essential for the keelboat race, which, if it is the 31ft foiler will be held as a single overnighter (and if the weather is anything like it was in 1978 for the Quarter Ton Cup, there will be some tired and battered sailors arriving in Enoshima Bay.
When querying the cost of the foiling keelboat, it was suggested that these boats would be provided – an even worse suggestion. The short time the sailors would have with these boats would not be enough to tune them (and themselves) for the one-off race.
At least the offshore race would take it away from the “Spectator sport” that World Sailing appears determined to thrust on us. There are very few places where sailing is a sport for those who want to watch, and maybe it should stay that way.
But why not bring back the Star? It may be old in design (and somewhat cranky) but it does provide excellent racing that requires skill and physical effort – and surely that is what the Olympic Games are all about. It is raced regularly at a high level all round the world and the boat stays firmly in the water unlike the overgrown pond-skaters, the foilers that masquerade as racing boats.
The medal race is already providing food for thought. In Rio last time four of the gold medals were decided before the medal race took place, which took a shine off those. It can happen again – the simple double points bonus for this short race is insufficient for the purpose. It is really only for the spectators – are the sailors committed by the IOC to provide a spectacle? If the answer is negative, then it would be better to scrap the medal race altogether.
Having been so condemning of foils for the Olympic classes, I’ll change tack: they are ideal for the big catamarans of the America’s Cup. This has always been an ‘unlimited’ event in which truckloads of money has been spent to lift the trophy that the “low black Schooner” won in 1851 for a race around the Isle of Wight. At one time it was the wealthier members of the New York Yacht Club, until Alan Bond came along and took the cup home to Australia, where commercial sponsors became the norm. What happened when two billionaires battled it out in maxi-multihulls changed the face of the Cup once more.
The recent duel in San Francisco was a high-end battle of technology with first one boat foiling and the other not. But then came a step in technology and even faster foiling became available to a boat staring match point in the face, and the result shocked the world.
By mutual agreement, many of the generally understood precepts have disappeared. It is no longer a rule that the boat has to be built in the country of challenge and most of the ‘boat’ parts are standard, but it is in the technology of the foils that the races are won and lost. Testing of foils in the recently acquired AC50s has has begun in earnest and will progress everywhere until the outcome is settled (with a win for BAR?)
Author: Bob Fisher for Yachts and Yachting - OPINION