US Sailing is ready to wake America’s dinghy scene from its slumber. They need our help.
Everywhere I travel for regattas, I see a familiar sight: tumbleweeds rolling through rows and racks of dinghies either abandoned under faded deck covers or left to the elements, or sitting tilted on a flat dolly tire or a dolly with no tires at all. Even at my hometown Sail Newport, the crown jewel of American public- access sailing facilities, there’s a generous spread of dinghies and small keelboats that on any given day or evening in season, sit high and dry. The problem is there’s no critical one- design mass for most them — the Weta trimaran, the banged- up Vanguard 15, the International 14 or the lonely 1990s- vintage Nacra — and when there’s no critical mass, there’s no motivation for their respective owners to go out and play with others.
Sailing alone gets old quickly. I did it one season with a borrowed RS100 before realizing there are only so many tacks, jibes and downwinders I can do by myself. I wanted to race someone, anyone, but there was no avenue and no fleet. At the time, I looked into Portsmouth handicap with visions of starting an informal summer series, which came to a dead end, but it’s been nagging at me for years. Why are we one-design dinghy racing or nothing at all in this country? Given that PHRF racing is the keelboat system choice in the United States, it’s curious why dinghy sailors can’t enjoy the same access to open-fleet action. The fact that Portsmouth Yardstick — which seems to be a good way to get small boats racing and sailing together — hardly exists here is a shame.
It’s time to drain the dinghy park. I suspect Portsmouth Yardstick is a victim of American sailing’s preference for one- design racing; we’re white sheep sailing in circles. But when the fleet dies, so too does enthusiasm. And when there’s only one fleet in town, sailors are dissuaded to embrace or buy newer and better designs. With Portsmouth, there’s an opportunity to get more people sailing in the spirit of “bring what you’ve got.” It can be an incubator for innovation and a home for orphaned classes.
Yes, there could be a catchier name than Portsmouth, which was never really a high priority for US Sailing. Nurtured by volunteers and local race committees for decades, the system was and never will be perfect. Its most notable deterrent is that those who use it must also feed it because the handicaps are only as good as the race results submitted by
local volunteer scorers. And then there must be someone, or an organization, to crunch the numbers on a regular basis.
For inspiration, we turn to the GJW Direct Sailjuice Winter Series in the United Kingdom, where open dinghy racing has long thrived. This series links several handicap regattas under one championship and crowns season winners. It has been a boon for new and forgotten one- designs, daysailers, cats and one-off skiffs. With the involvement of a few data- minded sailors, the U. K.’ s handicaps ( what they call Great Lakes Handicapping) continue to improve, as does competitor satisfaction. In 2015, organizers reported more than 1,000 sailors from 82 different racing classes, and in the 2016 to 2017 winter season, a total of 1,012 competitors representing 89 different classes participated.
Clearly, the Brits are ahead of the game and far more progressive with their dinghy sailing. It’s time we follow their lead.
The U. K. and North America are very different markets, however, and what is done there or in Europe is hard to replicate here in North America, Zim Sailing’s Bob Adam once wrote to me in an email. “We have all discussed the increase in variety of dinghies in North America, but all the manufacturers have struggled to develop a solid footing of one- design racing.”
How do we ( the collective “we”) start a series or introduce the idea of a new and better dinghy handicap system to the public, Adam challenged. “Is this something that can be spearheaded by Sailing World? Does US Sailing have a mechanism to administer the handicap numbers?”
Yes and yes. With the prompting of US Sailing’s offshore director Nathan Titcomb, a group of industry types, myself included, met this past spring to set the wheels in motion. Titcomb took the lead by tackling the trickiest part: improving the existing database itself from the ground up and making it universally accessible (you no longer have to be a member to access Portsmouth Yardstick scoring tools).
It’s now a US Sailing initiative to support it and grow it, and with the ear of software developers from SAP Sailing Analytics, the offshore office could have an opportunity to simplify Portsmouth scoring and race reporting to the point where it happens automatically from mobile devices, eliminating the one significant administrative time demand. An app that records individual start and finish times, and automatically uploads to the database after sailing is not rocket science. What we need are events and clubs to explore the possibilities of Portsmouth and for sailors to give it a try. US Sailing has all the resources on its website, and the handicapping tables are free. We can do this. Let’s pump up our dolly tires, toss aside those deck covers, start a fleet, and help spark a dinghy- racing revival. Q
New and old one-designs race alongside one another in England, where more sailors embrace dinghy handicap racing. PHOTO :