Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Strangers



You move to a new part of the country. You join the local Laser frostbite fleet. You know a few guys in the fleet but most of the fleet members are strangers to you. Who are these people?

You recognize the names of one or two of these strangers who always seem to be at the front of the fleet. You vaguely remember reading about them in some sailing magazine. You are sailing in the bottom half of the fleet most of the time and after a few weeks you are getting to know some of your fellow "bottom-halfers". But those guys in the top half are still strangers to you. Who are these people?

So what do you? You do what anyone would do. You google them. You do searches on ten of the names who always seem to do well in the races and you end up with a list something like this...

  • Professional coach and writer, twice Rolex Sailor of the Year, over 20 World or North American Championships including Star Worlds
  • Sailmaker, multiple national and eight World championship titles, crewmember in several America’s Cup campaigns
  • Leader of the structural and mechanical design team for the masts and wing for BMW Oracle, and current Laser Masters World Champion
  • Boat builder, former Snipe US National Champion and North American Laser Masters Champion
  • Project manager spar and rigging company, former US Sailing Match Racing Champion
  • Ivy league college sailing coach and former intercollegiate All-American
  • Former US Sailing Singlehanded National Champion
  • Current Laser Great Grandmaster World Champion
  • Cape Cod Frosty Intergalactic Champion
  • J24 World Champion
Wow. Seems like all these "strangers" are either sailing professionals or sailing superstars... or both. Intergalactic indeed!

Wait. Professionals? People who work in the sailing industry? People who are paid to know how to make sailboats go fast?

How do you feel about professionals in sailing? It's been a bit of a sore point in the sailing blogosphere this week after Nick Hayes (the author of Saving Sailing) said that "pros have no place in the vast majority of sailing as it is done today" and that most amateurs don't think it is great that they can compete against professionals.

But you do think it's great that there are so many excellent sailors in your Laser fleet. You don't care how they earn their living. Nobody is paying them to come out and race every Sunday through the winter in a Laser. You appreciate that all the boats are identical in Laser racing, nobody can buy boatspeed, and the races are decided on the skills of the sailors (and a bit of luck.) You like the fact that you can compete directly against the best sailors and learn from them by watching them, talking to them, and reading their "words of wisdom".

You wonder why Tillerman wrote this whole post in the second person. Who is this "you" he is talking about?
Is it me? Is it you? Why is he so strange this week? And why is he now writing in the third person?

What do you think, dear reader, about the role of professionals in sailing? What do you think when you find out that you are racing against professionals?

15 comments:

Joe said...

??????? Sailing? Sailing = Racing? Of course it is good to sail against great sailors. One can only improve when going against the best.

Baydog said...

In that case, Tillerman, you often seem to be the best of all the rest. You're in great company and like Joe says, it can only be to your advantage to be sailing with these guys.

Andrew said...

I'm with Joe and Baydog.
I do often wonder what their hobby might be though. Woodworking?

Jack of all Trades said...

I actually think having pros in the local sailing club can be a huge positive for amateurs, if they take on a mentor-ship role and make me a better sailor.

However, when it comes to competition, pros would ideally race in a separate division, or, if that's not possible, should be clearly labeled as pros in the scoring. It's easy to re-score races excluding them, as well.

My frostbite league races in an A division and a B division, and members move up or down based on their performance. So, effectively, if we have pros (and they are significantly better than the non-pros), they'll be defacto segregated.

Brass said...

I think this "professional" vs "amateur" division is a crock.

What's the difference between:
• A really rich guy who can easily afford to spend 50 hours a week sailing and training, with the best coach money can buy;
• An 'average Joe' who works desperately hard so as to afford and organise his life so he can spend 50 hours a week sailing;
• An sailmaker or shipwright who is fortunate enough to be able to organise his work so that he can spend 50 hours a week sailing; and
• A smart young Olympian who acquires a sponsor so that he is able to spend 50 hours a week sailing?

In my view, nothing. If you spend 50 hours a week training and competing, you will become very good at sailing, so that someone who only spends 10 to 20 hours a week at it won't be able to touch you.

Need I remind everybody, there are plenty of paid sailmakers, shipwrights, boat washers and all who really aren't very good at sailing at all. Do we want a world where these good people aren't allowed to come out and play on boats with us, just because of how they earn their living?

So, maybe what some people are saying is that they don't like sailing in the same race as "very good" sailors. Maybe the moral outrage about 'Pro' vs 'amateur' should be melting away a bit.

I also have to say that the majority of professional sailboat racers that I get to sail with, against, and around are people who I enjoy spending time around and learning from, and sport would be a sadder place if we pushed them out to the margins.

I can see a genuine problem, where the top of the fleet is so strong with "very good" sailors that older weaker sailors such as myself, and perhaps Tillerman, just cannot climb into the top twenty, no matter how hard we try, and consistently get unenjoyable racing, in chopped up water, behind the top twenty wall, with never a pickle-dish in sight.

I dare say that within an hour's drive of Tiller cottage, there are three or four sailing clubs with differing standards of laser racing, in at least one of which a gentleman of mature years could find say a regular top five berth, that's if it's all that important. Failing that you could always petition the Race Committee for a separate Grand Masters start.

Carol Anne said...

I agree with Jack about the value of having the pros around as mentors. There must be an enormous pool of talent available in a club with so many luminaries. At least within my experience (admittedly limited), higher-level sailors are generally willing to share their knowledge and experiences. This is an extremely good thing.

Whether more ordinary sailors benefit from competing against these higher-level individuals is more up to question. On the one hand, the challenge of competing with such stratospheric opponents might encourage improvement. On the other hand, always coming out no better than the middle of the fleet can get discouraging. Perhaps this question is best settled on a club-by-club basis: Sailors in some clubs may prefer to sail all together in one fleet, while others may prefer to separate the hotshots from the ordinary guys.

Antolin said...

I race on big boats phrf series, I also race lasers in the back of the fleet section. Having sailing pros around is the norm on both fleets. I mean, we have tons of really good sailors in my area. SO, I learn so much sailing with and against these folks!!the school is on for me whenever we have them on the big boat or when they grace our laser group. Competition is the same...keep the best guys in the fleet and go against the best...what is the point of eliminating the top best sailors so that Charlie Blow can make the top ten against the rest of us?!! So what does that make of Charlie?..oh he is great when the best are not counted....nah...let me have them all and I'll measure against them...I'll learn, I'll have my moments and I'll take home some glory...if nothing else, I'll feel that I can do this better if I try harder.

Anonymous said...

Pros: they make me look good in club races because I learn a lot from watching them in Laser regattas.

Niels' Blog said...

Love your blog, it is the first thing I read every morning.

I agree with most of the comments and appreciate the involvement of pros in sailing. It is incredibly satisfying when our old fart amateur Etchells team, average age 55, can beat the best paid hot-shot professionals, I describe it to my non-sailing friends as playing golf against Tiger Woods without a handicap and beating him...(even if it is only on the first leg to the weather mark).

In addition, most professionals are eager to help anyone in the fleet improve. In the Etchells fleet professionals have really helped owners that have either not gained knowledge of the class or are struggling with their speed. I personally don't have the money or desire to use professionals, but it is great to have them on the course to sharpen our own skills and improve all the time, which is what sailing is all about.

I am back in the Laser after a 27 year hiatus. I climbed back in this little unforgiving boat and even though I am usually in the back of the fleet(for now), I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of getting better at boat handling and staying dry every time I sail, I observe and learn new techniques from the better sailors some of whom are professionals in other classes.

So let the professionals stay, with the caveat that there be good owner-driver rules.

Presuming Ed said...

There is, of course, the one big area where the input of pros can have a negative impact on sailing.

Take is an owner of a big boat, which he races. He is cash rich and time poor. He wants to get better results. There are, at the extreme, 2 choices available to him:

1) Strengthen from within. Look to improve the skills of the existing crew. Practice more, with input from coaches etc.

2) Buy success. Replace half his crew with a paid driver, pro trimmers, pro nav, pro bow. He'll do better, but at what cost?

Cost escalation kills classes.

If you go into an expensive class with your eyes open, then don't complain that the big boys are playing to big boys rules.

It's different in Lasers, where you've got no-one else to blame - it keeps 99% of the population humble.

Cork Week in Ireland, which started the whole "no pros" thing, gets 500 boats to Ireland every 2 years. There are many people out there who want to race against their peers, and not watch someone buy up all the trophys with sheer wallet power, rather than sailing ability. `

Jim said...

Hey, these 'pro' folks need some relaxing time playing out there, too. Laser racing is competitive fun. I gather some of those pro jobs are mostly competitive work. Accomplishment and satisfaction, but not the same as the let-your-hair-down weekend fun.
As for fairness, maybe some simplified handicapping can happen or something like that. I play Scrabble. Competition players have numerical ratings on one long scale, but tournaments are arranged with seven levels so you are never faced with being impossibly outclassed.

Tillerman said...

Wow. I've never seen so much agreement with me in the comments on what I thought was a controversial subject. Nine responses so far generally positive about the impact of professionals and the advantages of racing against them; and only one pointing out the downside of pros being involved in "big boat" racing.

Carol Anne said...

I think most of Ed's concerns can be addressed by class rules that cut back on the ability of people with lots of money to "buy" wins. The Etchells class, for example, restricts materials that can be used for spars and sails, and limits the frequency of buying new sails. And I know the Laser class has its own restrictions.

Meanwhile, I definitely agree with Niels that the pros and near-pros in the Etchells class really give a lot of help to the other sailors. It's sort of an evangelical thing. I suspect the luminaries of other classes are similarly helpful.

Oh, and Niels, welcome to the blogosphere. When we're not sailing, I have some recipes I can share.

Nicholas Hayes said...

Tillerman,

Let's put the question into its correct perspective:

http://www.savingsailing.com/Home/Blog/Entries/2010/3/2_On_the_Question_of_Pros_in_Sailing.html

Nick

Nicholas Hayes said...

.... and let me add the obvious.

When someone who makes a living from sailing sails against others who don't, and when, during that time, they are unpaid. Then its rightly called an amateur event, and for that time, the pros aren't pros.

The hair has been sliced somewhat thinly, it seems.

-ndh

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