Thursday, November 15, 2007

White Hat

Some random thoughts on volunteers in the sport of sailing, why they do it, and how to treat them...

When I started writing this blog back almost three years ago, the way that I described myself in my profile was to talk about the various volunteer activities I performed in sailing.

I was Laser fleet captain at my club. I had founded that Laser fleet (or to be more honest re-founded it after it had died out many years previously.) I had started an annual Laser regatta at the club. I publicized the fleet, persuaded folk to join it, helped people find boats, gave advice to newbies, represented the fleet's interests on the sailing club committee, and so on.

I spent many hours every month editing and publishing that sailing club's newsletter. I wrote articles myself every month for the newsletter (usually promoting the Laser fleet of course.) I cajoled other members to send me their articles. I put them all together in a desk-top publishing program into what I hoped was an attractive format. I battled with the employees at my local cheapo copy shop every month to get the newsletter copied properly. I folded and stamped every newsletter personally and mailed them. It sounds like a thankless task, but it wasn't. Some of the wonderful members of my club expressed appreciation for my efforts. That made it all worthwhile.

I had initiated a series of junior Sunfish regattas in our area, and was the scheduler and organizer of that series. The idea of such a series had been bouncing around for a while but nobody was prepared to step up and make it happen until I offered to do it. I persuaded local sailing clubs to host the regattas, gave them advice on how to run them, and often helped out with race committee work at the regattas too. I did the publicity and sailing instructions and registration and finances and scoring and bought the awards and organized protest committees occasionally and I forget what else. It was a lot of fun seeing kids sailing in their first regattas and making friends with kids from other clubs and traveling to sail on other lakes and learning that there's a whole world of sailing outside their own little club.. and along the way becoming damn fine racing sailors too.

For a while I was the regional rep and regatta scheduler for the Sunfish Class.

For six summers I worked as a sailing instructor at two different local weekday sailing programs for kids.

There was other stuff too. In other words I did a lot of things in the sport of sailing other than just go sailing on my own boat. Things that had to be done so that I and others could have our fun on the water every Sunday. Without kids joining the sport, without local fleets, without someone putting together a regatta schedule, without someone publicizing your sailing club's activities, this sport would die out pretty fast.

I tell you all this not to make out that I'm such a paragon of virtue deserving of your admiration. In any case I don't do any of that good stuff any more. Why I gave it all up is a subject for another post one day... maybe.

There are many many volunteers working behind the scenes to enable us to be able to enjoy our sport whether it's racing at your local club, going to regional and national regattas, or even sailing in a World Championship or taking a shot at the Olympics. I'm just telling you that I used to be one of those guys so that I have some credibility in discussing some of the reasons why folk take on these jobs and how they go about doing them.

So why did I take on all those volunteer jobs?

Sometimes it was as simple as someone asked me to do it and/or nobody else was stepping up to do it....

That's how I ended up doing the newsletter and the Sunfish rep jobs. I guess I was somewhat flattered to be asked (even though half a dozen others may have been asked before me and found some excuse to turn down the jobs.) I suppose I felt that they were jobs worth doing and that if nobody else was going to do them I had some kind of obligation to fill the gap. I probably thought they would be interesting in a masochistic kind of way too. I was right about the masochism.

Other times I had a strong personal feeling that I wanted to make something happen....

For purely selfish reasons I wanted to be able to race my Laser in the summer at a club near my home. There wasn't a fleet locally so I decided to start one.

I saw a lot of kids sailing Sunfish locally who, I thought, would progress faster in their sailing if they had the chance to sail a few regattas every summer at other clubs. I floated the idea of a junior series to the local sailing association. They liked the idea but nobody else had the time or inclination to make it happen. So I said I would.

Were these jobs rewarding?

Hell, yes. Pride in doing a job well. Seeing other folk enjoying their sailing because of something I made happen. There's a lot of satisfaction in building a fleet, growing a club, seeing kids enjoying their time on the water. Sometimes I was thanked for my efforts. Sometimes I wasn't. That was OK too.

But now for the dirty little secret that some people in our sport don't seem to appreciate. To make anything happen you need to work with other people and persuade them to accept your ideas and motivate then to do things to help you. And to do that you have to make alliances and compromise and do things that the other people think are more important. That's the way things work in any field be it sport, business, academia or government. Some call it "making deals" or "politics" as if there's something immoral or dishonest about this activity.

I am referring of course to the backlash in the last few days to the decision made by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) as to which types of sailing to include in the 2012 Olympics. The Olympics powers-that-be told ISAF that they had to have one less discipline than they have now. They chose to drop multi-hull racing.

Of course a lot of people don't like that decision. They are accusing the delegates on the ISAF Council of all kids of shenanigans. Politics! Making deals!

Shock, horror people! Grow up. Of course there's politics. Of course there are deals. With so many people on the council with so many different interests how else would anything get done?

There are accusations that the council members fought for "special interests" rather than worked for the "good of the sport". Well, yes they did. And you would too if you were in their shoes.

When I wanted to persuade my local sailing club to allow me to start a Laser fleet I was an advocate for the "special interest" of Laser sailing. Sure, I thought that it would be good for the club to have a Laser fleet. But there was also a risk that growth of the Laser fleet might be at the expense of some of the other fleets. Did that stop me? Hell, no. I interpreted "good of the sport" and "good of the club" through my own blinkered position of wanting to have a Laser fleet. I suspect that something of the same dynamics are happening in the more rarefied upper reaches of decision making at ISAF.

On some of the forums there are claims flying around that the people who made this decision are out of touch with the sport, old, no longer actively involved in sailing, need to get out and hear sails flapping in the wind, and so on. Now I don't recognize many of the names of the ISAF Council members but I do know a couple of them. And they are very much involved in working on and off the water to make our sport possible. They are the guys who I see day after day at major regattas running the race committees so I can enjoy my Laser racing. I suspect that most, if not all, of the other council members have strong active relationships to actual sailing too.

And finally, a note to you multi-hull sailors. Sure you are disappointed that your discipline is the one dropped from the 2012 Olympics. But do you think it helps your case to have that decision reversed if you abuse the volunteers on the ISAF Council? Calling them "fat old men" and accusing them of being on the council purely to enjoy the "business class travel" and "five star hotels" are not going to win you any allies on the council. Learn a little diplomacy. Practice a little politics (in the good sense of the word). Have you considered that perhaps one reason that boats like the Star and the Finn have survived in the Olympics so long is that the leaders of those classes might have mastered the arts of persuasion and advocacy better than the leaders of the multi-hull community have?

So please don't abuse the volunteers at any level of the sport. They may be doing their jobs for all kinds of personal, even self-serving reasons. But the jobs are necessary and they are the ones that stepped up to do them. By all means discuss and debate with them the decisions they make. But please respect the individuals concerned and refrain from personal attacks.

Update 16 Nov: Yachting Australia has issued a statement expressing disappointment and concern over the ISAF decision to drop multihulls from the Olympics, and it sounds as if they share my views about how counterproductive some of the reaction from the multihull sailing community might be. Part of the statement reads...
We understand that some will be very disappointed but the personal and vitriolic attacks that we have seen do nothing to help the cause of those making them. In fact, they only do damage.


Anonymous said...

Tillerman for ISAF President!

old dock rat said...

Thank you for your level-headed comments. If you keep this up, I may have to change my attitude regarding Laser sailors.

Menchuvian Candidate said...

Excellent post. I do't bring any familiarity with the specifics of the decision you discuss, but you are spot on, I think, in identifying the universality of the conditions, as it were.

I would be quite curious about your reasons for no longer volunteering, and I guess, too, I'd like the time to think about whether there are any parallels within sport and other volunteer driven, or dependent causes (animal rights and schools come to mind.)

Anonymous said...

As a sailor who likes boats with training wheels I must say that I am outraged!!!!!! Just kidding, I don't give a rat's ass if multi-hulls are included in the Olympics. Get a grip, you don't hear surfers whining about not being included in the Olympics. (There are about 3 million surfers in the US and 30 million worldwide. That doesn't include butt surfers, spongees, body surfers and windsurfers.)

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of reasons for backing off on the volunteering. Sometimes you just need to step back for a while and rejuvenate. It is rewarding but wearing.

I totally agree with everything you said about volunteering and wrote about it in my post today. I'm currently in the "rejuvenation" stage in my volunteer efforts...

Mal Kiely [Lancelots Pram] said...

[Stands and applauds] Thank you. Well said :) From volunteers such as myself everywhere :)

Mal :)

Anonymous said...

Sorry I disagree with you.

You said and I quote,

"There are accusations that the council members fought for "special interests" rather than worked for the "good of the sport". Well, yes they did. And you would too if you were in their shoes"

ISAF council members have next to there names a designation such as AUS JAP etc. It doesnt say LASER or 470 but the country they are voting for.

They are there to represent sailing as a whole not the individual needs of a particular class that they have allied themselves with curently or in the past.

If they dont believe they can vote impartially and fairly they should not be there.

Also when it comes to ISAF delegates volunteering what they do outside of their ISAF role should have nothing to do with there actions when representing the interests of sailing overall for their respective nations.

Multihull sailors are justifiably angry with the decision as it went against every recommendation that ISAF had been given.

I sail a Laser by the way.

derek said...

Well said Sean. You are right that most delegates in the council are selected by country.

But what if a national association were to instruct its delegate(s) something along the lines of, "We think we have a better chance in 2012 to win a medal in keelboats than in multihulls. So please do everything you can to keep keelboats in the Olympics." Should the national delegate represent their country's interest in those circumstances?

Also, the point I was trying to make in the post, any maybe I didn't do a very good job, was that we all have different personal prejudices and opinions about what is good for sailing. If a delegate spent 20 years racing in Finns, or is currently one of the top female match racers in the world, how could he or she not let that color their opinion of what is best for sailing overall? Isn't that human nature?

Post a Comment