> US SAILING Media > Latest News > 2010 > US SAILING - Where to now? A Conversation with the President
US SAILING Communications Manager
Sailing in the U.S. is at an interesting crossroads: participation is down, competing rating rules are creating confusion, the America’s Cup has a long way to go before it can reclaim its halcyon days of 2007, and even American Olympic sailing—when taking the long view—has seen a decline in earned medals since the 1980s and early 1990s.
But all is far from doom and gloom: day-glow green shoots abound with the Cup, US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics has been on a roll recently, and while we’re still looking at an alphabet soup of rating rules, US SAILING, the national governing body of sailing in the States, is looking strong.
To find out more about what’s going on, I caught up with Gary Jobson, the current President of US SAILING, as well as a well-respected sailing journalist and a former America’s Cup winner, to get his pulse on what’s going at US SAILING and around the country.
What were your primary goals when you assumed the role of President?
The first thing I did was to settle the Farrah Hall thing. It was not without pain for anybody, but we did make our rules a little better.
Then, the next issue was that for seven years, US SAILING has had declining membership. While our financing is OK, the actual number of people who are members has been steadily dropping away, so I made that a priority to see if we can turn that around.
We did this by improving our website, providing better information, reaching out to people, writing letters like crazy, speaking to all kinds of groups, trying to be positive about things, and solving headaches. I have not seen the numbers for July or August, but our actual [paid] membership is up 8%. I don’t know if we’ll maintain that, but after seven years of steady decline we see a good increase going.
What’s on your priority list?
I reached out to a lot of people prior to taking this job, people like Ted Turner, Malin Burnham and Bill Martin — you know, people who are really successful in life and who I know really well, and they all said: ‘Look, you’re going to make a list of things to fix and improve, but you can’t do it all at once, so set some priorities, do three or four things at a time.’ And now I’m starting to realize that was very good advice – you can’t do everything at once.
At this moment [September 2010], we have no debt, our finances are good, our membership is going up, there are no major-league hassles that I know of, so it’s important that we tackle some important things.
There are some problem areas in our sport that desperately need fixing, and if we can somehow do that, I know we’ll see greater participation and growth in specific areas.
In no particular ranked order, let me tell you what they are
Handicap rules are confusing. We have too many here in the U.S. — I count five of them, none of them are really perfect, not even close, and because there are so many rules, people don’t know what [rule] to race under, what boat do you build for it, so we see construction waning, which is really sad. In one way it helps one-design classes as people get sick of all the rules and go to a one-design class, so that little part of it is OK.
But we don’t need five handicap rules in America. Ideally, you’d have one, but, human nature being such, you’re not going to get to one; you might have two or three, but eventually we should get to two.
If PHRF is a grassroots rule, which I think is fair to say, then your middle rule will be IRC, ORR, ORR Club that they use in Europe…now they are controlled by a 'black-box guy' who has secret numbers, so you don’t really know the values so it’s hard to build a boat to [them], but they’re kind of middle-of-the-road rules.
What we don’t have anymore, but which we really need, is a grand-prix rule, like IOR used to [provide]. The IOR rule didn’t produce the best boats—I’m not sure the rule was correct—but you did have a grand-prix rule, people were building boats like crazy all over the world, and you could take your boat and go do the Admiral’s Cup, the Sydney-Hobart, the Newport-Bermuda, the Transpac — every race was using IOR all over the world, so at least we had a standard rule for high-performance boats, which is what are lacking today.
We have a study group looking into it, but the ultimate goal in my mind is that we should have two rules, a grassroots rule and a high-performance rule.
The next item…in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s…I think it’s fair to say that race management was pretty unbalanced in America…people said, ‘we have to fix this’, [which] they did by coming up with some standard race-management methods, judging books and how to run a protest.
But in the last few years we’ve made it really hard to become a certified race official…it’s so hard in fact that for many [people], it pushes [them] away. So I think what we need [are] standardized, fair and reasonable tests. I think we need to reevaluate our certification process, get our tests really fair, and try to get people who are wiling to volunteer certified.
Now I can imagine that being a little controversial as some people have their little world but it needs to be done.
Next item: Our Olympic Program. Historically, in the U.S., we’ve had a team in the Olympics since 1932 — we missed one, 1980, Jimmy Carter — but we’ve always had a team and up until this year, every year we’ve had a one-regatta [qualifying] format. But in 2008 we were the only country in the world that did that.
Here’s the problem: let’s say you’re sailing a Star. If the trials are in Newport Beach, you better get used to those conditions and get your sails cut just right. And train for a year. And while you’re doing that, all of your competitors are racing in Europe and [you’re] not.
So, the decision was made by our Olympic Sailing Committee, headed by Dean Brenner, to abandon the long-sanding method and instead adopt a format that other countries —like Great Brittain [who] have had great success—have used. Now this all varies class to class, but an example might be that [an Olympic hopeful might] have to perform well at a two or three high-level events. [From this average, the] top sailor will become our representative. What we’ll learn is: will this get us more medals?
So you were very supportive of this?
I wouldn’t use the words 'very supportive', but I was 'supportive', yes. We have a really good Olympic Sailing Committee who really toyed with this thing for four years, and the decision was made to try it, so I was supportive.
Let’s try something new; our medal output hasn’t been great [recently] — gold and silver were good, but that’s it. Between 1984-1992 the U.S. earned 21 medals out of 25 classes; between 1996 and 2008, we have won medals in 10 classes out of 41. Twenty-five percent — that’s OK, but it’s not spectacular. But 21 medals out of 25 classes — we were really rolling. Our [one-regatta] trial system was working very well at that time; today it’s not working. And the Europeans found a way to get more medals [by using the multi-regatta qualifying format], so I’m supportive to give this a try for 2012.
The next issue: One of my observations from traveling around the country—and I have done 84 yacht-club presentations to date [this year]—is that I see is an aging population in sailing. The average age of yacht club members has to be around 60. We do a good job with junior and colligate sailing, but as soon as they get out of college, BAM, we don’t see them for years. So it’s the age [group] of 22 to 35, [these] people are going away. We need to figure out how to get more young people engaged in the sport.
I’ve organized a yacht club summit, inviting every yacht club in the country.
What have been your biggest organizational challenges since taking the job?
The biggest organizational challenge—and it’s not just US SAILING, it’s across the board—is that yacht clubs are volunteer maintained. But because we all have such busy lives [now], volunteer life is waning. As a result, yacht clubs have bigger staffs, and we have to rely on paid staff. We’re never going to be able to afford 400 employees at US SAILING, and people aren’t getting rich working here — you do it because you love sailing. The shift is how do we keep people engaged without overwhelming a staff, [and] to balance that with this trend that people have less volunteer time. My philosophy is, ‘let’s do fewer things better’. This is part of my Year Two plan…trying to do everything for everybody that has to do with water might not be the best thing for us.
As a former America's Cup winner, what are your thoughts on AC34?
First of all, the America's Cup is a venerable, old event with a long history of weird things happening. If you look at the history, a lot of contentious things have happened, but nothing that compares to the outrageous events that happened [with] the 33rd America’s Cup. It was not good for sailing. Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts have a really good opportunity to get the America’s Cup back on track so that’s it’s exciting, and so that it generates interest in sailing.
To do that, here’s what they need to do: They need a new boat that’s exciting, but is matched up pretty closely… I’m old enough that I probably tend in the monohull direction, but I’m also open-minded enough to know that if you had two even cats, that could be really cool. Now we have the cat announcement it will be fascinating to see what happens from here.
I also think we can do something new with the course, starting on a reach maybe. You’d have to design for a reach, but [it is] sailing’s fastest point of sail.
The next thing is that the America’s Cup has gotten so expensive that very few people can play the game. Now it’s always been expensive and it always will be, but not like this. We’re not exactly setting the world on fire economically right now, so having an outrageous event that costs 100 million dollars won’t really relate to the general public, so the event has to cost less. You do that by [using] almost standard boats, limiting the amount of time that you can sail, or limiting salaries as we do in other sports. The less it costs, the greater the participation.
But this whole trend since 2000 where anybody can sail with anybody doesn’t cut it. The World Cup meant something to people because the Dutch team were all Dutch, the German team all German, and the American team all American. You do this one thing and the world is going to take notice big-time
So, cut the cost, make it affordable and the boats somewhat even, then put nationals on the boats… My point being, I think we have a lot of talent in this country. Most people [in the general public] have no clue who these people are on these boats, but if you have an all-American team, you’d find far more people cheering for that boat…that was the magic of the ’87 Cup. Dennis Conner was brilliant to name his boat Stars & Stripes.
As President of US SAILING, what are your thoughts on the recent phenomenon of young, sometimes-qualified teenagers attempting to solo circumnavigate?
I think it’s a bad idea to send very young people on long ocean passages singlehanded. I have three daughters, all in their 20s and out of college now, but there’s no way I would have sent them across an ocean by themselves at the age of 14. The problem you have with this stuff is ‘who pays for their rescue?’ With Abby Sunderland …to send her to the Southern Ocean in the winter…even the Volvo Ocean Race guys go there in the summer, they don’t go down there in June…they go there in January. As far as the rescue, should you have to put up a bond?
The Australians spent some two million dollars to go get [Abby Sunderland ]. Fourteen is very young to do this, so I think it should not happen. Parents need to take more responsibility and not live vicariously through [their] kid. I’m not in favor of it at all.
What do you consider to be the most interesting happenings in sailing at the moment?
I like the fact that people are rediscovering long-distance racing. Secondly, one-design sailing seems to be an answer to a lot of things in sailing. As far as what’s got my attention, I like boats that go fast; this [recent] Little America’s Cup was really interesting. I think team racing is pretty cool…I think team racing should be in the Olympics.
Anything that you’d like to add?
The most important thing is to go out sailing on your own. And once you do that, try to get one new person into the sport.
Many thanks to Gary Jobson for taking the time to talk.
by David Schmidt