You may not have heard much - if anything - of the Sailing Champions League yet, but you will do in years to come. I was there in Copenhagen to do TV commentary at the first edition of the event in Copenhagen. Twenty-two teams from across Europe, plus Oman Sail, came to compete in a fleet of identical J/70 keelboats. Great Britain had one representative, the Royal Thames Yacht Club skippered by Russell Peters, backed up by Sarah Allen, Marshall King and Jimmy Grant.
The rain chucked it down for most of the three days in Denmark, but the sailors still professed to love the racing. With a fleet of eight J/70s, each of the 23 clubs competed in 15 flights of racing, a total of 45 races across the weekend. Races were short and sharp, lasting only 12 to 15 minutes, and the turnaround between races was lightning fast as crew stepped in and out of ribs on the water. On-the-water umpiring resulted in instant penalty decisions rather than having to resort to the protest room later.
The idea of representing your sailing club, and only having to travel to a regatta with your sailing kit rather than with your boat in tow, is very appealing to those of us who are time-poor and can’t be doing with all the hassle and logistics of moving your own boat around. The concept of an interclub sailing league was launched just two years ago in Germany. After only two seasons, there are already two leagues - the Premier and Second Divisions, each consisting of 18 clubs. Such is the scramble to get involved that there are another 60 Germany clubs banging on the door and dying to get involved, now that they have witnessed the success of the first two seasons.
Two yacht clubs in Kiel were invited to join in the first season, for example, but only one took up the offer straight away. Norddeutscher Regatta Verein has since gone on to win the 2013 and 2014 Premiership while the other, Kieler Yacht Club, is now ruing its hesitancy and will now have to battle its way up from one of the lower divisions (as and when they are formed) if they are ever to have a chance of matching NRV’s current dominance of the German club scene. There is a real sense that club racing in Germany is going through a resurgence, thanks to the impetus of the sailing league.
Denmark has since picked up on the idea and has just completed its first season of interclub league racing. The German founders of the concept are now being inundated with enquiries from other countries around the world to find out how to set up their own interclub leagues. It’s a great idea that is taking off like wildfire. The first Sailing Champions League was primarily a European affair, with the Royal Danish Yacht Club narrowly closing out Circolo Cannottieri Aniene from Rome, and Rob Greenhalgh steering Oman Sail to 3rd overall. But it’s easy to envisage this regatta turning into the definitive keelboat world championship, something that the sailing scene lacks. Royal Thames Yacht Club, by the way, had an up and down regatta, winning one race for example, and finishing last in its next. The only team that showed consistent ability to come back from a bad start were the Italians skippered by multiple Melges world champion Lorenzo Bressani. The event was a real mix of skilled amateurs and big-name pros, but the atmosphere of the event was fantastic. Everyone got on with everyone else. It was a real melting pot of different languages and cultures.
So why am I writing about a keelboat event in a dinghy sailing column? Because there’s nothing about the idea that inherently lends itself to keelboats. You could hold an interclub sailing league in dinghies, or multihulls for that matter. Outside of the team racing scene or the Endeavour Trophy, it’s hard to think of many ‘pay and play’ regattas in the UK dinghy calendar. To me, it’s not immediately obvious why that should be. There are sailing centres around the country with a fleet of identical boats. They may not be the fastest or the flashest, but they still have the potential to provide great quality racing.
At the moment we sail and race primarily in boats that we buy for a few thousand pounds. That makes it prohibitively expensive for people in their late teens and twenties who have just left home, and need to pay for their own place to live, their own car, etc etc.. The idea of buying their own boat for the first time, rather than being able to rely on the parents, comes very low down the list. We’ve got great things going on at youth level, but the drop-out rate is too high. A pay-and-play form of racing could be just what is needed to keep young sailors engaged in the sport. A national dinghy racing league could be what is needed to fill this yawning gap between youth and middle age.
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