Roll Tacks November 2011

There are some interesting candidates lining up to compete for the right to become the women's Olympic skiff. ISAF has organised an evaluation trial to take place in early spring somewhere in Southern Europe, with the 29erXX, Rebel Skiff, RS900 and the Ovington Aura all lining up to compete.  

However, as I write, the ISAF Annual Conference is about to start in Puerto Rico, and a number of countries have put in a submission proposing to bypass the evaluation trial and slot the 29erXX directly into place. The eight nations who put forward the submission are Argentina, Ecuador, Estonia, India, Poland, South Africa, Russia and Uruguay.

The submission makes a number of good points, of which the following is perhaps the most persuasive. "A new Women's Skiff which is expensive will be difficult to adopt by emerging nations due to non-availability of funds and time required to change existing equipment.  The 29er is easily upgraded to the 29erXX and is a perfect pathway from youth sailing where many nations and girls already actively sail the 29er.
"At a time when the sport of sailing needs to grow globally, and when the economic environment is difficult, ISAF should choose Equipment best suited for all criteria including global adoption at the lowest costs."

Tell me about it. This is a damning indictment of ISAF's method of selecting equipment just three and three-quarter years before the Olympic Games for which the new boats are selected. We saw this in November 1996 with the selection of the 49er, and the mad scramble for boats back then. I remember, because I was one of the first to put in an order, and delaying your order a few days would mean that you'd wait many months extra for your boat to be delivered. There was another scramble for the Elliott keelboat for the women's match racing during this current Olympic cycle.

ISAF decided on a women's skiff for Rio 2016 this time last year, November 2010. The evaluation trial will take place almost 18 months afterwards. Why couldn't the trial already have taken place by now? As it is, the equipment is set to be selected in November 2012, a full 24 months after the original decision to bring in the women's skiff. A ridiculous waste of time.

So it's easy to sympathise with the eight nation submission when it concludes that: "ISAF can advance the decision of selection of Equipment for Women's Skiff.  Female sailors do not have to wait before being able to make a decision about the Olympics in 2016 and their sailing future.  Equipment is immediately available on a Global basis."

Despite the sense being spoken here, I hope ISAF Council will have decided to reject this submission. ISAF owes it to the builders who have already invested thousands of pounds in developing their boats for the women's skiff selection.

Bear in mind that there was already a selection trial for women's skiffs back in 2007. Boatbuilders brought their boats to this event in Hyeres in the belief that a boat would be selected and put forward as the candidate for selection at the ISAF Conference in November 2007. But as they discovered only when they'd arrived in Hyeres, the exercise was merely to find out if there were suitable candidates for the job.

With barely any official ISAF follow-up after that Hyeres faux-trial, the momentum for selecting a women's skiff was wasted, the women's match racing lobby won the day and, as predicted by me and many others at the time, proceeded to make a mess of their opportunity. Women's match racing has not opened up sailing to more female sailors and more nations. It has done quite the opposite, and quite rightly has been thrown out after just one cycle. Four years later than it should have been, but at least the women's skiff is back on the agenda.

The least ISAF could do this time is follow through the process exactly as it said it is going to. And then, for any future evaluation trials, perhaps ISAF could initiate the evaluation process a full seven or eight years out from the intended Games, and select equipment six years beforehand. That way every nation will get a fair chance to get its hands on the new equipment before the next Olympic cycle is underway.
The good news is that there are some very strong candidates for the women's skiff. The 29erXX wouldn't do a bad job. It's been extensively developed over the years, although it still suffers from the perception of being a souped-up youth boat and being too small for the job. Actually it's not really that small, measuring 4.45m from bow to stern, and 4.2m on the waterline.

However the new boats on the block are all slightly bigger, with the RS900 and the new Ovington Aura measuring 4.70m and 4.75m respectively. Although at 4.5m the Rebel Skiff is only a tad longer than the 29erXX, it does feel like a bigger boat when you're sailing it. All of these boats are very credible candidates for the task, and they are evidence of the fact that British boatbuilders continue to be the leading innovators and risk takers in a market that is otherwise very conservative. For that, our boatbuilders deserve great credit, and I hope ISAF will honour these boatbuilders with a proper trials process that selects a new women's skiff on merit, and not politics.

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