Combating Elitism!

Milling area: It’s ‘Airlie Race Week’, and over two hundred sailing boats of all sizes and classes are gathered for a week of racing and socialising. Airlie is just the warm-up for the following week when they are joined by almost as many again to contest the nearby ‘AUDI Hamilton Island Race Week’.

I confess this is a much edited version of a whinge I posted a year ago on my previous blog – but it’s that time of year again!

Airlie Race Week – and this time it’s bigger than ever. Coincidentally, August also means Cowes Week in the UK – an equally significant sail-fest! And so again I ask myself: If the ratio of power to sail boat ownership is generally around 60/40 in favour of power, how does yacht-racing galvanise so much passion and energy – while offshore powerboat racing remains on life-support?  

The naïve answer is the economics, it’s simply a cheaper sport – to which I say “rubbish”! Record numbers of sail-boats show up here in the Whitsundays to blow around all day and party all night, over a three week period. The winter migration to the tropics means many will have already done race events in Morton Bay, then Mooloolaba and Gladstone – and they will follow the Whitsunday events with Maggie Island and Cairns! And before you tell me it’s the cost of fuel, check out the price of Dacron, Kevlar, Carbon-fibre, custom made sails and Captain Morgan Rum – from a trailer-sailer to a super-maxi, a budget is a budget, regardless of size or what it’s spent on.

They do it at the level they can afford and they engage in some serious competition. It’s a lifestyle choice - so if anyone gives a damn about the sector of the industry that is ‘powerboats’, they need to ask the question: why is there so little lifestyle engagement in the powerboat sector?

An issue for offshore powerboat racing, has always been the impression that it’s an elite sport for the very wealthy. Unfortunately that’s the entrenched view of most observers, especially here in Australia. In contrast, back in the UK and in a different era, I proved conclusively, that you didn’t need to be wealthy to race offshore, you just needed to develop the passion to do it. I know it gets boring as I keep on saying this, but the big difference then, was the structure of the sport, including proper class rules under which I could race, win, break a speed record and feel a real sense of achievement. The reality is; a certain culture of superiority did prevail and still does. For someone aspiring to enter the sport, there is a feeling that the culture is complex and inaccessible – so the new-comer is immediately discouraged from trying to penetrate a perceived inner circle.

I will suggest that complying with strict class rules is a significant psychological factor in penetrating that perceived barrier and gaining a modicum of acceptance and respect.

If our determined beginner gets past this first psychological barrier, he/she is then faced with what we could call ‘class status’. I’ll be kind and say perhaps unwittingly created and maintained by a superior attitude toward, what is seen as, the ‘lower’ classes. It’s good to see a change happening in the UK but back in the 1980’s it was actually the catalyst for a club being created to represent the interests of the ‘cruiser’ class.

Again, I’ll suggest that actually winning – in a properly structured, nationally sanctioned class - is a massive step forward in gaining acceptance and respect.

I guess you could say elitism manifested in the feeble effort to create the ‘Australian Cruiser’ class, where, as I have stated many times: ‘You tend to get the feeling it was never really thought through’, as proven by its current ‘Dormant’ status.  The circumstance right now reinforces the point – unless you want to race in boats that look like spaceships, there are no properly structured class rules. The culture tends to regard anything other than a fully enclosed catamaran and 100mph capability, as ‘amateur’ and not worthy of a ‘structured’ class being created. The default position inevitably being the US concepts of ‘Run what you Brung’ and/or ‘speed-bracket’ classes, which always suggests ‘cheque-book’ racing and will never be acceptable to a serious contender or raise the profile of the sport.

Again, I give credit to those in the UK, who are making a bold effort – and a workable Class 3 structure appears to be evolving. A few bigger boats are also making a commitment - albeit within the archaic UIM marathon rule structure, which remains ludicrous, having about twice as many classes as there are boats available to race!

I don’t entirely blame the national administrations for this circumstance, because I believe that UIM has a lot to answer for. The trend has been to agree to any crazy class proposition put to them – often by people who clearly have no idea what they are doing - the key factor being sufficient funding for UIM sanctioning. Bizarre as it is, I really don’t think the UIM fully understands either the technology or psychology of offshore powerboat racing – and the misguided elitism obviously still prevails.

The way it was. The Cruiser Class ‘making up the numbers’ at a Torquay race (UK) – including my Revenger client fleet!

I can proudly say that when the cruiser class became established in the UK, there were consistently more boats in that class than in Class 1 or Class 2. It was generally only the 2lt Class (UIM 3C) that had more runners – and I’ll say here, that 3C with single 175hp outboards on 21ft + hulls, was a sensibly structured, safe and hotly contested class running in real offshore races.

Another important factor that springs to mind was the active social scene that evolved among the cruiser class competitors. Which probably presents a similarity to the yacht club culture among the sail racers. The key thing here, in both cases, is the shared experiences, respect and friendships that become part of the lifestyle.  

Maybe we can confess that, just as with yacht racing, an elite image is part of the appeal. I certainly loved races where the cruisers were asked to start with the Class 1 and 2 boats (to make up the numbers!). But I believe yacht racing embraces that value in the full spectrum of race-class participation, in gaining media, and in turn, corporate attention. The guys who come in a week after the line-honours winner in the Sydney-Hobart yacht race, still get respect and news-media mentions because they have still ‘made it’ across the Bass Strait – often in a family cruising yacht!

The ‘across the fleet’ respect in yacht racing is also reflected by the industry in recognising the direct relationship cruising-class yacht racing has with its market. This gives rise to industry engagement and support – with clothing, sailmaker, electronics and equipment branding seen abundantly – which in turn gives confidence to serious event-branding corporate sponsors, keen to align with this demographic.

There is certainly a lot we can learn from yacht-racing. However, I would trust that a conclusion is becoming obvious for offshore powerboat racing - maybe check out the previous few posts right here to find it pretty much spelt out!

Finally, to all C-P-C and C-T-C competitors next week. Good luck & Take care…