In this the first of two articles based on an exclusive interview with World Sailing president Kim Andersen we investigate the marked uptick in interest from sailing’s world governing body in the sport of offshore racing.
Two new shorthanded international offshore competitions have emerged with this year in the form of the soon-to be-confirmed 2019 World Sailing Offshore World Championship, and the decision at the recent World Sailing conference in Sarasota, Florida to include a multi-day offshore event at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
The two events will both be contested between double-handed mixed-sex crews, but while the Olympic competition is planned to be a single distance lasting up to three days, the Offshore Championship will feature a series of races including 30 and 60-mile coastal races and culminating in a new Olympic-style multi-day “endurance” race.
World Sailing first announced plans for a new Offshore World Championship in April this year along with a call for tender submissions from organisations looking to run the annual 20-boat event through to 2024.
After earlier being rejected at the mid-year World Sailing meeting the Olympic offshore event concept was re-submitted on the eve of the World Sailing annual conference a few weeks ago where it was voted in by a healthy majority.
We spoke to World Sailing president Kim Andersen to find out more about World Sailing’s renewed interest in short-handed offshore racing – beginning by asking what the current state of play was with next year’s Offshore Championship.
“The latest update is that we are in negotiations with some host cities for the 2019 event,” Andersen told us. “We have been very late getting into this because it was a decision made in Council last November in Mexico and then we started up the process at the beginning of the year.
“Now we need to close the process by the end of this year in order to let the MNAs [Ed. member national authorities – e.g. RYA, US Sailing] to participate – and that is the work going on right now.
“We need to be in a position to announce it by the end of the year as it will be the first time we have run a World Sailing Offshore Championship so in terms of qualification and everything else we need to work out how to organise that in the best possible way because the time window will be pretty short.”
Despite the similarity of the two events Andersen maintains that they came about independently of each other.
“One was decided in November last year and the other one decided on in November this year,” he told us.
“Back in May we had a decision that an offshore event was not going to be part of the slate of events for Paris 2024. Now just recently we have had another decision that there will be an offshore event at the Paris Olympics – to be sailed in Marseille.
“So although the two are disconnected going forward as we prepare for the World Championship it makes sense to align this with the preparation for the future Olympic event.”
Why then this apparently sudden interest in offshore sailing when it has never featured much on the World Sailing radar previously?
“Keelboat and offshore sailing have always been a huge part of our sport going right back into its history,” Andersen said.
“Over the years there have been several times when we have discussed the viability of an Olympic event where people would start from the Olympic venue and head offshore before finishing back at the Olympic venue. But the challenges of getting it into the Olympics has always proved too great.
“Now though the advent of all the new media and communications technology – drones, onboard cameras, high speed data links – has changed the landscape completely. Now we can see a way to run such an event and successfully bring the action to the viewers.
“Because the competitors don’t have to be in a close circle, sailing around buoys or in an arena, means we can think outside of the normal scope.”
When the discussion moved on to the boats (“equipment” in World sailing and Olympic-speak) that may be used for the two events Andersen was at pains to point out that the same classes would not necessarily be used for both.
Although not confirmed by Andersen the frontrunner for next year’s Offshore World Championship is believed to be the new L30 a 30-foot one-design monohull conceived by Ukrainian 49er Olympic silver medallist Rodion Luka and designed by Andrej Justin of RC44 fame.
“There was a trial for the equipment for this event earlier in the year and a boat was selected,” Andersen said. “All the contractual arrangements around the boat are clear and ready to go, but I want to stress that this is for the World Sailing Offshore World Championship and not for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games – that’s totally separate.”
Deciding on a boat for the offshore event in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games was a longer-term project which Andersen told us would be worked upon by experts in that field over the coming two years.
“With regards to the Olympics we are talking about the supplied equipment that is used for the racing,” he said. “The idea of the offshore Olympic event is very new and we are planning to engage with people who are specialists in that area in order to make sure that this event gets full attention.
“Right now I couldn’t care less about what that boat is going to be,” Andersen continued.
“We will figure which boat we are going to use – that’s a relatively small task – more important is to figure out a qualification system where we can engage with more nations to figure out what is the safest equipment we should use.
“We also need to make sure that the people who are qualifying are fit for this kind of contest as it is an endurance race more than a short race around a triangle/sausage course.”
Andersen envisages a scenario where a range of boats meeting a set of World Sailing criteria could be used to in different territories around the world for the Olympic qualification process.
“When it comes to the boats that are used for qualification for the offshore event at Olympics this is based on a boat from six to 10 metres,” he said.
“But it could be a similar but different boat for geographies all around the world. Providing it fulfils the criteria World Sailing lays down then you can choose any local boat in your country to use for qualification purposes.
“It’s a matter of deciding which classes and equipment are good for double-handed sailing and thinking about what kind of configurations we want to see the boats in order to have safe and exciting double-handed racing. Ideally the equipment should be available on the continents and in the countries that want to participate in the qualification process.”
It’s an idea that could avoid prohibitive equipment costs for poorer nations and one that Andersen believes could see more nations achieving Olympic qualification for the first time.
“In Sarasota when we talked to nations around the world who are today not participating in the Olympics it turned out many of them have available keelboats suitable for staging a qualification process,” Andersen said.
“I think it was someone from Antigua who said that the Caribbean region is represented at the America’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race and other major sailing events, but not at the Olympics. That showed me and convinced the rest of the Council and the people around the table for the AGM that the sailors are available, and therefore so should the equipment be.
“I am actually pretty confident that if we get this right then more nations will be able to qualify for the Olympics in this offshore discipline than in many other disciplines.”
How though does Andersen answer the criticism that introducing keelboat sailing to the Olympics will inevitably ramp up costs dramatically?
“The criticism comes from people thinking of this in the normal way that qualification and competition is run for Olympic sailing events,” he answered.
“Having been a team manager for the Danes over several Olympic several cycles I know exactly how you develop and optimise your equipment, and how much equipment you need to buy to be successful.
“To try to operate an offshore campaign in the same way would multiply the budget massively compared to the existing Olympic classes – and that is certainly not the idea with this event.
“Maybe we will do as they do in match racing to prepare the boats on land with a fixed setup and then the crews go racing. Perhaps the competitors will need to invest in buying sails for the qualifiers, but they should certainly not have to go to the expense of buying boats.”
What then could Andersen tell us about the potential racing format for the three-day inaugural Olympic offshore competition at the 2024 Games?
“Right now it is two nights at sea,” he answered. “So day and night, day and night and then finishing on the third day.
“We are working with the French organisers on how to come up with a range of courses based on different directions and wind strengths. We are also looking even further ahead to the 2028 Olympics in the US – not to finalise anything but to see how this event might work over there.
What though if there is no wind on the day? It’s a real possibility as light airs conditions are very common in the Mediterranean in the Summer.
“Every Olympics I have been part of the forecast has never ever been correct,” was Andersen’s pragmatic answer.
“In Korea everyone said there was going to be no wind and we had hail storms and all sorts of other things. In Qingdao there was no wind predicted and actually there was a lot of wind – and plenty of seaweed too.
“But yes, lack of wind will always be a valid concern when you talk about sailing, I am just not seeing it as a major risk. If it comes, it comes and there is nothing we can do about it.”
When it comes to the profile of sailor that may be attracted to the new offshore Olympic event Andersen believes we will see lots of new names from the offshore side of our sport along with some of the existing Olympic campaigners.
But whether the experienced keelboat sailors or the seasoned Olympic campaigners would have the upper hand he was was uncertain.
“Before the Yngling came into the Olympics it was sailed by men in Scandinavia at a pretty high international level,” he said.
“Then the Olympic women campaigners arrived from 470s and other dinghy classes and you could immediately see the difference between an Olympic level and a world championship level.
“That said, offshore sailing is very different to the day-racing we have currently at the Olympics. You have to concentrate for much longer periods of time and you need to make your tactical and strategic decisions differently. In dinghy racing you make them very close to the start and concentrate on the first two or three tacks afterwards. Offshore racing is completely different.
So might we perhaps see some wily older generation offshore sailors of both sexes having a later-life tilt at Olympic glory?
“Let’s say more mature,” Andersen replied with a chuckle.
“Something that is appealing is that the split of roles on an offshore boat between helming, sailing trimming, meteorology, navigation etc. are not at all gender specific.”
Circling back to the question of the expected ages of the competitors Andersen referenced the worlds of Danish four-time Olympic gold medallist Paul Elvstrom who in 1984 competed in his final Olympic Games at the age of 56 – finishing fourth in the Tornado catamaran class.
His crew back then was his daughter Trine – the only female sailor in the fleet.
“Elvstrom always said that the Olympic classes should be for youth and be extreme,” Andersen said. “His view was that if someone like him wanted to have a go then that was fine but Olympic classes shouldn’t be designed for elderly sailors to be able to continue their careers.
“That’s a view I very much don’t disagree with.”
In our second article based on our conversation with World Sailing president Kim Andersen we explore the convoluted decision-making process leading to the selection of the Olympic offshore event, find out why Anderson is confident the offshore event will be ratified by the International Olympic Committee, and discuss the consequential exit of the Finn class from the Olympics after Tokyo 2020.