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Don't let politics spoil the fundamental democratic nature of sailing

2016 March 1

There is one thing I’ve always loved about sailing, and it’s not the wind or the freedom or the spray or the excitement of racing. It’s that sailing is one of the last truly democratic sports.

To the wind, everyone is equal. I think back on sailors sitting at the bar after a recent race, laughing and lying to each other about the day’s adventure, and it underlines my democratic theory. There was the CEO of a major corporation, a garage mechanic, a college professor and a fireman, and each had an equal opportunity to win, based not on their wealth or education or social status, but on their skills with wind and water. Sailors are judged by their abilities on the racecourse.

As a youngster graduating from dinghies into larger boats, one skipper became my mentor. Charlie owned a converted 6-Meter that he loved, and he took me under his wing. Being a teenager, it never occurred to me that Charlie was a machinist on the shop floor at Douglas Aircraft. I knew him for getting his Lanai to windward better than anyone in the fleet, which is probably why the vice president of Douglas Aircraft often sailed with us, taking orders from Charlie and learning to win in his own boat. Donald Douglas even called Charlie for advice about his yacht. 

When Larry Ellison won the America’s Cup in San Francisco, the commodore of the sponsoring club was a radiator mechanic. Dennis Conner of America’s Cup and Olympic fame was the son of a commercial fisherman when he started showing his winning ways. Paul Cayard, a seven-time world champion, two-time Olympian, around-the-world race winner and six-time America’s Cup skipper, got started when his father, a woodworker for the San Francisco Opera, built him an El Toro pram in the garage. 

Sailing is a democratic sport, and so it hurts my heart that it has become political in recent years. Take the current flap over the World Youth Sailing Championships just held in Malaysia. The details are long and sordid but the bottom line is that Malaysia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, refused to allow Israeli sailors to compete. 

I understand that there are political issues here, but if that’s the case, why did the International Sailing Federation award the championships to Malaysia five years ago, knowing full well this would be an issue? The sad fact is that ISAF has become an embarrassingly dysfunctional and toothless organization that supposedly controls
sailing worldwide. 

ISAF recently changed its name to World Sailing in an attempt to erase memories of its ineptitude, but what can you say about an organization that claims to be “representing the sailors in all matters concerning the sport” and then condones this travesty?

World Sailing is allowing Olympic sailors to compete in a cesspool in Rio de Janeiro that has 127,000 times the human sewage level that would close a U.S. beach. It has approved this venue in spite of the fact that dozens of sailors have come down with explosive illnesses in pre-Olympic regattas and one was even hospitalized with a flesh-eating bacteria. Yet World Sailing doesn’t see a problem.

Nor did it see a problem when it awarded the Sailing World Cup in 2014 and 2015 to Abu Dhabi, which also refused to allow Israeli sailors to compete. 

Nor did it think anything was amiss when Oman, which staged the 2015 RS:X World Windsurfing Championships under ISAF rules, also refused to admit Israeli sailors. 

The worldwide outrage about the Malaysian political exclusion of sailors led first to a letter from Carlo Croce, World Sailing president, that tiptoed around the issue, saying it was “a delicate political situation” and that it was sending the guy who had originally awarded the event to Malaysia to “investigate.” A total and painful failure. 

I knew and admired Beppe Croce, Carlo’s father, who had been a strong and forceful leader of the International Yacht Racing Union (predecessor to ISAF/World Sailing) and I think Beppe must be twisting in his grave as his son wimps out. 

After an emergency meeting and a “thorough” investigation, World Sailing issued a statement that started, “World Sailing deeply regrets that two sailors … were unable to compete …” 

Really? Regret? That’s it?

It continues, first trying to spread the blame to the Israelis for entering late, which they did on the same day as the New Zealand team that had no problems. Then it used phrases like “shall at its discretion impose sanctions.” And then it says it’s going to send Malaysia a letter. A letter?

This is like a parent whose kid misbehaves. Instead of whacking him on the rear, the parent says, “If you do that again, we won’t take you to Disneyland next summer!” The kid knows it’s a hollow threat, and so does the parent.

So what did U.S. Sailing, the ones who also haven’t done anything about the Rio sewage problem, do? Well, it sent a letter to World Sailing starting, “We denounce…” Boy, I bet that put the fear in World Sailing, being denounced. Yikes! If it had been U.S. sailors that were banned, I would hope the letter might have been a bit more strongly worded.

The fact is that World Sailing is a complete failure. With five years leading up to the Malaysian regatta, it had plenty of time to move the event to a less political nation. But it didn’t do anything about Oman or Abu Dhabi, either. So all those nations know they can go to Disneyland next year too.

I can guess what Charlie would say about politics in sailing, but I can’t repeat it here. After all, he was just a machinist, but he understood democracy.