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Opinion: The Olympics will never be the pinnacle of offshore sailing

MONTREAL (#1134) – Like many thousands of sailors I was glued to my computer watching the finale of the Route du Rhum, mostly on the least spectacular media off all – an online tracker with several-minutes delay. There was huge suspense, and as you will likely know the race was won by Francis Joyon (FRA) – a 62 year old veteran offshore sailor who was competing in his 8th Route du Rhum.

This was offshore sailing at its best. The older of the two, and the underdog, won, while François Gabart (FRA), one of the favorites with a much better-financed campaign, placed a very close second. In fact, we now know that Gabart could have abandoned the race early on because of several breakages (foil, rudder, etc.). Yet he stayed in the race, and nearly won it. He reminded us all of the life lesson of never giving up.

Joyon, with an older, slightly slower boat, also had his share of bad luck. For example, during his neck-and-neck duel with Gabart in the final miles of the race he was pulling off a fishing net hooked to his starboard rudder. This amazing finale brought clarity in my thoughts about offshore sailing and the Olympics, namely that…the Olympics will never be the pinnacle of offshore racing.

Veteran French skipper Francis Joyon, right, won the 2018 Route du Rhum singlehanded race from France to Guadeloupe. François Gabart, left, finished second. Joyon, 62, crossed the finish line only seven minutes and eight seconds ahead of Gabart. Long-established races like the Route du Rhum, Sydney-Hobart, Fastnet, Newport-Bermuda, Vendée Globe and the race formerly known as the Volvo Ocean Race are widely considered the pinnacles of offshore sailing. Photo: Alexis Courcoux/Route du Rhum 2018.

For dinghy sailing, the Olympics are the pinnacle of the sport. The most competitive dinghy sailors clearly aim at the Olympics. But for offshore, it will never be. Why?

Beyond the near practical impossibility to organize a meaningful offshore event in the context of the Olympics (because of security and other concerns), it’s because the Route du Rhum, the Vendée Globe, the Volvo Ocean Race (and its successor), and the like are already well established as the pinnacle of offshore sailing. With what is contemplated for the 2024 Olympics - a race of about 60 hours, likely in very light wind, and really not far from shore – the best offshore sailors in the world may not even bother participating. The fact that there is only one medal per country won’t help either.

Many of the best offshore sailors won't be able to participate, as many of them are French. Offshore sailing at the Olympics is therefore unlikely to be a major event. It may be a bit like tennis. Yes there is tennis at the Olympics, but the pinnacle of tennis is the grand slams. Many of the best tennis players don’t even bother participating in the Olympics. And if they participate, it’s not a key goal of their career. We know who won Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the US Open, etc. Who knows about who won tennis at the Olympics?

Contrast this say with athletics. The pinnacle of the sport for athletics clearly is the Olympics. And most of us likely know who won the 100m dash at the recent Olympics.

Among the dinghy classes, the Finn, despite its pitfalls, is probably the one that is most representative of the sport of dinghy sailing. To some extent, it’s a bit like the 100m dash, or the marathon, versus the other athletic disciplines. Removing the Finn and replacing it with offshore is not serving dinghy sailing at the Olympics. It actually is not serving offshore sailing either.

Dinghy v. Offshore Racing

Here is another thought. Everyone is happy about Francis Joyon winning the Route du Rhum, but it could well have been the other way round. Actually, Joyon said he realized he had a real shot at winning only 90 seconds before he cleared the finish line. François Gabart did hit a huge lull a few nautical miles away from the finish line, shortly after having cleared the Southern tip of Basse Terre. That brought him to do a very slow tack, and it took him minutes to regain speed, while Joyon was making good speed towards the finish line. Gabart was unable to reclaim the lead, even though he was faster in the very light breeze. Without such lull, without this ultimate piece of bad luck, Gabart would probably have won.

In offshore sailing, the chance factor is enormous, and that is well accepted in this discipline. It goes with it. The public actually understands this, and we welcomed both sailors equally, and considered them both as heroes. Who actually was the winner of the race was secondary to the achievement of both sailors to handle solo these huge boats, to their ability to sail in extremely difficult conditions, to their humility, mutual respect, and graciousness while being celebrated onshore.

And let’s not forget, offshore sailors risk their lives at doing what they love. The risk element is substantial. In dinghy sailing, the format is such that the chance factor is reduced to a minimum. It’s fierce competition during several days. There are drop races to offset incidents linked to bad luck. With dinghy racing there is a playing field, and risks in terms of injuries, let alone death, are minimal.

So these are very different types of racing. Both are amazing, and contribute hugely to what is the sport of sailing. But as far as the Olympics are concerned, they constitute the pinnacle of the sport only for dinghy racing. They will never be the pinnacle of offshore sailing.

About the author: Jean-Pierre Kiekens (BEL/CAN) is a Montreal-based former university lecturer in development and agricultural economics. One of his present areas of interest is the development of sustainable and healthy food policies. He is also a sailor, having competed in the Laser and the Snipe in his native Belgium while at university, and as a master sailor in North America at various national and international events. For the past years, Jean-Pierre has followed the evolution of his son, Jean-René, who is now 14 and represented Canada at the 2018 Optimist Worlds in Cyprus - check his Facebook page http://fb.com/jrsailing. Jean-Pierre previously followed the evolution of his daughter, Alexandra, who is now 19 and who sailed the Club 420 and, briefly, the Laser Radial, after the Optimist, and who has temporarily put on hold her sailing to focus on her industrial engineering studies. M. Kiekens' views are not necessarily those of Sailing Illustrated or your Ed., but then again they may be; regardless J-P provides some refreshing insight that we thought deserved airing here. Our appreciation to Jean-Pierre for his contribution. –TFE