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21 March 2003, 04:04 pm
Ian Walker - Part Two
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The Interview

Welcome to the second half of our interview with Ian Walker. Following on from his thoughts on the future of the America's Cup and international youth sailing, Ian gave his thoughts on age limits, competitiveness and the growth of the sport.
There is talk of introducing an age limit for world championships - The current thought is 15, what do you think?

It is difficult; I am concerned about the rise in competitiveness, especially in Britain, where you've got young sailors now actually competing to win money for grants to go to events. I personally wasn't racing competitively until I was 14, I wasn't even on the national circuit really until that age so I don't think it's a pre-requisite to be racing at the highest possible standard under the age of fifteen. If you look at other sports then you have kids aged fifteen years old, I think, going to the Olympics. I'm not sure what the age limit is now, but they certainly have in the past, you've had divers and gymnasts and swimmers so I don't see why sailing should be so different. Just because we can go on sailing for longer doesn't mean we shouldn't start earlier. My personal feeling I guess in summary is I think maybe under thirteen is more sensible, by fifteen you've got some pretty mature people.

What about the pressure put on some kids by coaches, parents etc?

I think you can probably reduce the pressure in other ways, I'm a big believer in competitiveness. I think that is what can bring out the best in young people. If you think about all the kids who are trying to get better at what they do, trying to get better at sailing and becoming much better people as a result of that. If you just took away all competitive sailing below the age of fifteen, then I think that'd be wrong. I would question the extent to which we should allow the rise of coaching and funding in the very young age groups. I mean really up until the age of thirteen I'd have thought it was all about having a good time and enjoying it, meeting people and learning everything you can, rather than being channelled into a one-way route towards trying to win a gold medal.

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Melges 24 World Championship 1998 © Allsport

You and John [Merricks] won the men's Double-Handed Event at the inaugural 1994 ISAF Worlds in La Rochelle. How do you think the ISAF Games (previously ISAF Worlds) and ISAF World Championships (ISAF World Championship, Cadiz, Spain) fit into the international circuit as a whole?

Well I think it's a good idea and I think that at the time [1994] it was one of the biggest achievements of my sailing career, and I remember the day very clearly. It was a great test because everyone was in the same boat - all supplied equipment. If you could win that event then you really were the best in the world that week, because everybody had the same equipment, in fact you changed equipment every day if I remember rightly. So it was good fun, but I don't think it's ever really been embraced as much as it could have been and I think particularly in the keelboat classes, people probably rate their own class world championships more [Ed Note: The ISAF World Games is an event World Championship, ie men's keelboat, rather than a class world championship]. Maybe it's because you have more entries per country, so maybe the standards are a bit higher because those countries that have got two or three really good sailors send them all. I'm really in favour of the Cadiz Worlds (ISAF World Championship), I think it's a great idea to get all the classes together in one place. I think that's what the sport needs to do to try and raise it's profile and I think it will be very interesting to look back at the Cadiz Worlds and compare it to the ISAF Sailing Games last year. But certainly it was a great boost to John and I winning the 1994 ISAF Worlds and I'll remember it.

How do feel the ISAF World Rankings reflect the current positions of sailors within the Sport?

I'm no longer as in touch with the Olympic Rankings as I was, but certainly when I was sailing Olympic classes, I thought it was a great thing. It was a way of giving added value to sponsors; it was a great way of evaluating your performance over time. John and I were very proud of being number one in the World, and of course the rankings mean you've done it over a number of events. I never quite got there in the Star. In terms of the Match Racing I thing there's more of a problem there because a lot of the best Match Racers in the World, such as Russell Coutts, don't do the events that you need to do to get your ranking points [Ed Note: See the ISAF Article of 20 March explaining about the "rankings holiday" which is to be introduced for the ISAF World Match Race Rankings -]. In terms of the Match Racing Rankings it's really failing at the moment because the people who are in the top ten in the world are not the people that the media want to recognise as the world's best sailors. They've all been down in Auckland doing the America's Cup. But I don't think it's really the fault of the rankings, it's really the fault of the events not being able to attract the best sailors. How you solve that, short of having so much prize money that all the best sailors want to go to all the events is a much harder question to crack.

I think they are what they are, I think they do add value, I think it's a good thing that ISAF administers them, it does give some continuity, it does give a means of sorting out invites. I'd have to say I'm in favour of them but I do think that the Match Racing ones suffer from the fact that the media don't pay much attention to them until you've got the best sailors sailing in the events.

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Ian with Mark Covell, Sydney 2000 © Stephen Munday/Allsport

What are your personal immediate plans and what do you see yourself doing over the next 12 months-Two Years?

I'm not retained by GBR Challenge. GBR's just focussing purely on design and fundraising. I may well do some bits of work for them should they need it but no I'm free to pursue other avenues and the first thing I want to do is a lot of different sailing. When you're in the America's Cup you get so channelled down one route and every member of the crew has specific roles on board. It's actually quite boring, 90% of it is very, very boring, and you maybe don't expand your horizons as much as you would sailing different boats with different people in different regattas. I hope to do some professional sailing, in particular I want to do the Farr 40's which to my mind is probably the best racing in the world that goes on right now. There are some other fantastic events such as the Tour Voile but it's a bit late to get organised for that this year but, you never know, I might go down and do a bit of that.

The other thing which is clearly coming around is the Olympics. That's what I've invested an awful lot of my time and effort in doing before the America's Cup, so what I want to do is help the British Team as best I can. Probably in some form of coaching capacity across a number of classes with a view to trying to help Britain to get as many medals as they got in Sydney in Athens; which is a tough ask.

What do you think about professional Classification systems?

Well I think that the owner-driver rule and the rules that limit professionals on board are very successful. We need to be controlling costs and I think that the Farr 40 works brilliantly well because the emphasis is on owner enjoyment; it's very competitive which means all the professionals have a good time trying to beat each other up. There are a lot of non professionals out there having great racing with some of the best sailors in the world and there's a whole load of owners who are happy to pay for it because they are not only having a good time they're actually steering their own boat. The whole thing is fostered and supported by the class and it's all in a great boat, either the Farr 40 or the Mumm 30. It doesn't rely on huge amounts of commercial input. You'd have to say that one-design keelboat racing along with short-handed Ocean Sailing are the two real growth areas of the sport right now or the two most successful areas of the sport right now. The America's Cup has got very very expensive and even the Olympics is very, very expensive to compete at the top end. It's very, very hard to do it without good financial backing.

Do you think that with the increase in professionalism that sailing as a sport is now the domain of the rich?

Well I think that sailing at the top end like most sports can be very, very expensive, it's very equipment intensive, and it's also very time intensive, all of which lead to high cost. Like I say, most sports are very expensive and sailing doesn't have to be, it doesn't have to be expensive to campaign a Laser, doesn't have to be expensive when you start. In fact most of the top sailors started from very humble beginnings, and there are bodies that seek to help people get started, for example The John Merricks Sailing Trust. John Merricks started sailing largely because he was lent a boat through his club, and learnt to sail at school, and in John's memory the John Merricks Sailing Trust is helping other young sailors get started, or non-sailors learn to sail. It is important that we encourage people at the bottom end of the sport. I don't think it has to be expensive, but I think it is an inescapable fact that the very top of the sport is expensive and will remain expensive because the standards only ever go up. As the standard goes up, the level of coaching goes up, the importance of the equipment goes up and it is an expensive occupation, but as I say, you'll find that in most sports even those without much equipment.

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With John Merricks, Atlanta 1996 © Allsport

Some countries, France most notably, have introduced sailing into their national school curriculum, do you think that way of introducing the sport works?

I've always been in awe of the French. You go to a sailing club in Hyeres or Antibes and you see the kids come piling out of school and the sails are thrown up in the Oppies, or sometimes they don't put the sails up they just go out and paddle them around. They literally go out for a 40 minute session just in the same way that our kids would go and play football and before you know it the boats are back on the rack and the kids are back at school. They do build it into their curriculum and I think it's fantastic, but they've got a lot of things in their favour, which we don't have here in England; notably the climate and also of course less tidal influence in the Mediterranean. I'm not sure it's something that would work particularly well in Britain but I think that for those countries that can do it, the French have shown just how successful it can be and sailing is part of the national conscience in France. Some of the single-handed sailors are afforded as much fame as footballers.

How can we make sailing more attractive to young people and compete with the influx of games consoles and things?

Well I think there is huge progress already. Introducing boats with more colour and faster boats like the 29er is a huge step forward for the kids. I think that exciting, colourful, dynamic boats, so that sailing is perceived to be a cool occupation, with good emphasis on the social side of the sport just as much as what takes place on the water, is what we're seeing in some classes in Britain. I think that that is hugely more attractive than a load of old rotting Mirrors or Enterprises or Fireflies, which is how many of us got into the sport. I think you've got to glamorise the sport a bit more but not lose sight of what the sport offers in terms of the positive benefit to kids: it's outdoors, it's very often a team orientated sport, both the physical and mental side of the sport are equally as important. It probably offers more to the participants than almost any other sport.

Ian, good luck for the future and thank you very much for taking the time to talk to ISAF.
ISAF News Editor
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