Why ISAF Conferences Create Winners and Losers While Sailing Stays Static

Posted on 05/07/12 in Sailing, 5 Comments

ISAF conferences are infamous for their controversies.  In many sports, a collection of volunteers and administrators discussing their sport is a non-event.  Sure cycling added the BMX with great fanfare for Beijing, and swimming debates whether to include the 50m race… but nobody asks the swimmers to swim backwards.  Yet ISAF conferences are far from boring, with meetings and decisions of high consequence occurring at an alarmingly frequent rate.  ISAF conferences are where those involved in sailing go to compete on the details of our sport.  What sailing is left with is a series of compromises that produces dramatic yet clear winners and losers.

Star sailors, catamaran sailors, match racers, Star sailors again, and now Windsurfers have all in quick succession felt the deep impact of this structure.  For about 12 hours last year it seemed the 49er was to join their fate, yet a mere 6 months later the 49er fleet is doubled.   By will, impulse and influence at these conferences, sailing tacks and gybes with no true course.

The pain of these decisions fades very slowly leaving scars through the sailing community.  Similar battles are played out on the topics of class choices, event locations, Olympic spot allocations and so on.  The result is a deficit of trust in ISAF from the masses in the boat park.  Trust is the one key characteristic that every organization must have in order to have long term success.

The root cause of all this controversy is the structure of ISAF.  The system is set up to produce exactly the type of decisions that it does.  Decisions – that are important, dramatic, and of high consequence – are made by the volunteer politicians of ISAF.  For all the committees, papers, studies, and rhetoric, the sport is lead by decision making of the ISAF council, who preside and vote on each major decision at conferences twice per year.

The ISAF Council has 36 votes, large in comparison to how businesses run, small in comparison to the UN.  What this discussion focusses on is that 36 is that it is too many to be lead by one vision or leader, especially as it’s a volunteer group.  The reason this characteristic is important is because the voters end up competing with each other for outcomes as they are not able to invest the amount of time and energy it would take to work all the way through to a collaborative result.  In the synergistic goals diagram above, we see collaboration defined as win – win.  What the diagram doesn’t show is the incredible amount of effort it takes to get to collaborative results.  Just ask the Danish 49er team or NED Yngling teams how difficult it is to have competitors bridge competing desired outcomes to pull for a common goal if any proof is needed.

With 36 people on council, the task of working to collaborative outcomes is likely impossible.  Add on the great number of decisions left to the council and it’s volunteer nature and nobody should be surprised that the interested parties ‘compete’ for decisions – so sailing is left with compromises clearly shown by the volume of winners and losers.

Fortunately, ISAF is a quick fix away from reforming itself into a highly functioning organization.  It has a tremendous amount going for it.  Huge numbers of highly qualified and dedicated volunteers, 10 medals in the Olympics, and a sport unsurpassed in its blend of challenges.

The most important thing ISAF should do is turn the current game of politics on decisions into a game of politics on politics.  Let’s have ISAF council vote in a powerful leader, like the NFL’s commissioner, to run the sport professionally for us.  Instead of voting on every decision for the sport, the council should be voting who will lead our sport.  All decisions, except for who’s in charge, should be moved to the professional levels within ISAF with accountability falling to the top official.  Within the professional levels, enough time and energy can be spent on working to achieve collaborative goals and execute a long term vision for sailing.

ISAF volunteers can then focus on their various areas of expertise.  The removal of such politically charged decision making, would allow focus and energy to be on the long term health and growth of the sport.  Decision making is only 1 piece of making a successful organization.  There are many other things an organization must do well to thrive and reforming the structure of ISAF is the only way to bring balance to the focus areas of our sport.  We can’t get there the way our sport is structured right now.  More than anything else, we must realize the limitations of the way we are playing this game and set ourselves up for success.


  1. can says:
    Monday, May 7, 2012 at 8:59pm

    Just wondering why everyone is assuming that kite racing is going to be negative for the sport of sailing?

    I get what you are saying about how decisions are made… but I am a little disappointed at how everyone is looking at this situation… I was effected when the Europe was taken out of the games, and life went on, and in the end the radial was the better call for the sport of sailing.


  2. benrem says:
    Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 5:18am

    Hi Can,

    I personally don’t think that Kiting will be bad for the games. I’ve kited before, it’s super fun, super physical, and super fast… so what’s not to like.

    What I think is bad for sailing is to keep loosing the trust of the sailors. I also don’t think ISAF decisions are very strategic, just constant tactical tweaking…

    For example, the slate of events as a whole now has 5 events that basically require the same skillset, body weight, and in large part look the same to an outsider… 49er men/women, 470 men/women, Nacra…

    Also, by straight substiting RSX for Kite, ISAF has undermined the best class association it had going for it. The class had great media, huge numbers, diversity around the world, growing, big youth programs, prize money for the top athletes… etc. Not that kiting can’t do all the same, but the feedback loop is messed… what’s the incentive for the class association to do the right things when the most important thing is to do the politics well?

    I wish all the best for kiting, but in the big picture ISAF reform is fundamental to sailing taking the steps it needs to.

    Thanks for writing in.



  3. rob mcmillan says:
    Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 7:37am

    Hi – Can what I detest about ISAF and the way it operates is that it seems so out of touch. There is not much wrong with kiteboarding I am sure things will sort themselves out over time – albeit I there are some big challenges I am sure. However, the rapid change, lack of proper consultation to drop windsurfing is very poor.

    This follows a pattern of ill considered decisions, match racing in, match racing out – imagine the waste this has caused. Choice of classes with weight ranges that are so of step with reality and continue to the narrow the bands of participation at what has been, but will not remain the elite level of the sport.

    This pattern of decision making suggests the organisation is dysfunctional, does NOT represent the wishes of the sailors and takes actions as it sees fit.

    Furthermore, when I look at the experience at the recent ISAF worlds in Perth, it was clear that ISAF did NOT give much if any consideration to the sailors. The event was run for the public, sailors facilities were appalling and frankly Perth did everything it could to drain every last dollar out of the competitors – its was disgusting.

    So when I look at ISAF I summarise:

    Poor decision making processes (inc the data points which are ignored, the contradictions, lack of proper consultation and the governance regime) – I thought Brenner made some great points

    Insufficient focus on the wishes of the active sailors in active sailing countries. I know this is controversial but my belief is that NOT all countries are equal in this arena.

    Too much focus on media and public interests- at the expense of the quality of the sport itself and the competitors experience at key events.

    I fear the worst for the future unless ISAF is called to account on its recent track record.


  4. benrem says:
    Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 8:50am

    Thanks for your comments Rob,

    Please put in a link to the Brenner points you agreed with…



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