Pt 1.50 – What we’re sailing today, 1.0

The utterly bizarre start line at the Lake Garda Optimist regatta brings home the enormous and continuing success of the little design from Florida. This is where I first saw an Opti in real life, and the quick look I gave it confirmed to my biased eyes that it was a terrible boat. It was only years later, when I took the time to watch the way kids used them and watched my own kids start sailing, that it became obvious how much the class offers to kids and to sailing.
The RS200 has become one of the most popular boats in the world’s biggest dinghy market. RS boats comprise about 10% of the British dinghy fleet, as measured by national titles attendance. Sometimes I think we should just let them run the sport for a couple of years, since they arguably do a better job than the people in charge now.

While I find the history of the sport fascinating, much of the motivation behind SailCraft is learning the lessons of the past in order to understand the present and the future. An essential part of that is finding out what sailors have sailed and are still sailing. There’s no perfect measure (although if anyone is interested in getting involved in a large scale exercise to count the boats actually being raced in the world they can count me in) but given all the variables, the best seems to be looking at the size of the fleets that turn up to national titles. It’s far from perfect for reasons that are all too apparent, but to me nothing else comes close when it comes to tracking trends and getting a reality check.

The International classes

Before we get on to the national pictures, let’s get a picture of the worldwide popularity of the major classes by turning to the reports that each international class sends to World Sailing each year. The classes pay dues on each boat sold, so they have an incentive to keep the numbers realistic. Although they are sometimes pretty loose, they don’t fall into the realm of outright fiction, like some other claims do. Two major manufacturers have an arrangement with ISAF to keep the numbers of boats they sell confidential, so since they are shy we may as well ignore them.

Over the last five years, the major International and Recognised classes have each sold the following number of boats;

Optimist  – 15210
Laser – 8808
Sunfish – (est) 5000
RS Aero – (est) 2750 (new class – five year sales estimated on current annual sales)
RS Feva – 2300
Int 420 – 1642
RS Tera – 1283
Topper – 1134
Finn – 1000 (approximate, due to ISAF allegedly being slow to provide information)
J/70 – 980
470 – 912
Formula 18 – 739 (this figure is obtained by adding the number sold each year. The class claims 1000 new boats over this period. Oh well, we F18 sailors aren’t very good at maths).
29er – 584
49er/FX – 564
Moth – 550
Byte CII – 500
RS 100 – 410
A Class – 400
Snipe – 384
Nacra 17 – 331
J/80 – 300 approx
Viper 16 cat – 259
RS 500 – 250
Glide Free Laser foiling kits – 250 (not an ISAF class; industry claim put in for reference and based on pro-rata annual rate)
Zoom 8 – 250
Formula 16 – 235
TopKat 16 – 233
Micro 18 – 230
SL16 – 223
FJ – approx 200
Europe – 180
GP14 – 147
Int OK – 143
Mirror – 143
Dragon – 140
Enterprise – 139
Contender – 125
Tasar – 120
505 – 101
Star – 101
Splash – 100
Int Cadet – 99
Melges 20 – 96
Fireball – 93
MPS – 91
Lightning – 85
FD – 56
Vaurien – 52
Dart 18 – 50
Int 14 – 45
Flying 15 – 38
SB20 – 36 in four years
B14 – 22
Tornado – 4
Laser II – 0

The thing that is striking about this list is the utter dominance of the Opti and Laser. Given that most Sunfish are sold as beach toys (which is great) the Opti and Laser are just in a different class (sorry) to every other boat. It is bizarre that some people want to destroy the classes on which so much of the sport obviously depends – the ones that are actually doing more than any other classes to keep it alive.

It’s also interesting to see the presence of a very strong “second XI” of classes like the 420 and RSs. The first of the classes that some people claim to be the future of the sport are way down the list.

The national pictures

Back in the 1970s, the UK’s Yachts and Yachting magazine started analysing the size of the fleets that turned up to the biggest national titles. The magazine still maintains a fascinating table showing the attendance at just about every national championship regatta, which is an invaluable numerical guide to what people really sail, and also shows just how far off beam many pundits are when it comes to looking at the reality and the future of the sport. I’ll look at the Y&Y data, modified to include the many sailors who do the Masters nationals in Lasers, later.

More recently, the contributor “Roger Jolly” analysed the size of the fleets at North American and US titles for several years. The US and Australia both have the problem of large variation year-by-year in many classes due to the vast distances between championship venues, which makes it even harder to analyse trends, so Roger maintained a three-year rolling average of championship attendances. The latest of them can be found here; scroll down and you’ll see a list of the 50 most popular classes, excluding juniors. Note that like Y&Y, Roger’s figures ignore the huge fleets that do their Laser nationals as part of separate Masters championships. I’m currently preparing an updated version of Roger Jolly’s list and will put that up soon.

As far as I can find, no one has yet done a similar analysis of class popularity in other major sailing countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand.  I have been obtaining as much information on long-term national title attendance in Australia for years. The latest figures, averaging over the last three years as Roger Jolly did (and for the same reasons) are below.

Some classes (marked with an asterix) have only one set of figures, partly because they are such popular classes that they will not move up or down the rankings significantly when further information information is added; they can be polished later. Some classes seem to be shy about giving out their numbers.  The Laser and Radial numbers allow for the sailors who did the separate Masters nationals. Those who did both Open and Masters nationals have been deducted from the total, as have overseas competitors who took part in an Australian title associated with a world or interdominion (Australia v New Zealand) championship.

Australian national title attendance – three year rolling average 2014-2016

Optimist* 1 Jnr Hike 1d 219.0
Laser Radial* 1 Light/Youth Hike SMOD 183.0
Laser* 1 Open Hike SMOD 137.0
Sabot* 1 or 2 Jnr Hike 1d 104.0
Tasar 2 Open Hike SMOD 77.0
Sabre 1 Open Hike 1d 75.0
Int. Cadet* 2 Jnr Hike 1d 67.0
Flying 11 2 Jnr Hike 1d 58.7
Moth 1 Open Assist Dev 56.3
Minnow 1 Jnr Hike 1d 56.0
Laser 4.7* 1 Jnr Hike SMOD 54.0
29er 2 Youth Assist SMOD 47.7
Impulse 1 Open Hike 1d 44.5
Sharpie 3 Open Assist 1d 42.0
Spiral 1 Open/Light Hike SMOD 42.0
Int. 420 2 Youth Assist 1d 37.7
Manly Junior 2 Jnr Hike 1d 36.0
16 Foot Skiff 3 Open Assist 1d 35.3
Mirror 2 Jnr/Light Hike 1d 32.0
Heron 2 Light Hike 1d 31.5
OK 1 Open Hike 1d 31.3
NS14 2 Open Hike Dev 31.0
Int. 14 2 Open Assist Dev 29.0
MG14 2 Open Assist Dec 28.5
125 2 Youth/Light Assist 1d 27.7
Cherub 2 Youth/Light Assist Dev 27.0
Int. 505 2 Open Assist 1d 26.5
B14 2 Open Assist SMOD 25.0
12 Foot Skiff 2 Open Assist Dev 23.0
Finn 1 Open Hike 1d 20.5
Javelin 2 Open Assist Dev 20.0
18 Foot Skiff 3 Open Assist 1d 19.0
Musto Skiff 1 Open Assist SMOD 16.0
Contender 1 Open Assist 1d 14.0
13 Foot Skiff 2 Youth Assist 1d 13.0
Pacer* 2 Open Hike 1d 14.0
RS 100* 1 Open Hike SMOD 13.0
Fireball 2 Open Assist 1d 12.0
Flying Dutchman 2 Open Assist 1d 12.0
RS Aero* 1 Open Hike SMOD 12.0
Int. 470 2 Open Assist 1d 11.7
49er 2 Open Assist SMOD 11.0
Skate 2 Open Assist 1d 11.0
49erFX 2 Open Assist SMOD 9.3
Vee Ess 3 Open Assist 1d 9.0
National E 2 Open Assist 1d 9.0
Formula 15 2 Open Assist SMOD 8.0
RS200* 2 Open Hike SMOD 8.0

Notes: “Assist” refers to classes that have some form of “hiking assistance” such as wings, trapeze, plank or a combination. The second column from the left refers to crew numbers, the third refers to rough age/weight categories. A few classes, such as the Bic O’pen which is going very well, have been left out because I can’t find the information.

I may declare my own interests here. Counting all of the classes I have kit for (ie boards, boats, and the cat) three of them sit right at the top of the list. Three sit solidly in the middle, one is one of the smallest active classes, and three of them can no longer get enough entries to organise a championships. I think that mean I can be called fairly unbiased!


So what can we learn from these numbers? Well, the hiking boats and singlehanders are dominant in the sport. There appears to have been a move away from crewed trapeze classes, although I’ll be doing a comparison over time later to get more perspective. Another area that is suffering is the small “family” boats, like the Mirror and Heron and long-lost classes in the same bracket, which produced huge fleets at the peak of the dinghy boom.

There has been no big shift to skiffs or high-performance boats. Despite all the hype, Australia is not a nation of skiff sailors – in fact it is probably further away from being so than it was 30 or 70 years ago. Wonderful as they are, the skiff classes are a minority interest, even among the big and fast boats – the Sharpie is clearly on top as a national large high-performance dinghy.

In a similar vein, the occasional commentator who infers that Australia’s recent international successes are due to Aussie kids growing up on skiffs with asymmetric spinnakers have got it wrong. Most (although not all) of the junior classes are similar to their northern-hemisphere counterparts, and none of the popular ones have an asymmetric kite.

As in the USA, the major classes are old ones. Some see this as a bad thing. To me it just indicates that people may have just been more realistic when they created classes in earlier decades. The success of the Opti (which is basically a fairly new class in Australia) and 29er indicate that new classes can succeed, but as in the USA it is difficult to build a big new class in such a vast and empty country. Not even RS hasn’t managed to really build up the numbers. The class that is growing fastest is probably the Moth (New South Wales and the south coast of the UK seem to be the two places where the vast majority of growth is centred in the class, with very strong championship fleets) but other development classes have not done well. Classes like the Sabot, Sabre, Minnow, Impulse and Sharpie also show quite clearly that a class can succeed without the backing of International status, a big (by Australian standards) manufacturer or the big clubs.

Analysis of the catamaran numbers, incidentally, shows that they are not increasing strongly, despite the complete load of rubbish that plenty of people were spouting when the America’s Cup switched over.  There is a lot of churn inside the cats, with a move towards the bigger singlehanders.

So what’s the main lesson? Sadly, the four sets of numbers referred to above show that many of the comments about where the sport is going are based on hype and ignorance. Contrary to some of the hype spouted by those talking about “where the sport is going”, there is no big move towards faster boats or newer classes in general.  The main lesson is that there has been a shift towards medium to medium/slow boats in some countries, and that the kids seem to be loving the sport in their early years. They do drop off in big numbers later in their teens, but as major surveys of other sports show, that’s the case with organised sport in general. The arrival of the 29er doesn’t seem to have killed the 420 or lead to more kids staying in the sport, nor are they staying in classes like the Laser after they leave their teens.

Over the next few days, I’ll look at other comparisons across time frames and across countries. While none of this data is definitive, it seems to show is that the successful sectors of the sport are the ones that are taking a path that is very different from that forecast by the media, World Sailing and other members of the chattering classes who enjoy instructing other people how they should spend their time and money.


















Author: cthom249

A former sailing journalist and magazine editor, I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney, one of the world's sailing hotspots and to win national and state championships in classes like J/24s, Windsurfer One Designs, offshore racers, Laser Radial open, Windsurfer OD Masters, Raceboard Masters and Laser Radial Masters, to get into the placings in a few other classes, and do a few Sydney to Hobarts.

3 thoughts on “Pt 1.50 – What we’re sailing today, 1.0”

  1. The “AYF Yearbook” of my youth always had a big spreadsheet of clubs and boat classes sailed. Would it be interesting to compare that “ready” source of data about what was sailing in the 70s with what is being sailed now?


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