Staying the course

Australian Sailing CEO Ben Houston delivers a message to the sailing community, as he charts a safe course for the sport through the coronavirus uncertainty.

Written by Scott Alle

21 April 2020


When Ben Houston took over as CEO of Australian Sailing a year ago, dealing with the fallout from a rapid global pandemic was not on the so-called ‘threat horizon.’

However, the forced shutdown of sporting clubs due to COVID-19 has meant organisations have had to shift into survival mode. Australian Sailing, has been working hard to ensure sailing clubs, the lifeblood of the sport, are around when the good ‘sailing’ virus again flourishes. 

Sails Editor Scott Alle caught up with CEO Ben Houston for an exclusive chat.

Ben thanks for talking to Sails. What are the main messages you want to get out to sailors around the country?

Firstly, our priority is  our sailors and our Clubs. We appreciate that many individuals, families and Clubs have been adversely impacted by the crisis and we stand with them at this time. We are encouraging all sailors around the country to stay safe, stay positive and stay connected with their sailing community. We are working very hard with Clubs to ensure that when we transition out of this crisis both Clubs and Australian Sailing are in a good position to meet the challenges that will arise.


We are anticipating it will be six, twelve or even eighteen months before we properly emerge out of this. We are all in this together and it is one sailing community and we are very mindful of that. We want the members to engage with their Clubs and we will continue to engage with and support the Club network.

Complicating that of course is every Club is different and faces a different challenge. Some Clubs are in much stronger financial positions than others. How are you compensating for this?

Absolutely. Our priority is to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of sailing in Australia and that means supporting all of our Clubs, all 350 plus of them, differently. We are working hard for all clubs lobbying local councils, state governments and the federal government to ensure there is appropriate support for those impacted and to ensure sailing is accurately represented. Clubs can find that information on the COVID-19 Information Hub on our website that provides details around support from their local council regarding rent abatement and other things.

Our job now is to assure members that the impact of COVID-19 on sailing clubs is mitigated to best possible extent.

In the worst-case scenario are there Clubs that won’t re-open the doors after this?

It’s too early to say. I certainly hope not. Sailors as a group are resilient. Sailing clubs have existed in this country for 200 years and I know they will be around for many more.

Is rent abatement the biggest single form of assistance available to Clubs?

It’s a combination. The rent abatement or a rent waiver is certainly crucial. As we know operations have ceased at many Clubs. For some they may receive some mooring or berthing fees but their food and beverage services are closed. I’m hoping local councils and other government agencies support sailing Clubs by providing some kind of rent relief or assistance to offset some of the lost revenue.

For argument’s sake if a Club has lost their revenue from food and beverage, their rent relief may go some way to addressing that. We are reasonably fortunate that our season was winding-up though we finished it a month earlier than we would have liked. The reality is we are now in a quieter period, though it means real hardship for our Clubs because the revenue they would have received over their winter series and activities just isn’t there.

What about the national programs and the important junior programs such as Tackers?

They will continue as soon as the crisis eases enough to allow those activities. Our priority in this area is to ensure continuity will be provided for those programs as soon as we can get back on the water.

Has sailing’s Olympic success given it more of a financial buffer than other sports?

I think so. Certainly in terms of our high performance funding and we have been having extensive discussions with the (Australian) Sports Commission around maintaining sailing and they are committed to assisting us and providing certainty around funding, and we are very appreciative of that.

In terms of the Club’s sustainability there are very large and very small Clubs and we’ve got around 10,000 volunteers across our sport. They are some really lovely stories coming out about how some Clubs are dealing with this and are interacting with their sailing community and volunteers to help during this time.

Where has the major pain been felt at Australian Sailing?

Like any organisation, and any not-for-profit sports organisation, we are not immune. We have our revenue lever and our cost lever. Our revenue comes from our affiliation fees from clubs, but also through regatta fees, officials’ fees and other fees that come via our Club network. At this point we are not running any regattas or courses and our clubs are hurting so our revenues have similarly been impacted. We are focusing on preserving the reserves we have, but we have also had to make some very difficult decisions about letting staff members go, some of whom have been with the organisation for more than 30 years.

We’re also very focused on re-scoping and targeting programs to support the Clubs as they come out of this crisis.

Have you identified any positive and probably online innovations to come out of this that bring savings and efficiencies?

We are looking at that right at the moment. We know we need to work differently going forward. We are losing valuable staff so we need to be more efficient and we’ll need to work in a different way. That’s a challenge I’ve put to the team at Australian Sailing and will mean building the capability in the organisation and the Clubs so they are ready to open the doors when that time comes.

We don’t want to create any barriers to new (sailing club) members coming in, we want to streamline the Clubs’ operations where we can. That might be something like providing advice on how to run an electronic AGM, a major annual event on any Club’s calendar.

What has Iain Murray’s message been to members of the Australian Sailing team?

While the Olympics have been cancelled twice before during wartime this kind of postponement is unprecedented. Sailing was the first sport to be announced  to the Tokyo 2020 Australian Olympic Team with the Men’s 470 and Laser selections last year, so there are some of our athletes who have known for some time and there was some relief among them that a decision was made, giving them certainty. They now need to pivot and this is what Iain and the High Performance Team are doing in re-structuring their plans for the next 16 months. It is a huge operation because the goal posts have moved but the goal hasn’t.

It’s not just the High Performance campaign planning for the athlete there’s also the logistics to contend with; moving boats, leasing on premises in Japan, there are service contracts, employment contracts, and budgets. So there is a huge amount of work going on at the moment. The athletes themselves are itching to get back out there but they very mindful that is only possible in limited circumstances.

That brings us to the confusion about going sailing for recreation depending which State or Territory you are in. Wouldn’t it have been better to have a national approach? 

No question that’s been difficult for sailors. What we’re recommending is to ensure people stay safe, respect their local laws and guidelines and I would recommend you check our COVID-19 information hub on the Australian Sailing website. We are updating that as quickly as we can to ensure the most timely and accurate information is available. We are lobbying maritime authorities to the extent they can clarify that advice.

I don’t know whether you have had a chance to catch-up on some of the more inventive ‘indoor’ sailing videos. I especially like the winches on the bath rail from Italy. But it just reinforces the close bonds that exist between sailors everywhere. Have you spoken with the equivalent bodies in the US and the UK?

I haven’t because we’ve been focusing on  local priorities regarding the financial sustainability of our Clubs and our organisation. We’re certainly not out of the woods there yet, but there is probably now an opportunity to think about what’s happening globally. There are some really good examples around virtual sailing that theRYA have done so we’re picking up that and we’ll be announcing it on a national basis shortly.

There has been no template for this. How have you found it trying to get a handle on managing the issues as they have quickly mounted up?

Our number one priority was from very early on to provide support to the Clubs. In a sense that focus has made things easier. It’s a matter of getting the balance right between reducing our cost base and also doing the necessary things so when we come out of this the Clubs are armed with everything they need. It’s just emphasised to me just how tight knit the sailing community is in Australia. It is part of our social fabric. Sandringham (Yacht Club) is a great example of the sport fostering a spirit of co-operation and looking out for one another. When restrictions began in mid-March the club rolled out a large scale offering for their members and the local community.  The first wave of new business for the club included takeaway meals prepared by their kitchen team.  In the first six days of operation they dispensed over 3000 meals.

Isn’t it the case that with the Federal government rightly allocating such massive amounts to the various COVID-19 financial assistance packages that sports funding is going be a hard ask for some time to come?

The Australian (Sports Commission) have been supporting sport and trying to provide as much clarity they can. It’s difficult to say what’s going to happen without a May budget; that’s been pushed back to October. They are doing what they can to release approved funds to sport ahead of time so that will be gratefully appreciated. What it looks after October is unknown. There is lobbying underway to provide certainty beyond Tokyo from 2021 – 2024, but first we have to win this immediate battle.

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