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Growing the sport of sailing starts with knowing why

2014 July 1

Over the past few years, there has been a groundswell of fretting about the future of sailing. The number of participants is dwindling, some say, and produce statistics to prove their point. Younger people are not being attracted to sailing, say others, and offer statistics to prove their point. Many complain that the costs are too high, with corresponding statistics. Time is too precious these days to spend hours on the water is another war cry and, of course, there are statistics for that too.

I’m of an age where I embrace the old saw that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. But that isn’t the point of this column. I’m intrigued by this worrying about the future of sailing, and that the number of sailors are declining. And I keep coming back to one question that nags me.

Why should I care?

Why is it important to increase the number of sailing enthusiasts?  Does it increase my enjoyment of a beautiful day on the water if there are more boats around? I speak only for myself, of course, but I prefer fewer boats on the water. I don’t know about you, but in my area, there are waiting lists for slips to keep your boat and not enough boat ramps to satisfy the need for trailer boaters. Seems like we already have enough sailors.

I understand the worry on the part of racing sailors, with once strong fleets dwindling to extinction and, with a half century of racing under my belt, I can see many of the causes rather clearly. I’ll save some rants for future columns, but here’s a capsule look at why I think racing is declining. There are too many different classes, with more being added every year and each takes its share of sailors from other fleets. Racing has become more professional and less about fun in many fleets. Windward/leeward courses for adults and endless tacking practice for junior sailors suck the joy out of racing.  Increasingly complicated rules challenge casual racers. The cost of staying competitive has escalated into a dollar war in some classes. And does sailboat racing, at least at the yacht club level, require professional coaches and squadrons of coaching boats?  I think not.  

But racing is a subset in the world of sailing, just as sailing around the world is a separate species in the genus of sailing. And I’m more interested in the clamor not just to maintain sailing, but to grow sailing.  

Why should we care?

I can understand why yacht clubs, which face dwindling memberships and a growing average age as fewer young people join the clubs, need to increase the number of sailors. This is a matter of financial concern, because you can only raise the price of scotch and sodas to a certain point.

But that seems to me an issue for the clubs to confront. Launch recruitment programs, offer incentives, improve the reasons to join the club.

To me, the issue of financial considerations seems to be the underlying theme of all this rush to grow sailing. There is a “Grow Boating” campaign backed by the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the clear intention is not about the joy of boating, but to sell more boats and make more money.

The ski industry spent $20 million more than a decade ago on a huge promotion to encourage new skiers and re-engage lapsed skiers. There was nothing benevolent about sharing a wonderful sport: this was all about making money for resorts and ski manufacturers. It worked, for a while. But then the numbers started falling again and it seems that skiers were turned off by outrageously expensive lift tickets and crowded slopes. 

Gary Jobson, who I’ve known for four decades as a competitor, a fellow journalist and as a spokesman for sailing, gave the keynote speech at the US Sailing
Leadership Conference and he noted the declining participation in sailing as a serious problem to be faced.

But he didn’t answer my question: Why is it a serious problem?

As a counterpoint to Gary’s speech, I have a friend who bought a 28-foot Triton sloop. Many of you are too young to remember the Triton, which debuted 55 years ago at the 1959 New York Boat Show as one of the first fiberglass auxiliary sailboats.

My friend, Denny, has a mostly original Triton, still with an Atomic 4 engine, Formica counters and sails that are more than a decade old.  He paid $2,000 for it and he’s on the water every weekend. He had looked at a couple of new 30-footers at a boatshow, but reeled at the price tags in the $140,000 to $180,000 range. His Triton has more than a few dings, but it has an enclosed head, a workable galley and a cockpit that handles two couples if they keep their knees away from the tiller.  

Denny is the epitome of having fun on a boat. And he’s doing his part to grow sailing by introducing non-sailing friends and co-workers to the sport on weekends. One, who hadn’t sailed since childhood, has an offer on a Catalina 30 nearly 40 years old, but the price is manageable.

So what is all this hubbub about growing sailing? Is it to insure that boat manufacturers and their dealers have a steady cash flow? Is it about sailmakers and electronics manufacturers needing more business?

Yesterday, I sailed in the late afternoon, enjoying the sparkle on the water, the warm sun and a gentle breeze on my face. 

And I asked my plaintive question to the wind: why do we want to grow sailing?  It didn’t have an answer, either.