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The Family that Sails Together…

2009 October 6

Author Nick Hayes attempts to figure out why fewer people are sailing and how to reverse the trend, one family at a time

Author Nick Hayes is spilling the beans on one of sailing's big secrets: Sailing is not easy.

To a certain extent, we all know it, and the sailing industry goes to great lengths to convince would-be sailors of exactly the opposite, but Hayes isn't afraid to put it out there. Sailing's not easy, but that's why it is so important.

In his new book, Saving Sailing, Hayes discusses the importance of the sport, which has a lot less to do with physical fitness or winning races than it does with family, and why now more than ever it's worth saving. He writes about "life past times," those activities that we engage in for most of our lives that rise beyond the level of a mere hobby, and help up identify who we are and what we're about. It is what Hayes calls a "complex, learned activity" and is something we do within a group that defines us throughout our lives. "Very clearly, sailing falls into this category," he said.

"The reality is that to begin to understand why something invisible like wind can create motion and why it's important for four people to choreograph their motions to turn a boat and to think about how to be safe, these are real challenges that sailors face every day," Hayes said. "They are difficult and to suggest that they aren't is to not really be telling the truth. As soon as someone faces one of these circumstances, to not get it right makes it not fun, but if they understand this is a challenge and they do get it right, well then boy, what an accomplishment."

Hayes sums it up this way: "Hard things matter and hard things done in groups matter most."

Hayes, a partner at a research company, spent years gathering data about sailing participation through formal polls and interviews, and said his data, along with startling statistics, led him to write Saving Sailing.

"This book was not written with the objective of selling more sailboats or propping up or helping to market an activity in a shallow way," he said. "It was to help us go back to the basics: The concept that when we choose to spend time on the water with our kids we are making a commitment that matters."

The book cites some hard facts and figures that are dire enough to make anyone interested in the growth of sailing shudder. At its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s (a period of long recession, high inflation, high unemployment and volatile energy costs, Hayes points out) more than 5 percent of Americans sailed, 78 percent of the time with family. Today, fewer than 2 percent of Americans sail and less then 10 percent of them are doing it with their family. It hardly makes sense when you look at another statistic: There are more kids ages 12 to 17 in sailing programs than ever before. But those teenagers leave the sport in almost a mass exodus as young adults, apparently having no devotion to the activity.

The key, according to Hayes, is that: sailing is suffering because fewer people are doing it with their families.
"When I found this family-groups connection, I realized there's not just a correlation, it's causal," he said. "If I spent time fishing with my dad when I was a teenager, what I think about now is that he made a commitment to me at a very important point in my life. What we're left with is this array of memories, and if the memories involve family activities, we'll express devotion to family by showing devotion to these activities."

With two daughters of his own-Kate, 15, and Elizabeth, 12-Hayes is no stranger to the societal strains put on a family. He understands the urge to have children involved in a multitude of activities. And he chooses to deny that urge, at least in part.

"It starts at a moment in which a parent says, 'I became a parent to pass on life lessons that are important,' and realizing they don't have much time to do that," Hayes said. "Time is penultimate. It is the one thing that we can consider the only family value. Our only entitlement in this life is the time we're given, so how it's spent becomes the critical question of who we are."

Hayes and his wife Angela practice what they preach. They have owned a sailboat for the entirety of their 22-year marriage, and they brought their daughters on board almost from day one.

"We felt this was a matter of supplemental education for our kids," he said. "We determined a long time ago that we would never own a new car so we could always afford a sailboat and that we wouldn't take family vacations outside of sailing with our kids because it kept us connected with our kids. We just did it."

As his daughters have grown older, the payoff for those decisions has been immeasurable.

"My kids have seen the aurora borealis. They've held up trophies after winning regattas and have become members of adult crews. They impress us in huge ways."

Hayes says sailors will enjoy reading Saving Sailing because it is about a sport they love, and parents will enjoy and perhaps learn from the ideas presented in it, but society as a whole can learn from the lessons the sport of sailing has to offer.

"Sailors share a passion or almost an addiction to sailing," he said. "It indicates that sailing has a place in larger societal and cultural structures. It connects us socially and that connection is what creates this underlying emotional consequence. And all of a sudden our lives are richer."
--Erin L. Schanen

Saving Sailing
An excerpt from the book by Nicholas D. Hayes
Abigail was excited about the spring sailing field trip. She loved the lake, and she loved sailing. She knew that others probably wouldn't understand how she felt so she took a book for company, just in case.

The schooner crew helped the kids and the three parent chaperones snug bulky orange life jackets, and had them sit in three rows on the foredeck while the boat motored out onto the open water from behind the breakwall. They asked for volunteers to haul halyards, and three kids and a dad got in the line and pretended to pull while making pirate noises. There wasn't enough wind to sail, so the exercise was more show than substance. The sails limply flogged while the boat motored in a big circle tour.

Abigail saw what she was looking for. She excitedly tugged the teacher's sleeve, pointed off the port bow and said, "Mister Spaythe, sometimes I can almost touch that buoy light with my toes. Mom says it's the finest place on earth, so I am going to try and try until I do." Spaythe tried hard to digest what she was saying. Abigail continued with excitement, "Me and my brother stick our feet out from the rail after we take down the kite and they trim sails and we head up." Spaythe, lost in the strange vocabulary, concluded that it must be a child's fantasy. He said, "Nice, Abigail nice," and went to separate three spitting boys.

Early childhood lessons from many sources tell us that sailing is something that other people do. We watch passively while someone recreates a sailing adventure. And we're told that the water and weather are dangerous and should be avoided.

We learn about treacherous and deadly waves and wind, sharks and pirates, sudden violent hurricanes, and foul-mouthed drunken men. Myths mostly, like the sure disaster of swimming too soon after eating.

For the vast majority of Americans, the idea of fun on the water in a sailing boat seems so risky and foreign that they will never try. Since so few of us are sailors, and the rest of the population doesn't understand basic sailing ideas, the average person doesn't have much opportunity to hear a counterpoint.

But sailing is not risky or inaccessible in the ways that we often think. And some of us, like fourth-grader Abigail and me, do end up going out in boats, as often as we can. Given a myriad of options, many which seem safer and more productive, some less expensive, and most more comfortable, we choose to spend big blocks of our life on earth on sailboats, banded together doing an activity that we think is our touchpoint with the world and the people we share it with.

Unfortunately, in the last 10 years, Americans have abruptly stopped sailing. Participation is down more than 40 percent since 1997 and 70 percent since 1979. Less than one percent of Americans remain self-described sailors. We are doing less of it and are enlisting fewer newcomers. Current economics are not helping.

In fact, the way we use our free time has enormous consequences for us, the people around us, and potentially for the generations that follow. People­-men, women and children-who choose to fill their time with complex, learned group activities like sailing live longer, happier, healthier and more satisfying lives than those who cannot, do not or will not.

Perhaps, then, we should try to save sailing; but how?

Let us start with basic age demographics: The average self-described American sailor is a white male, 40.1 years old. But that average age is deceiving. The largest (43 percent) age group of sailors are 55 and older. The average age of a sailboat owner is 54.8 years old. The ratio of men to women is about seven to one.

There is a meager bubble (13 percent) of young sailors between 15 and 24 years old, both girls and boys. However, when today's sailors reach 25 they generally quit. So proportionately, almost nobody between 25 and 44 is sailing.

A crucial fact: key age groups that might sustain the activity-kids under 13, women and early parents-are essentially not sailing at all. It is easy to conclude that unless sailing can soon attract newcomers in all age groups under about 40, from all genders and a wider range of income levels- something that it is not doing well today-the future of the activity is bleak.

When asked if and how they would help to improve sailing:

  • 85 percent of sailors said they would take a kid sailing
  • 72 percent said that they would teach an acquaintance or a stranger to sail
  • 55 percent said they would volunteer to organize and teach a sailing class
  • 42 percent said that they would volunteer to run races.

The numbers are essentially unchanged between racers and cruisers, old and young, novices and experts and in good or bad economies. When asked why, these willing helpers say that they want to share the "quality of life" that they feel privileged to enjoy.

In my research for the book Saving Sailing, I found overwhelming interest in sharing sailing by sailors (and three times as many with sailing aspirations as actual sailors).

I also found an extraordinary correlation: At its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s (a period of long recession, high inflation, high unemployment and volatile energy costs) more than 5 percent of Americans sailed, most often (78 percent of the time) in family groups. Today fewer than 2 percent of Americans sail, and only a small fraction of those (less than 10 percent) do so in family groups.

When you happen upon a kid like Abigail with definite ideas about the future, probably he or she has had an authentic experience and made an emotional commitment to the activity. Indeed, the leader-teacher-the mentor -is often the key to her commitment. Only a mentor can reveal a deeper, more meaningful experience. This powerful emotional tug is what makes the activity last beyond childhood and mean more to the her than a sport or a hobby.

But authentic, contagious enthusiasm is getting harder and harder to come by. Mentors, often parents, sometimes teachers or counselors, and the source of such enthusiasm, are becoming scarce.

Unfortunately, mentoring has largely disappeared from the activity of sailing. Twenty-five years ago, father and son sailing teams, boys and girls clubs and summer camps made up the core of sailors. Today, few such programs survive. Most dissolved under the weight of a shrinking market with stiff competition. Boomer kids grew up and had fewer children. The kids they had became soccer, baseball, hockey, Nintendo players with parents as fans, not teammates. People moved away from cities; distance made it harder to coordinate groups. Individuals chose simpler things.

There is a direct and visible correlation between the health of a pastime and the make-up of its groups. Sailing had a role in American culture for a time when sailing was multi-generational. Sailing has lost its place ever since it was divided, by both sailors and by the industry bending to changing social dynamics, into a kids-only program and a so-called "adult lifestyle."

Sailing isn't alone in the development of junior programming as a theoretical feeder for long-term interest. It does, however, deserve a special award for creating extreme isolation between adults and kids, when it has the least reason to do this. A sailboat might be among the best platforms on which generations can gather and learn from each other, but sailing hasn't taken advantage of this tremendous, built-in opportunity. Consider that:

  • In most sailing clubs today, the kids show up in the morning, and leave in the late afternoon, just about the time the adults are arriving.
  • On most sailing boats underway with more than three people onboard, you'll find nobody under the age of about 45.
  • In most races, except those created specifically for kids, there are no kids.

In Saving Sailing, you will meet some composite characters, like fourth-grader Abigail, built from more than a thousand interviews that I conducted with sailors and would-be sailors in roughly a six-year period between 2003 and 2009.

We will use their experiences to create a short history of sailing as a pastime. We will distinguish between the needs and the approaches of the most active sailors, the newcomers and people looking in from the outside. We will show how and why some benefit and why some don't.

Then we will turn and face into the wind, so to speak. How will sailing have to change in order to matter for the next generations of Americans? Can we begin to set new, modern time priorities that will have an impact not just on sailing, but on our view of life and prosperity?

Perhaps we can save sailing if we start on a personal, family and community level.