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Want more young sailing volunteers? You need to invite them

2015 April 6

Sailing ranks among country churches, Amish barns and potlucks as institutions substantially built and shaped by volunteers. Their work is all around us and it is mighty impressive. 

Volunteers teach the classes where many of us learned to sail. Every summer an army of volunteer sailing instructors span out across the country to teach newcomers to rig, launch, trim, drive and dock. Whenever the weather doesn't permit, ad hoc sailing classes move indoors to spaces that volunteers built. A sailing center near me boasts 70,000 hours contributed by volunteers helping children and adults learn to sail during its history. 

Volunteers influence our safety standards and act to ensure them. Communities of concerned citizen-sailors coordinate seminars to show how to properly wear a life jacket or fire a flare. Volunteers monitor the radio and will often jump to the aid of a fellow sailor in distress. We sailors gain confidence because other sailors have our backs. 

Volunteers built the sailing clubs where we are members. In fact, my family's club was built and rebuilt many times over in more than 100 years, each time by volunteers. Whenever a building or a dock was deemed insufficient, or damaged in a storm, men and women met, planned, collected donations and swung hammers until something newer, better or safer was in place. 

Volunteers organize and administer the games we play. In a coordinated dance that happens many times each summer on every American city waterfront, teams of volunteers set racing rules and race courses, brave seasickness and boredom aboard small anchored boats or get wet hauling chain and setting race marks. They start and stop clocks and record results, and they sometimes act as judge and jury when participants argue. 

And volunteers do smaller things. They're there when we arrive at a new dock and need a hand to catch lines and tie off. They make lunches for junior events. They take first-timers sailing. They write newsletters, promote events, flip burgers and pour rum at parties. 

Let's raise that red plastic cup and thank sailing's volunteers! 

They are everywhere. But they're old. Kind and committed but concerned about the future. They'll often tell you that they don't know who's going to take over. They see too few young volunteers. They're worried that a legacy of altruism, spanning generations, may be lost. 

We're witness to a different American experience for generations born after 1980, where it's more convenient to rent a pro to get you in and out of a weekend activity than contribute to the activity in return for access to it. Or, if you can't afford a pro, it can be easier not to go at all. It might seem that America is becoming less civic. 

Before you assume I'm about to rant about lazy young people, I promise, I will not. 

The reality is that if you're young and in school, you probably also have to hold down a job to pay for it. If you're young and you work, you might need two jobs to cover your education debt. You probably can't afford to live in the high-end neighborhoods near water, so you have to spend more time getting to where you're going than actually being there. If you're young and married and have kids, then both of you work, and the rest of the complications I list are multiplied. 

At first blush, it might seem as if there isn't much time for sailing, much less volunteering, but that's not true either. Yes, millennials are pressured people with frantic schedules, but they're looking for more out of life than jobs and commutes. 

Last summer, a 26-year-old kid hinted that he might like to learn to sail and was worried he'd never have the chance. He had finished college and was holding together a fledgling construction business, working all hours. Nevertheless, via Facebook, we found an opening, and he joined us on a race. Then two. Then an offshore race. A 20-mile, 25-knot downwind surf to a bullet hooked him. David is outlandishly busy, but he explains that he expects to create a life larger than just billable hours and invoices. In just a few weekends of sailing, he says he has found something worth investing in. 

So David, like so many others before him, is making time to sail. He carves it into his schedule and doesn't let it be boxed out. Moreover, he senses the privilege of time on water and the contributions of the people around him that make it possible to balance the books. So in addition to making time to sail, he makes a bit more to help with repairs, preparations, cleaning–all the details that go into sailing. And in these precious, set-aside moments, David is finding the deeper meaning that comes from participatory amateurism and teamwork. 

Amateurism and volunteerism are tightly connected. One is to pursue a passion for the sake of it. The other is to build on it and share it with others. 

David has taught me that the only reason we don't see many young volunteers in sailing is that we haven't invited them. They're looking for something just like this to adjust their schedules too. Let's give them a chance to give.