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A $10 sailing outfit might be the key to getting more people into sailing

2019 November 1

I admit it: I belong to way too many yacht clubs. I realize this, but it seems to be a chronic issue, like keeping every copy of the New York Times for 30 years or creating huge balls of string. It is an obsessive compulsive disorder that shrinks would say is based on an anxiety complex. 

I would guess that my anxiety is based on a fear that She Who Must Be Obeyed and I will find ourselves somewhere (Pt. Barrow? Lapland? Estonia?) where I can’t drop into a local yacht club for a gin and tonic.

But that’s not what this column is about. That’s just an admission of a retentive disorder, and an explanation of why I receive so many yacht club newsletters.  

I was leafing through this stack of yacht club newsletters that I feel compelled to skim (see a pattern here?) every month. And I came across a photo that stopped me in my perusal.

It was a crisp and bright shot of a 7-year-old girl as she came out of a tack in her Optimist, frozen in that moment of switching hands between sheet and tiller extension, with the faintest frown of concentration on her forehead. 

What intrigued me, however, was her attire. The photo looked like a shot from the pages of “Vogue” or “Harper’s Bazaar” or whatever the current fashionista magazine is these days. 

The author in his youth, center, sports a simple sailing costume that only cost around $10.

But I was taken by the sailing attire she was wearing. Now, let me not be the first to tell the world that Caswell is not the nattiest of dressers when it comes to sailing. Comfort, dryness, warmth (or coolth) seem to be key factors in my wardrobe. SWMBO regularly goes through my closet (or what I like to think of as my closet) and removes the most disreputable of garments: the 20,000-mile topsiders with salt stains, a piece of duct tape to hold the heel together, and just a hint of Woolsey 4702 blue bottom paint from that boat I haven’t owned for, hmm, let’s see, 35 years. 

Out goes the floppy sailing hat that has seen the tropic sun on the TransPac and rain on a “soft” day near Fastnet Rock off Ireland. She’s also been eyeing that somewhat ratty crew shirt from an America’s Cup campaign that no one, including me, remembers.

Back to the photo. This young sailor’s clothing reminded me how far astray the world has gone. In modern parlance, I think the cheese has slipped off the cracker completely.

Why, you ask? Well, let’s take a quick tally of her Optimist outfit. Starting from the bottom, she’s wearing a pair of sailing pants made by Zhik, which I know because their name is in 6-inch letters down the thigh. As an aside here, SWMBO has superb fashion sense whether she’s sipping a champers at Monaco Yacht Club or stretched out on a yacht charter, and one of her favorite phrases is, “I’m not wearing anyone’s name on my butt.” Words to live by.

I looked up the Zhik pants and figured out that they were Kollition Impact pants, which the company’s website lets me know start “as low as $225.” I’m guessing the 2X size I’d need would cost a bit more.

Next up came a Ronstan Regatta Smock which, again, I knew because the name was emblazoned across the front of the jacket. Designed for sailors and “providing temperature control,” it has a long list of technical advantages, one of which is not the $127.95 cost.

Over the top of it all and required by every junior sailing program was a life jacket. In this case, it was a Stohlquist Escape and, again the name was well emblazoned for all to see. Call it $60 bucks in red.  

I couldn’t see her shoes, unfortunately, but, based on the rest of her wardrobe, I’m guessing she might have plucked the Musto Dynamic Pro II shoes from her closet on race morning, since they have both “drainage and decreased drying time” at only $165.

She accessorized this outfit with Ronstan Sticky Finger gloves ($32.95) and, the crowning touch, a pair of wraparound Costa Saltbreak polarized sunglasses at $259, not including the piece of string to keep from losing them. So, not including anything under this sailing costume, we come to a cool $869.90. 

With that in mind, I considered the sailing outfits from the summers of my youth. They were pretty simple, but they worked well. My lower half went into a pair of jeans that my mother would cut off just above the knees, starting with a pair of school jeans that had seen their last semester. As I stood on a chair for the cutting, we always had a heated discussion about how short the hemline should be: I was for shorter, she for knee length. And I misspeak: there was no hem so we both won. The shorts started out at knee length at the start of summer, but washings, swimmings, capsizes and more washings soon frayed them into something that Moondoggie would have been proud to wear in “Gidget.” 

The top was a Penney’s Towncraft T-shirt, white, with pocket. Going through the same swim/capsize/wash cycle as the shorts, these got thinner and baggier as the summer wore on. Not a problem. They also acquired a patina of rust and/or blood stains as the summer wore on—it was hard to tell which was which.

Life jacket? Uh, no, I did have one of those square cushions tucked under a thwart but I wasn’t about to wear a life jacket that looked like it had been on the Titanic. 

Shoes? Now there’s where I really cut a swath: they had to be blue or white canvas topsider tennies, which also faded with the sail-wash program. I actually had two pairs, because one was reserved for crewing on larger boats, like a 6-Meter owned by a friend of my father, and the other was for sailing off the beach in my dinghy. 

Accessorizing my sailing wear was a pair of plastic sunglasses that were selected after hours of consideration at a local drugstore rack, trying to balance price ($4.99 or less) against looks. I liked them dark, so I ended up with a sailing version of the Blue Brothers.

Hat? Nah. It was summer, my red hair bleached out to blond, and my nose peeled from June to September, which now gets me Christmas cards from my dermatologist and get-well cards when I’m not in her office every three months. 

Total cost of the outfit? Perhaps 10 bucks, including the shades.

I know that many parents will ask, so what’s your point? The point is that there are questions raised about why sailing is declining, and this is one of the reasons. 

We’re pricing ourselves out of the market. 

Don’t forget that young girl was sailing an Optimist that probably cost $4,500 new before her parents started adding the trick centerboard and rudder, multiple sails for different conditions, and all the goodies from $100 hiking sticks to electronic starting timers. 

The yacht club where I grew up sailing just held the Viper 640 World Championships. I have nothing against the Viper. I’ve never sailed one, nor have I even seen one up close. They had a turnout of 51 boats, which I thought pretty impressive for a recently-designed 21-foot, sportboat that costs around 40 grand to buy. 

I thought about that fleet and I wondered, why do we need new designs? Sailing is already an equipment intensive sport: you need a boat to compete, unlike a pickup basketball game on a driveway or sandlot baseball with a glove and ball. 

So what’s wrong with the one-designs we have? A similar boat is the Lightning, a 19-footer with a crew of three that was designed in 1938, of which more than 15,000 have been built, and with 100 active fleets worldwide. You can buy a brand-new race-ready Lightning for about $25,000 but here’s the zinger: you can pick up a good race-proven Lightning for $6,000. That leaves you a whole lot of coin to cover the expenses of you and your crew traveling to regattas, which is why the Lightning North Americans had 72 boats on the starting line. 

I don’t know what it is, but there needs to be some sort of formula to compute fun-per-buck. When it comes to clothes, I know that the 10 bucks invested in my cut-off shorts and T-shirt gave me a very high fun-per-buck rating, and I never needed an $800 sailing outfit to have a great summer on the water or win a bunch of trophies later in life. 

And there are so many great boats around—Lightnings, Snipes, Thistles—with large fleets and affordable entry levels. No, you might not win right away with an older set of sails or even an older boat, but you can certainly have as much fun as the guys walking off with the silver. And you can certainly win every party ashore. Besides, if you wear cut-offs and T-shirts, you’ll soon be able to afford better sails. 

Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing my cut-off jeans in my closet. Oh, honey ...