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Sailors keep an even keel, crisis be damned

2021 July 1

If you’re a child of the 1960s or before, you may recall the first oil embargo when prices spiked and shortages had drivers wasting weekends in line at the gas pump, like we saw in May 2021 on the Eastern Seaboard. The first time it was a generational wake up call. Before the 1973 crisis kids my age might aspire to race car driving, skydiving or waterskiing, but when costs careened out of control many dreams shifted. Sailing became a passion, in part, because we could sail close to home and still go far and long without suffering fuel price whiplash (and without contributing to the country’s energy dependence). This is why I am able to splice line, sew sails, mix epoxy and lay-up fiberglass, but pray whenever firing the glow plugs to start the engine to leave the dock.

This is not about tree-hugging which is impossible offshore anyway. My sailing mission is entirely selfish. I’m obsessed with play and protect every minute of it, even into the future. No depleting resource or economic crisis is going to get in the way of setting a spinnaker and bearing away. My wife calls it “the campaign.” And I’m surrounded by friends and crewmates who live the same way.

Still, I often hunt for data to correlate interest in sailing with energy prices and I’ve never been able to find a connection. This seems deliberate and strategic. Sailing was decoupled from fossil fuels before humans burned them in motors, and many are working hard today to keep it that way. Most sailors live as close to the water as possible so as to minimize the commute, even if it means occupying a smaller living space. This saves on gas in addition to increasing time on the water. When oil prices rise (and markets inevitably slow), sailors join clubs and share boats. 

Of course, when sailors are feeling flush, they spend on sailing upgrades, but if cashflow is limited, they’ll just keep the old gear going. Vintage sailing is as important an influence on our sport as is the cutting edge development on the edges of it, like computer-dependent IMOCA or America’s Cup technologies and material sciences. Have you noticed that the used market for single-speed bronze winches, trusty analog compasses and phenolic blocks is rock solid; steadily ascending like a perfect basis for currency? A box of these goodies in the basement is better than cash under a mattress.

I know a happy sailor with a seized diesel auxiliary (it hasn’t run since the 1990s) and brand-new hemp running rigging passing through pristine varnished wood blocks. She rides her bike to the docks and rows a perfect clinker dinghy to her mooring to cast off. She doesn’t spend a dime on fuel and her summers are jam-packed with joy. Sailors sail despite energy economics by risk avoidance and adaptation. So I’m not alone in waging this “campaign” — I’m just nerdy enough to try to characterize it.

But sailing’s evil cousin power boating is highly correlated and susceptible to energy prices. Fifteen years of artificially cheap gas detonated an unmistakable explosion in motorboat production and consumption. We’ve never seen so many boats on so many waterways as there are today. Our local marina looks like an LA traffic jam of souped-up pontoon boats. I’m guessing the astronauts can see the pulsating LEDs from space. And who knew that water could transmit a bass-drum beat with near acoustic precision? 

The water sheriff is setting speed traps in no-wake zones, working overtime and making a bundle. The line at the boat ramp can be four hours long. In some cities, sailing race organizers have moved racecourses far off shore in order to prevent collisions and get to flatter water. And who would have thought that the Guinness book would have a new record for how many giant outboards you can attach to a transom? A 30-foot open runabout with nine 350-horsepower boasts held the record for a few weeks. By my calculations, half of that power plant could purchase our late model 35-foot bluewater sailboat 21 times over, but only we might circumnavigate.

It is unsurprising that energy inflation’s first victim is always recreational powerboating. The first American factories to shutter and the first American workers to collect unemployment make Deep-Vs and sport bridges. Last month gas hit $4 a gallon and stocks for powerboat builders swooned. The end may be weeks away. You won’t be surprised to read that I’m a tiny bit relieved, though not for the workers. They, along with the natural environment, are the true victims of waterway congestion.

If the pattern holds, sailing won’t suffer at all, though it will be quieter, smoother and a bit lonelier. Never waste a crisis.