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Know your competition, on the course and in the community

2023 October 1

Our team—sailing on our midsized boat—has experienced both sides of the looming wind-shadow debate. This is when a big boat in Division 1 is about to overtake a smaller boat in Division 3, and the smaller boat doesn’t want the bad air, so they head up and both boats go the wrong way, adding distance to their respective races. Nobody is happy.

For as good as competition can be in breaking new ground, it can also blind us. When we’re in something to win something, someone has to lose. And if we think someone else is going to make us lose, then we make sure that they are going to lose too.

This classic sailing situation came to mind when a friend recently wrote to ask if I knew whether the existence of a community sailing center has an impact, positively or negatively, on nearby yacht clubs. He explained that members of his club’s board of directors are concerned about competition between organizations. They believe the sailing center might attract potential yacht club members, so they are threatening to pull support.

Repeating: If we think someone else is going to make us lose, then we make sure that they are going to lose too.

Like the wind-shadow debate, it’s a matter of knowing who your competition is and deliberately not competing when you shouldn’t.

In our sailing metaphor, if either boat saw their situation on a longer time horizon, they could avoid conflict by creating separation. The big boat might jibe earlier. The small boat might head down earlier to minimize the impact and then head up when the cover breaks. The key for both boats is to be positioned to have minimal impact on the other. After all, the sailors have common goals; to be the first in their respective divisions. They best not get in each other’s way.

It’s the same thing in cities with both sailing centers and yacht clubs. Centers and clubs also have common goals; to make the time and space for sailing. To make space for each other, organizations must also create clear separation.

Community sailing centers are not clubs, they are not-for-profit schools whose charters require that they offer affordable access to anyone who wants to learn to sail. These schools are usually funded with class fees and donations and graduate members share a fleet of boats to sail. The cultural contribution to a region can be massive: A good school has the power to democratize water safety and play without regard to gender, income, age or social status. Water’s importance is understood.

Yacht clubs are private places where boat owners organize access to slips or moorings and if the facilities are adequate, events, regattas and views. A few clubs are out of reach for all but the wealthy, but most yacht clubs make sailboat ownership possible for the middle class by spreading the costs of priceless shoreside real estate broadly. Importantly, clubs sponsor racing, and often fund junior sailing programs that give kids a chance to race too.

It should be said: When clubs declare themselves to be public schools or when sailing centers offer concierge for owners and their boats, the lines begin to blur, so it is important for local leaders to have conversations about the limits of their ambition.

Moreover, organizers in healthy sailing cities cooperate on a longer time horizon. They recognize that an aspiring adult sailor doesn’t pick a community sailing center over a yacht club or vice versa. Instead, the newbie’s choice is between learning to sail and then crewing or opting to buy a boat and needing a place for it and then, perhaps, needing a school. These are rarely sequential choices. And parents make the decisions about where kids might sail, so both centers and clubs benefit when sailing is seen by families in the community as magnetic and fun, so more of them want to do it.

Ideally, when yacht club members rally to support their local community sailing center—perhaps with the gift of time for instruction or maintenance—deep social and civic connections are made. Students might learn from masters. Sailors with boats may find crew among newly minted sailing center graduates. Kids might go on expeditions to other sailing venues and meet more sailors. Of course, some students may buy boats and join a welcoming club. Indeed, when area sailors at all levels choose to participate and contribute in many places, sailing surges into the mainstream, because nature tells us that ecosystems are strengthened by cross-pollination.

Don’t be blinded by perceived competition, because nobody wins when we all go the wrong way.