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You sail like a mom: It’s a compliment, not a put-down

2013 April 4

While sailing industry types scratch their heads trying to find the right formula to increase the number of kids in sailing programs, and sailing clubs and racing associations nationwide worry about declining memberships, sailing is shifting and growing under their feet.

Promoters repackage races to appeal to shoreside fans of testosterone-loaded extreme sports, selling sponsorships to brands which, in turn, hope fans will buy shirts or drinks, and sailboat builders seek designs hoping for mass appeal or some new "breakthrough" formula, all while sailing is being revolutionized from the inside out.

Sailing is becoming the activity of adult women.

Don't believe it? Quick, say the last names of Ellen, Dawn, Betsy and Anna. You got them all in a few seconds right? Now try to do that quickly with the names of four guys who sail.

But it's much more than a few popular female sailing athletes. This revolution isn't being led by pros or celebrities, but by grassroots changes and on all new terms.

Here's some evidence: Facebook analytics reports that among 1.1 million Americans who express an interest in sailing, women account for 51%, and 88% of them are over 25 years old. But they're not just fans. Women under 24 and over 35 share their own sailing experiences on Facebook almost twice as often as men.

Consider that only 20 years ago, men outnumbered women in sailing 7-to-1.

You might see it in your town. What sailing center's teaching staff isn't dominated by strong, athletic, articulate and confident female sailing instructors? What collegiate sailing team doesn't have at least as many women as men? What yacht club doesn't like to boast about its first female commodore? And what regatta doesn't overplay its all-female entries?

At the 2012 Soling Worlds for example, someone stood up at the opening ceremony to announce that boat No. 601, skippered by Whitney Kent and crewed by Cate Muller and Ashley Henderson, was the first all-female team ever in a Soling World Championship, and everyone loudly cheered and applauded, as if it was something strange and new. Sure, Soling fleet demographics lean to older guys who still seem focused on the Olympic trials of the 1970s, so they may not have noticed what has been happening recently in other fleets. The No. 601 team wasn't there as a novelty or to be called out as tokens. Between them, the three women have decades of sailing experience and stellar records, racing and winning in one-design and handicapped events all over the country. They had trained for the event all summer because it happened to be coming to their hometown, and sailed respectably against tough competition.

In many cities near water in the U.S., women are organizing all-women teams and events. These events often grow organically out of a small network of veteran sailors who cobble together some used boats and recruit and help train newcomers until they've built a decent-sized fleet. In my town, summer Monday nights (the night the women sail) are the busiest nights on the bay. You might also notice that unlike classically organized sailing events, those for women organized by women don't have a "yachty," "club" or an "exclusive" feel. They don't originate behind a closed gate or in the haze of cigar smoke at a bar. Instead, friends call friends and they go sailing. Everyone, regardless of skill, affiliation, age or experience is welcome, except, of course, for the men.

And here's something new and different: unlike most adult men in sailing who will tell you that they've sailed forever, many women are entering the sport as adults. Often it happens while seeking social connections before or after marriage or kids. A woman will move to a new city to take a job, and the local sailing center looks attractive as a place to meet people and relax in the evenings. Friendships are sparked and a lifelong sailing adventure begins.

Women who get a taste for sailing in women-only events or in community programs often join teams that also include men and when they do, they're just as good as the men, sometimes better. In my experience, among my crewmates, the women have the deepest commitment, train the hardest and can be the most motivated and motivational skippers.

Sailing belies gender. Women have everything it takes-strength, quickness, smarts and creativity-to sail at any level, from boat rides to blue water, from match racing to solo around-the-world adventures, from dinghies to tall ships.
But there is a more important aspect to this trend. When women who sail also happen to be moms, as they often are or will be, sailing becomes the activity of their families too.

When a sailing mom's kids are very young, they get an inspiring early taste. They learn to be on and around boats and sailors, to wear life jackets, to touch water, and to be safe. Then, when her kids are old enough to be on a sailing team, the family becomes the team. Mom doesn't sit in the bleachers at a soccer field, she trims the kite, steers the boat or calls tactics.

So I propose that the most important person on any sailing boat is the mom. Think about it this way: When a mom sails with her kids (instead of driving them to soccer) she's doing something deemed suited only to men just a few years ago, and she is not doing the things thought to be the status quo for moms today. She's a renegade. An innovator. A leader.

And that, all you industry types, club and racing association managers, boat makers and sponsors, is how you get kids into sailing.