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Sailing is the cheapest fun you can have; the numbers prove it

2016 January 1

In previous columns I’ve written about the high cost of some sailboats. This time, I’m going to tell you how cheap sailing can be. No mixed messages here. If you happen to have the wealth of a monarch (but lack self-control), you could easily spend your net worth on the sport of sailing. A valid counterpoint: Smart, eager and creative paupers also go sailing, and they spend almost nothing for the privilege.

In fact, there is a strong case to be made that sailing is among the least expensive ways to have the most fun, ever invented.

Consider, for starters, that in 2009 (the most recent data I could find) Golfer Magazine estimated that the average golfer spends about $3,000 a year on golf. Skiers spend closer to $3,500 a year, according to data published in the Atlantic in 2012. Hunters spend, on average, about $3,200 dollars a year, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Piecing together publicly available facts from sailing industry sources; by comparison, each sailor spends half as much as golfers, skiers or hunters. This is based on a rough estimate that sailing generates about $6 billion in economic impact in the United States, including boats, gear, services, transportation, soft goods, storage, slips and moorings, taxes, destination tourism, consumables and charters. If you divide economic impact by the number of sailors making it—there are about 3.6 million of us—you can estimate the amount spent by each: $1,667 a year.

“Sixteen hundred dollars,” you say? “That barely buys a new Cal 20 mainsail, including speed stripes and shipping.”

If the numbers seem implausible, you may be among the sailors who spend the most (as a group and as a percent of income). Middle and upper-middle class sailboat owners (mostly baby boomers) represent 40% of all sailors, we do 35% of all of the sailing, but we spend 54% of the dollars.

We buy most of the newly built and late model boats in the U.S. We occupy most of the marina space. We make up about 95% of club memberships, we reinvest in sails, electronics and safety equipment, and we pay insurance, interest, fees and taxes; in total contributing more than $3.2 billion dollars to annual gross domestic product through our sailing.

For this opportunity, we spend between $17 and $100 an hour, every hour that we sail, depending on taste, technique and target.

Meanwhile, young sailors (so-called millenials) shift the economic center of gravity of sailing, because, while they love it, they usually can’t afford to buy a boat, so they can’t realistically sail alone. Instead, they congregate in school teams, or at not-for-profit sailing centers, or with family, or they hitch a ride with boat owners who do most of the spending but need a crew.

Millennials spend about a buck an hour to sail. Yes, they’re usually subsidized, but it’s not that they don’t contribute. They’re often the strongest, quickest and most eager crewmates. Most competitive teams couldn’t sail without them.

The next level of “spending” sailor is the wishful first-time boat owner, often a member of Gen-Y or X, who lays down a few hundred or maybe a few thousand dollars for a sailboat that needs work because it is older than they are. They do the work, find a cheap place to store and launch, and then sail the lights out of the boat.

First-timers are masters at leveraging their investment. They often feel as if they’ve found the opportunity of a lifetime, and they’re going to get as much from it as they can. They spend between $3 and $10 an hour when they sail.

And first-timers have a close but much older cousin in the last-timer. These are retirees who also buy something old, fix it up and sail it every spare hour, but it’s their last, not their first sailboat. They spend about the same as first-timers.

At first blush, it might seem that boomers are bearing the brunt of the cost of sailing. Perhaps, but consider that you could not take three kids, a parent and two friends to a movie with popcorn for anything close to $17 per hour.

The balance of sailing dollars—$2.4 billion— are spent by wealthy owners on grand prix programs and megayachts. These folks spend at least $100 an hour, often much more and the elite few who can hire permanent pros and station a fleet anywhere on the globe can spend thousands per hour. More dollars per hour does not, however, equate to more fun. More hours per dollar clearly does.

Together millenials and first- and last-timers do 60% of all sailing in terms of hours. Every year they’re on the water a total of about 9 million days. See white sails on the horizon on a Tuesday afternoon? It’s one of these sailors, spending almost nothing and grinning ear-to-ear.

Sailors en masse commit much more time to sailing than participants in other leisure activities, and this investment in time makes sailing cheaper overall and potentially much more valuable. I compared the money spent per hour by participants between sports and found skiing at $111 per hour, golf at $37, hunting at $25 and sailing, at a lowly, lovely $14 per hour.

Time, not money, is the key to sailing economics. It isn’t about the cash, but instead about the hours you commit to friends and family. Sailing has a scale and a social reach unmatched by other leisure activities because it isn’t limited artificially by venue, method, schedule or price. You can always add another evening, go another place or invite another friend.