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Sailing crews look a lot different these days. You can thank diversity.

2022 July 1

Every spring we assemble our crew lists for the season and pack key sailing events into our best friend’s calendars. We draw a Venn diagram of teams to race on weeknights and weekends (since not everyone has the same work schedules). We select an offshore team and choose new members who should advance into offshore events, and we start pinging guests to look for dates to walk-on. And every spring I reflect on our gender and age metrics. Are we more or less diverse? Are we staying young (relatively)?

Among 15 regular members of our sailing team, 10 are women and five are men. And our average age has dropped slightly, to 45 years old, from last year’s average of 47. Importantly, the youngest and oldest on our team are separated by nearly 50 years and they are both women. Comparatively, when I was in my twenties, I mostly sailed with similar-age men. We had fun back then, but the sailing is better now.

Our crew is a microcosm of the national trends, something I’ve been modeling since the 1980s using data from sailing clubs, schools, organizers, boat registrations, associations and the census. In the last 25 years, sailing has evolved to become one of the most gender-diverse, age-diverse and economically accessible pastimes in the country. An activity that was once exclusive to affluent white men is now mostly women of all ages and can be a regular habit regardless of income as long as you live near water in an urban area. In fact, if we measure sailing in terms of hours on the water spent taking a class, practicing a skill, cruising, bombing around, daysailing or casually racing, the activity has grown about 27% since the middle 1990s even though men are doing much less of it. 

In 1996, American men invested about 500 million hours in sailing while women invested about 100 million hours, a 5-to-1 ratio measured in hours by gender. In 2022, men will sail only half as much as they did in 1996, while women will spend over 600 million hours on the water this year (over 80% growth in 25 years). So for every hour sailed by a man in 2022, three will be sailed by a woman. Where are the men going? Well, some are dying, of course. The average age of a male sailboat owner in 2005 was 65 years old. If he’s still around today, he is 82 and much less spry. His boat leaves the dock less every year. You may have also noticed the trend toward small crews on even big boats. This isn’t “by design” as builders would suggest, it’s a demographic and behavioral response. Meanwhile, women are teaching women and forming their own teams and cruising with their friends.

What are the drivers of this stunning change? First women fought for and won their civil rights, opening equal education for girls. Then Title IX ensured opportunity in athletics and skills other than sewing or home economics. Girls went to college or learned a trade and joined the workforce and eventually found themselves with disposable income. Depending on how they organized their partnerships and parenthood, some women landed with weekends or weeknights free and families looking for fun and sailing was a fit. Furthermore, the first female children of the civil rights era are now retiring. I’ve met women who are learning to sail just now in order to be able to play with their grandchildren.

If you’ve been watching sailing change in the last quarter century as I have, you’ll also recognize new behaviors learned (or being learned) by the remaining men, and it is hard but good work. We’re learning to be better.

Male adapters are eschewing the alpha male circus that once defined the sport because women won’t and don’t join teams of creeps, egos and bullies. It’s no longer about who can shout louder or “I got this, go take your place on the rail” or, God forbid, mansplaining. Instead, men are learning to resist the impulse to take the tiller. When we do, we learn that finding a confident groove means uninterrupted, concentrated tiller time for whomever is driving along with complete attention to detail by the rest of the team. It means defining teamwork as shared contribution and collaboration, so we must contribute and collaborate.

Men are learning that we have much to learn about learning, which happens by doing, not by watching.  We’re learning how to communicate in ways that are not domineering. But it’s not about being kinder or gentler; gender-mixed teams still challenge each other and they still compete. In fact, a multigender, multiage team is built to last and to keep improving.

That’s what diversity does.