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The Future of Sailing

by Captain Alex Blackwell
USCG Master

In most parts of the world, people lament the decline in enthusiasm for sailing. And yes, we do see so very, very many boats that never seem to leave the harbor. We have heard many tales of youth sailing programs that have serious rates of attrition from one year to another. Yacht clubs everywhere are relying more and more on so called social members to keep their membership numbers up, while hoping to convert these non sailors to sailing.

It is interesting to note that people have many different ideas of what ‘sailing’ is. National organizations such as US Sailing and many yacht clubs view racing in a regatta as what sailing is all about. Yes, these same groups also pay lip service to other aspects of ‘the sport’, but by defining sailing as a sport, they do indeed contradict themselves right at the outset.

Velux 5 Oceans race leader, (October 25, 2006) Bernard Stamm was astonished on hearing that most of his opponents had returned to shore in a storm: "I was quite unhappy with the way I was doing on the race course. I was being so careful that I had the feeling I was more sailing than racing. So, to discover that I am leading is a really good surprise. It is really sad to hear that the others had to stop but, anyway, I am not going to wait for them!" So, this is a dyed in the wool racer, who clearly sees racing and sailing as not being one and the same, yet revels in both.

There are also the cruisers among us, who consider our lifestyles as true sailing and look down on those who race in circles around the buoys. And what about the rift between blow boat and stink pot owners. The boating industry seems quite fragmented, and its members quite insular. It is a small wonder then, that the US has such a hard time fielding a winning Olympic sailing team. With all the boaters interested in their small world instead of being excited at being out on the water, and enthusiastic about others enjoying this as well, we simply have no cohesive base. But these are just the symptoms, and just like in medicine, you can try and treat the symptoms, or you can try and get to the root of the problem and perhaps find an actual cure for the disease.

In a self perpetuating spiral of stress and forced activity, peer pressure and resulting busy schedules force parents to bring their offspring from one planned and organized activity to another, with no time for the kids to just be kids. Spending a whole day just messing around in the yard or in a boat just does not fit in a ‘program’. Consequently it is a small wonder that young people drop out of organized programs because they are tired of being organized and it ceases to be fun.

I believe that the root of the problem in building interest in any activity or sport is making it too stressful and competitive at an early age. How different would it all be if the youngest kids (and then progressing onwards through their life) were to be shown just how much fun it is to go out in a boat. Would kids not then provide a large pool of young adults clamoring to crew on a race (or cruise), or buy their own boat(s) as their formative childhood memories taught them a deep love for being out on the water? Would these same young enthusiastic adults not perhaps then grow up into potential sponsors and supporters of a thriving Olympic fleet - elevating this into a real matter of national pride?

Perhaps a cure for the problem of a lack of enthusiasm for sailing or any other activity is just to learn to relax, to “smell the roses”, to enjoy a sunset at anchor, in short, to learn to live. Let the kids discover stuff for themselves

The kids are our future and the future is theirs. Though it may run contrary to current convention and also to popular belief, perhaps we might just let the kids be kids. Give them access to a boat and let them find out where it takes them. If we spend less time stressing over their prowess on a race course, we may even start to enjoy sailing more ourselves.

We actively lobbied our yacht club to change its junior program and include pleasure sailing as well as racing. We had heard from numerous parents that their child had dropped out due to the pressures of the constant competition. In fact their attrition rate bordered on 30% per anum. One also always puts the racing successes up on the pedestal and not the "Joy of Sailing". They then added a program of messing about in boats parallel to the racing program. What was the result? Zero attrition, a succession of olympians, a dramatic increase in junior members of the club, and plenty of young and enthusiastic crew for the big boats.



     
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