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Nick Hayes – Saving Sailing

Published on October 1st, 2009

(October 1, 2009) Participation in sailing is declining in America, down more than 40% since 1997 and 70% nickhayessince 1979. In the book ‘Saving Sailing’, author, researcher, and avid sailor Nicholas Hayes explains why.

The book shows how generational changes among Americans have affected the decisions on how time is now getting spent, and builds a case for choosing to spend free time better, using it to seek quality experiences with families and friends through lifelong pastimes like sailing.

Here are some comments that Hayes shared with Scuttlebutt:

  • Was there a defining moment that motivated you to write this book?

I’m an avid sailor, and most of my own experiences contradicted what I was reading and seeing. When the data from research did too, the idea for the book was born. What needed refuting? Myths like: kids are lazy, it’s only for the wealthy, crew recruitment is hard, it’s not family-friendly, there aren’t enough programs, media events create interest, there isn’t enough time….


  • You noted that the decline in sailing had more to do with available time rather than available finances. Is this an example of how we value things based on our commitment to them?


Yes. I’ve never met an avid sailor who doesn’t deliberately make the time for sailing. It’s our key common trait. And there is no disparity in eagerness or commitment from sailors who do low cost sailing vs. those who do high cost sailing. The vast majority of sailors structure their lives around it: where they live, what else they spend their money on, even whether they will take one job vs another.


  • Do you feel that the increasingly competitive nature of our sport, or the cost to compete, has squeezed people out? Please explain.


While I love to race, and prefer to take home a flag when I do, the unstated fact is that sailing competition is essentially meaningless, except in the good memories that it might create, the personal confidence that it might build and in the friendships that might develop from it. I take issue with “cost to compete” being framed as an issue. If the financial burden is too great in one venue, I find that sailors who still want to race but have less means will create their own venue. Racing always starts with two people saying “let’s go here to there and see who gets there first.” Of course, there has always been a “cater to the big spenders” tendency in sailing, and this leads to trophies for sale… but this has, as evident by the resurgence of informal dinghy leagues, all-women PHRF series, and community sailing centers, never been what drives the sport.


  • You state that having the sport on television is not good for the growth of the sport. Please explain.


It’s pretty simple. You can’t be sailing if you’re watching TV. There is not a stitch of data that shows that TV inspires activity… in fact, whether you’re talking about important things like reading, or exercise, or learning a skill, TV always gets in the way. And as the book shows, if spectating happens to catch a few newcomers in a net, they are always the first to leave, because the activity has no cultural value to them.


  • We seem to be doing a good job at presenting sailing as a youth activity, but not in presenting sailing as a life activity. How can we build a better bridge from youth sailing to adult sailing?


In our attempt to compete with other youth programs, sailing has created another program. Let’s be honest: it’s ridiculous to think that we will have a nation of soccer pros, rock stars, touring Irish dancers or NFL players. Sailing offers an alternative: a means to create a nation of strong families, good citizens, and decent and honest leaders. Sailing programs shouldn’t be measuring meaningless wins or irrelevant skills. If the program will play a role in society, and in the lives of families, it will be measured on how well it engages families and friends to build lifelong, vital and strong relationships. Youth programs need two things: to be restructured for dads and moms to participate too, and where that is impossible, to a homegrown leader/mentor model to supplement with real and capable, albeit temporary parent surrogates.


  • What do you say to people that blame US SAILING for the decline of sailing? Should US SAILING be doing something differently to help sport growth?


Whenever there isn’t a clear solution to a troubling problem, blame is easy to place. We’ve become very good, as a nation and as individuals, of blaming others but not changing ourselves. I’ve never heard someone credit US SAILING for their love of sailing (maybe people in it, but not the body). But I do think US SAILING could, and should, given its reach and apparent resources, rethink and retool to do some good. I’m going to go the US SAILING National Sailing Programs Symposium conference in February to share ideas about how they might improve access and rekindle relevance. I’m certain that there are some great ideas throughout US SAILING (and many other clubs and organizations) that might be worth putting into action. But I don’t think US SAILING can or should be seen as the savior. We (you and me) are going to share sailing, and thereby save sailing.


  • Has there ever been a book like this written before?


This book is influenced by The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox (mixing people’s stories with logic and reason to offer better ways) and one of my favorite sailing books, Addicted to Sail: A Half Century of Sailing Experiences, by Norris Hoyt. I’m not aware of a book like this centered on sailing but some of the themes that I touch on are discussed in Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.


  • Have there been responses to the book that you had not expected?


I expected the “why save sailing and from what?” question, and the rumblings that it’s all ratings, and rules, and costs. What I didn’t expect was how many people would say “That’s how I grew up, what I remember, and why I sail now,” and “Yes, our kids deserve the same great and worthwhile experiences.”


  • What is your favorite section of the book?


I’ve become very fond of the people in the book and the way that their sailing lives are intertwined. Most are not actual people, but their stories are real stories based on stories I heard told by real people. I like how the book gradually shows how their sailing matters in the long run.


  • You are a speaker at the Sail America marine industry gathering in Annapolis at the US Sailboat Show on October 9, 2009. What is the message you hope to convey?


I’m talking at the Sail America meeting in order to bust apart a self-defeating paradigm: that sailing will become popular again as a result of consumption-driving marketing based on a “dumb-it-down” approach. It won’t. I hope that a few in the group will recall and re-embrace the power of parenting, clubs and community and be inspired to start again, there. Everyone is a parent or a child. What they do after the show is much more important than what they do at the show.

Click here for additional information on the book ‘Saving Sailing’.

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