SOCIETY: Dramatic changes should not stop us from trying

Published on April 7th, 2013

The commentary last week in Scuttlebutt from former ISAF President Paul Henderson has led to further discussion (Paul can do that). Here we share the thoughts of Don Finkle, CEO of RCR Yachts, which has been a fixture on the Great Lakes sailing scene for over 40 years….

I have great respect for Paul, for his experience, and for what he has done for sailing overfinkle the years. Many of his points are valid and thought-provoking. However, there are some where he and I are not on the same page. He looks back at the success of sailing 40 years ago and thinks that is the way it should be today. Well, the horse is out of the barn; those days will never return.

Like many, he cites cost as a big problem with sailing, and it can be but it does not have to be. It costs next to nothing to be a crew and the last time I looked just about every skipper was spending time dredging for crew. There are many used boats on the market that cost very little, certainly no more than they would have 40 years ago allowing for inflation. No, cost is not the biggest problem.

The real causes for where we are today are the changes that have occurred in society. I have been in the business of selling boats for over 40 years and I have seen the landscape change dramatically during that time. Paul talks about going back to the bar after sailing and having a great time. That was when men (there were fewer women sailors then) were free to spend more time doing their own thing with less regard for the family. It was also when people would drive home after a night of drinking so long as they could still crawl to their cars.

The real challenge facing sailing today is time. We have many customers who sell their boats because they don’t have enough time to use them, but seldom does someone tell us they can no longer afford to own a boat. People are busier than ever and there are many reasons for this. Most of us are working harder than ever and retire later. The world of electronic communication means we are always connected, on the go and seemingly never off duty.

Family is no longer an afterthought; in fact many adults are tied up with kids’ activities for a good twenty year period of their lives and are not free to do much sailing.

When I was a kid in the 1950’s, the only organized sport we had was baseball one day a week. No practices, just one game. If we wanted to play hockey in the winter we found a pond, not a parent or coach in sight. Our summer activities were consisted mainly of messing around the waterfront and sailing small dinghies for fun (not much racing) without parental supervision.

Now kids have soccer, lacrosse, baseball, hockey, junior sailing and all before they are 10 years old. The parents spend all their time driving and watching and maybe coaching. We don’t often see much of them until later in life when the kids are gone.

We can’t wind the clock back to an easier time. People just have too many choices now and unfortunately sailing takes time. Forty years ago there were fewer easy opportunities for leisure time activities; now there are far more than anyone can possibly do, and sailing is only one of them. I still love sailing and it is one of my highest value uses of my time, but I also understand the challenges we have in convincing others to join or to stay. But that should not stop us from trying.

The recent articles about bringing back the fun are right on. I’d also like to see us focus less on winning, but that is a tough sell in our society where winning is always gloried. We often take it too seriously. Blame the media for part of that; there is a never-ending string of scores and “losing” (everybody who is not a winner, which unfortunately means most people) is now something that is looked down upon.

Learning from lessons of the past is fine but we need to look to the future. We do have a lot to sell when it comes to sailing if we do it right.

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