GROWTH: The secret is out, and she’s female

Published on April 17th, 2013

While sailing industry types scratch their heads trying to find the right formula to increase the number of kids in sailing programs, and sailing clubs and racing associations nationwide worry about declining memberships, sailing is shifting and growing under their feet.

Promoters repackage races to appeal to shoreside fans of testosterone-loaded extreme sports, selling sponsorships to brands which, in turn, hope fans will buy shirts or drinks, and sailboat builders seek designs hoping for mass appeal or some new “breakthrough” formula, all while sailing is being revolutionized from the inside out.

Sailing is becoming the activity of adult women.

Don’t believe it? Quick, say the last names of Ellen, Dawn, Betsy and Anna. You got them all in a few seconds right? Now try to do that quickly with the names of four guys who sail.

But it’s much more than a few popular female sailing athletes. This revolution isn’t being led by pros or celebrities, but by grassroots changes and on all new terms.

Here’s some evidence: Facebook analytics reports that among 1.1 million Americans who express an interest in sailing, women account for 51%, and 88% of them are over 25 years old. But they’re not just fans. Women under 24 and over 35 share their own sailing experiences on Facebook almost twice as often as men.

Consider that only 20 years ago, men outnumbered women in sailing 7-to-1.

You might see it in your town. What sailing center’s teaching staff isn’t dominated by strong, athletic, articulate and confident female sailing instructors? What collegiate sailing team doesn’t have at least as many women as men? What yacht club doesn’t like to boast about its first female commodore? And what regatta doesn’t overplay its all-female entries?

At the 2012 Soling Worlds for example, someone stood up at the opening ceremony to announce that boat No. 601, skippered by Whitney Kent and crewed by Cate Muller and Ashley Henderson, was the first all-female team ever in a Soling World Championship, and everyone loudly cheered and applauded, as if it was something strange and new. Sure, Soling fleet demographics lean to older guys who still seem focused on the Olympic trials of the 1970s, so they may not have noticed what has been happening recently in other fleets.

The No. 601 team wasn’t there as a novelty or to be called out as tokens. Between them, the three women have decades of sailing experience and stellar records, racing and winning in one-design and handicapped events all over the country. They had trained for the event all summer because it happened to be coming to their hometown, and sailed respectably against tough competition.

In many cities near water in the U.S., women are organizing all-women teams and events. These events often grow organically out of a small network of veteran sailors who cobble together some used boats and recruit and help train newcomers until they’ve built a decent-sized fleet. In my town, summer Monday nights (the night the women sail) are the busiest nights on the bay.

You might also notice that unlike classically organized sailing events, those for women organized by women don’t have a “yachty,” “club” or an “exclusive” feel. They don’t originate behind a closed gate or in the haze of cigar smoke at a bar. Instead, friends call friends and they go sailing. Everyone, regardless of skill, affiliation, age or experience is welcome, except, of course, for the men. – Sailing magazine, read on

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