Asking hard questions about the future of sailing

Published on January 29th, 2014

There has been a lot of recent commentary about the health of the sport, specifically how the growth in youth participation is not translating to the growth of ‘life’ sailing. Glenn T. McCarthy asks the question, “Should youth and junior programs be focused on Faster, Higher, Stronger?”

Let’s first look at the numbers. Of the 350,000 kids in programs today, 95% quit by age 25. 1 out of 10 adult sailboats on the water race; the others day sail, cruise or are waterfront condominiums.

For adults who put their kids into sailing, what is it they hope for their child to gain? Do all of them want their kids to be the national champion? Or are they wanting their child to learn sailing, as well as navigation, arranging mooring in away harbors, tying a boat to a dock or slip with spring-lines, watch rotation choices, onboard firefighting, rebuilding a marine head (you can never learn too early), engine mechanics, seamanship, nautical arts, etc.?

When I was in sailing school 40 years ago, we were taught to race, and that was it. We were put into the US Sailing championship ladders. On days where there was no wind, or too much wind, in the early part of the year we would practice our knot tying. Later on in the season, we went to the park and played baseball. Why not navigation? Why not take us on a big boat and teach us jumping halyards, wrapping a winch the right way, good footing for grinding winches, make sure the handle is locked in, setting up a jib or a spinnaker for a raise, etc.?

Charts were never shown to us. There was another harbor close by, but we never took the boats into a different harbor exploring or adventuring. Once a year they loaded all of us on the club’s committee boat and took us downtown for us to walk around the big Mackinac boats tied up to the docks. Again, the focus was on racing.

While attending Strictly Sail Chicago (Jan. 23-26), I learned that Royal Yachting Association has a list of activities to do at sailing schools when there’s no wind. I think I found it, and on those off days they recommend games, not skill building for those who won’t go onto their future not racing. Click here for the list.

The 900 pound gorilla in the room is that participation during the youth years – Optimist, Club 420, Sailing School, High School and Collegiate sailing – is growing. The money is coming in. The kids are coming in. They are very successful within their silos. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Why would any of them want to jeopardize their successes? Their business models work.

Going back to the original question, if the goal is to create top flight sailors for youth championships, then leave it alone. But if the goal is to create lifelong sailors, then consider changes to convert the 95% failure rate into a 95% success rate.

Editor’s note
: Some of the recent commentary on this topic…
Increasing the percentage of kids that sail beyond their youth years
It’s time to question youth sailing
Are We Asking Too Much From Junior Programs?
How the Inland Empire is growing the sport

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