Commentary: Why people quit sailing

Published on April 28th, 2014

Peter Ilgenfritz is done with racing sailboats. After competing in a variety of fleets, including Snipe, T-10, J/24, and PHRF, he got tired of losing. Here is his perspective on how to maintain enthusiasm within the ranks…

Stan Honey, the mastermind behind the perfect America’s Cup broadcast, said it best: “Maybe folks figure that well-run windward/leeward races in open water, run by professional PROs, tend to get won by the same folks, and so folks that are unlikely to do well lose interest.”

As the saying goes – ‘If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes’. People leave the sport to look for other avenues of entertainment where they can feel good about their results and not be the person that comes in at the back end of the group all of the time.

Sailing can be a great sport because of the fact that it does become your social structure, your athletic challenge, your passion. I sailed for many years at a wide variety of large and small boat regatta’s across the US, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. I enjoyed it but only to a point.

As a weekend racer, I got tired of losing to the same people all of the time – whether that was in the local fleet or at a wide variety of regional, national, North American or World championships. The social atmosphere was wonderful, but the result gets to you after a while.

I still read Scuttlebutt because I love sailing, but I don’t own a boat and won’t race anymore just to help fill out a fleet. If you want solutions – look to those that have left the sport. Look to find ways to help the back of the fleet person see some improvement, see some chances to beat those at the front of the fleet people and make it possible to show improvement over time.

A couple of ideas come to mind if you look to other sports…

1) Minor leagues: Group people into like talent levels so each has a chance to excel and feel good about a day’s races. Let the top dogs race against their top competition – do they really need 60 people to beat in order to feel good about themselves? Let people graduate into a higher level if they are improving beyond their current level. I don’t like this idea but it is an option that is used in many sports to allow people to compete at their own level.

2) Handicap people: In golf – an ever growing sport – you compete against yourself, mastering the various components of the game to improve your own personal score. What others do doesn’t impact what you do (other than to get into your head). Measure your day, your race against what you have done in the past. Against your norm or handicap. You end the day remembering the little things that you did to slip back or improve your speed instead of remembering being so far back you never really saw the winners finish the race.

If you want people to stay in the sport, give them something to feel good about. Being at the back of the pack often enough will cause anyone to decide to take on a different sport. If the view isn’t changing and there is no other way to feel good about your progress, it’s time for some other sport.

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