Newbies need to sell sailing, not experts

Published on October 7th, 2014

Scuttlebutt contributor Leighton O’Connor has been in Alicante, Spain to experience the launch of the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race. After mingling in the crowds, and getting on the water last weekend for the In-Port and Pro-Am races, Leighton has gain perspective not only of the event, but what might be a hurdle in getting new people into sailing…

It was my first day at the Volvo Ocean Race Village in Alicante, so I decided to go for a stroll through their race village. Two of the Volvo 70s from the 2005-2006 race, The Black Pearl and the Brasil 1, were on display and giving tours. I signed a release to go on board Brasil 1, and was handed a helmet and flash light to go below decks. I was below for a few minutes, saw some very excited kids enjoying the tour, but it was too hot for me so I went topsides. Upon leaving the boat, I thought to myself how cool it was to have this kind of access, but it didn’t really sink in at that moment.

Later in the day, while walking back to my hotel, I ran into some Boston friends who were trying to find a boat for the next day to get out and watch the In-Port Race. I wasn’t much help, suggesting they rent jet skis, as my arrangements were exclusive to the media. I thought how fortunate I was to have my access, as I had several options yet they weren’t sure if they had any.

The In-Port race on Saturday was spectacular, with my ride on the media boat providing me and my cameras up-close access. Then on Sunday, I was given the opportunity to join both Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Alvimedica for the Pro-Am races. Got to love when a plan comes together.

The morning of the Pro-Am is a big deal for the special guest crew of the seven new Volvo Ocean 65’s. You get a special presentation from Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Knut Frostad and Team Vestas Wind skipper Chris Nicholson. You get a gourmet lunch, team shirt, team hat and a can of moose sun block. All good!

The team skippers come to collect us from the Sailor’s Terrace and lead us in a little mini-parade to the boats in front of a few hundred spectators waiting to see the Volvo 65’s dock out for the Pro-Am. I’m thinking to myself, we are just going sailing. Why all the interest in this sponsor and media day? What’s the big deal?

Onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, skipper Ian Walker gives a safety talk on the way out of the harbor. We get a tour down below, but once again it’s too hot for me and I go back on deck. I can’t imagine being any place near the Equator down below in one of those boats, trying to catch some sleep in the middle of the day. Imagine what it must smell like after a thousand miles in hot weather. You couldn’t carry enough Febreze.

The winds were light for our race, and as we are coming to the finish, I’m shooting from in front of the forestay when a women comes up and asks in broken English if she can stand where I was as it is a once in a life time chance for her. Of course, I said, but then thought to myself what she said…”a once in a life time chance.” I’m didn’t think much of it, being lucky enough to do this stuff all the time, but she was thrilled.

(Don’t worry there is a point to my story … stay with me)

I make the transfer from Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to Team Alvimedica, peeling off one team shirt to reveal the other, and have a great time with the ‘young guns’ during the casual contest. We get back to the dock and are greeted again by a few hundred spectators watching the boats dock in. As the Pro-Am crew newbies are directed to the Sailor’s Terrace for prize giving, drinks, photos and more food, race village host Jo Pickard intercepts me with her microphone.

With the audio blasted live through the village, she asked how the two boats and crew compared. I teased how I couldn’t reveal any of the secret, being sworn to secrecy by the skippers, but since I had an audience, I also announced how Scuttlebutt Sailing News, aside from the race website, would be the best place to follow the race (what the heck, right).

Now, with a few days to reflect on the weekend, I have been thinking how lucky I am to have access to sailing and boats. Over 100,000 people had already entered the Alicante Volvo Race Village, with the total after this coming weekend guaranteed to dwarf the numbers the 2011-2012 race saw at the start.

If this pattern continues, given that 2.9 million people visited the 10 race villages around the world during the last race, that’s a lot of people that just wanted to catch a glimpse of a big sailboat, never mind sail on one. Heck, I remember in 2012, interviewing a 75 year old nun during the Ireland stopover, who had traveled 150 miles to see the race boats at the dock. That’s serious interest!

My point is, I clearly take for granted the access I have to sailing and sailboats, and struggle to appreciate the enthusiasm that exists on the other side of the fence. But clearly there are lots of people with a passion for sailing but perhaps don’t have the access to get on the water. If we leave it to jaded people like me to help others get on water in large numbers, it is not going to work. We need the help of people that don’t sail to help us get others on the water. People like me just don’t understand what the big deal is to go sailing.

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