How Most People Get Hooked on Sailing

Published on July 9th, 2018

The premise of yacht club summer youth sailing programs is the desire to introduce the sport to the next generation of club members. But for young people to stay with the sport for the long term, they need to love it in the short term.

As club programs so often are the gateway to youth competition, this leads their programming to focus on racing. While this approach keeps the youth circuit hopping and supports the school sailing environment in USA, it arguably contradicts the premise of the program.

John Arndt, publisher of Latitude 38, pulls back the curtain on where today’s committed sailors are coming from.


Most sailing organizations continue to give outsize importance to racing/racers and distorting how they think about ‘growing sailing’. When talking to sailors about stories for Latitude 38, we almost always ask how did they start sailing and the answer is almost never in a junior program.

That answer will likely shift a bit over the next twenty years as the number of Optimist-equipped junior programs has proliferated over the past 20 years but I think there continues to be lots of doubt about whether these racing-focused junior programs are really creating lifelong sailors and growth in sailing. Perhaps some growth in racing but it will take quite a few more years to know the answer.

What often gets forgotten, when the talk turns to growing participation, is all the other ways people get hooked on sailing.

While conversion is probably small, Adventure Cat charters on San Francisco Bay has two ‘head charter’ catamarans and took 41,000 people sailing in 2017! There are a couple dozen other charter operations just in San Francisco. There are hundreds if not thousands of other ‘head charter’ operations taking people sailing every day all across the country.

The tall ship/sail training world introduces thousands more every year. Middle schoolers, high schoolers, semester at sea college students and adults of all ages get their first impression of sailing from tall ships and creates lasting impressions and participants. The numbers can be staggering.

Summer camps, Sea Scouts and community sailing programs introduce thousands more – again the numbers dwarf junior programs. And thousands more get introduced to sailing at resorts with Sunfish or Hobie Waves or similar boats on the beach. Finally, there are an immense number of people introduced simply by ‘friends and family.’

I love to sail and also race but see them very separately. Junior programs with Optis can be an excellent introduction to sailing for certain kids, and agree there is great value of the lessons learned in competition, but I think racers and sailing administrators miss the enormous number of sailors who get introduced to sailing outside what’s viewed as the traditional junior program pathway.

There’s healthy debate and adjustments being made to junior programs to create more well-rounded offerings but the total numbers remain small compared to the way ‘most sailors’ become hooked on sailing. Expanding our view of the varied ways people are introduced and enjoy sailing would certainly provide a better foundation for how to grow sailing.

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