Time to think of sailing like television?

Published on January 22nd, 2019

Joe Cline is Editor of 48° North, which serves the Pacific Northwest sailing community. In his column for the December 2018 issue, he suggested a need to redefine success for the sport of sailing.

When I find myself having a recurring conversation with sailors, that’s often pretty good fodder for this page. The latest discussion-on-repeat seeks to understand sailing by considering it through the prism of the modern television market.

This conversation started at the recent meeting of the yacht clubs who help us put out the Seattle Area Racing Calendar (SARC) in the January issue. That meeting is full of movers and shakers from all over the PNW – from Portland to Bellingham. If there’s a group of people more invested in increasing sailing participation in the PNW than these folks, perhaps you could introduce me!

The flip side of this is that this is also a group who palpably feel the effects if racing participation is down. It’s a concern from a yacht club budget standpoint, but it’s also a concern about the well-being of a sport that we love.

If a regatta used to have 100 boats and now it has 30, can the club afford to put it on? What can we do better? How can a club organizer feel as though they’re delivering on their herculean efforts? The most important question, to me, is: how do we define success for sailing events in 2019?

That’s what made me think about television. Somehow, someway, TV producers have re-envisioned what success looks like, even though in our lifetimes, the number of channels has gone from 3 to 37 to 900. A smash hit TV show 30 or 40 years back would have had viewership in the tens of millions.

During the early era of cable TV, those numbers started to be cut in half. Today, a very successful TV show might draw fewer than one million viewers (even fewer for a successful streaming show or YouTube channel). The pie is no smaller, but each slice certainly is. The folks behind TV have had to redefine success in the modern market, and it would be helpful if sailing could do the same.

There are, undoubtedly, more opportunities to go sailing today than ever. Every year at the SARC meeting, there are new events added to the calendar – more ways to serve specific sailing populations, geographic areas, and sailing interests. We often talk about sailing participation being down as a given, but in our region… I’m not convinced.

On any summer week, just in Seattle alone, you might find 60 boats out for the Sloop Tavern Ballard Cup on Monday, 100 boats at Duck Dodge and another 25 J/24s at Leschi on Tuesday, there might be 50 boats out for Corinthian Yacht Club Wednesdays between the Sound and the Lake, Thursday might have 100 boats out for the casual Elliott Bay Series and another 20 boats out at CYC, and Friday night might have 40 boats out for a Friday Night Sailfest. That’s almost 400 boats in a week!

So, when I hear someone bemoan that such-and-such regatta used to have 200 boats, while that clearly sounds like a blast, I think about those 400 boats on the water on a summer week in Seattle and feel much better.

Here’s the other thing about those regatta registrations of old… there used to be a lot more small boats out sailing the big events with crews of five or fewer. There are still some great fleets racing in smaller boats, but there are also a lot more boats that require a lot more people.

At SYC Grand Prix in October, there were only five boats in the ORC class. That sounds like a small class until you realize that those five boats were crewed by 70 sailors. Those numbers could have accounted for at least 18 T-birds in the old days!

None of this is to say that the dilution of race participation isn’t hard on yacht clubs or that small fleet size doesn’t have some negative effect on the enjoyment of the participants. It’s not perfect, and it’s not the same as it used to be. It’s just not dying. And our pathway forward as a sailing community will require us to be creative not only in the types of events we offer, but in how we think about those events in the context of the modern smörgåsbord of opportunity.

There are exceptions. The Super Bowl still gets more than 100 million viewers. We just had what many consider to be the super bowl of PNW regattas – Round the County – with its 125 boats and 1,000 sailors; and it was as magnificent as ever. As we prepare to wrap up 2018, I encourage all of you to find ways to define this fabulous year of sailing as a huge success!

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