Navigating through the sea of change

Published on August 11th, 2019

The evolution in sailing where young people once experienced boat ownership through the active class boats in their area, to now with the trend of club-owned or charter boats for youth racing across the USA, has sport administrators wondering how this shift impacts the long-term health of sailing.

Rich Jepsen, past owner at OCSC Sailing and current Vice President at US Sailing, comments on the topic:

Passing the ‘boat ownership gene’ down to young people is what once kept the sport thriving. I was one of those kids, getting a Cape Cod Mercury as a 16 year old. This was the social and financial model up to 1979 for sailing’s health, however, times change, and while there is a view that ‘provided boats’ is the cause of current problems with participation and commitment, I don’t endorse it.

Here are some assertions:
1. Shared use of resources has been critical to the growth of sailing in the era of ‘lack of’. (money, time) and the era of ‘surplus of’ (entertainment and distractions, including social media). Will some people avoid boat ownership or lack an emotional commitment to the sport because of easy access to boats? Possibly, but that number is VERY low in my experience of 38 years in the introduction of adults and youth to sailing.

2. The ‘one person, one boat’ concept has suffered a bit compared to pre 1979, but less because of boats owned by the local yacht club and more because the middle class, the bedrock of small and mid-sized boat sailing, is trying to cope with the expenses of life in the new USA. College debt, stagnant wages, rising housing prices as well as the culture of throwing the kitchen sink at the cost of educating one’s children have all cut into boat ownership.

3. Sailing is going through a transition caused, mainly, by outside forces. It is evolving and I see shared use of resources as a tool, not a problem. There will be pain, of course in traditional forms of sailing, as there is with tradition every time that society undergoes a sea change. However, I see shared use of resources as a solution more than a problem.

4. If we can come to agreement on the present situation and the path forward, sailing might look different in the future, but it will remain healthy. What if club owned boats helped to ‘save sailing’?

The good news is how there’s much to celebrate in sailing’s evolution:
• Record number of youth are in sailing camps.

• Our Olympic Development Program is encouraging ‘cross-training’ between Olympic classes and other types of sailing – offshore, big boats, crewing for adults, open sailing (without competition, but with growth – STEM, Adventure, Leadership)

• Club boats, whether at a private club or public access program, are introducing millions of sailors to their next steps.

• Many graduates of public access programs are buying multiple boats and sticking with sailing due to their proper introduction through skill development.

• Boat ownership is still relatively healthy. Check with the boat builders. Tons of sailors learning as adults are buying boats.

The ‘Sailing is a Lifetime Activity’ working party at US Sailing is working hard to develop a ‘best practices’ plan for clubs and individuals to help be a part of growing sailing participation to result in more boats on the line and more sailors enjoying the sport we love. Send your opinions and thoughts to and we will seriously consider them.

I am willing to engage in discussions with anyone who wishes to offer their perspective. I readily agree I have only my perspective and am eager to learn others so send thoughts to the above email address.

Finally, an anecdote – I was just on a charter in French Polynesia. While at the Bora Bora Yacht Club, I ran into a former student/member of my sailing school/club who had learned to sail with us with the intent to learn enough to cruise the world 20 years ago.

After a few years of training, education and practice on club owned boats he bought a Caliber 40, fitted it, practiced with it on the coast of California / Mexico and finally made the Puddle Jump last year.

He is in cruising heaven, has big plans and ‘club owned boats’ was his start. His story (SV Rapture) is just one, but there are many, many other sailors having benefited (and realized their sailing dreams) due to club owned boats at our club and others.

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