Did we pull up the ladder behind us?

Published on December 22nd, 2020

by Shan McAdoo
When you gotta go, you gotta go. This is how I found myself in a venerable old yacht club in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. As I made my way past the 130 yr old sailing trophies and the caricatures of the “hoy-ploy” yachting back in the day, I felt like ET dropped into the middle someplace I have no business.

I ran back to my club to feel more at home.

As I saw the cinder block building, and the asphalt parking lot / boat yard I took great comfort in being in my “working man’s” yacht club. Then I started thinking about my club, a place I have been going for almost 50 years and as much as I reveled in the notion of being a working class yachtsman, I realized that from the outside, my club is every bit as exclusionary as the highest of the high brow clubs.

Sure, our dues and fees are much less than some other places and we do run a very well attended weekly racing series where the club is open to sailors, but if you want to sail regularly and or own a boat you have to join. We have a 2+ year waiting list and a 10+ year wait for club storage and a similar problem in the mooring field.

As I have gotten older in this sport, I have observed a couple of things:

• Parents still want their kids to sail. Youth programs, classes and events change, but there is plenty of activity.
• Post college, people are still looking to sail plenty of activity on U30 programs at yacht clubs and community sailing centers.
• Young people are not buying boats. They rarely commit to a class or fleet beyond joining for the season.

These observations led me to ask the question posed in the title: “Did we pull up the ladder behind us?” Things seem harder for young people entering the sport except when linked to high end training programs or community sailing. This is in no way an indictment of those programs, but rather an acknowledgment that there seems to be something lacking and its affecting sailing at every level.

How do those young adults grow into boat buyers and boat owners? Can sailing as we know it survive without “vested” participants?

Why is this a problem?
This is very much a problem because there is no reason to think that our beloved sport cannot die. I am not a journalist, so this is all anecdotal, but in 1920 the most popular sport in the US was horse racing and almost everybody played Bridge. With the advent of new activities and the pace of life speeding up, sailboat racing can and will die if we do not take action.

Without individuals buying boats and taking ownership of the sport, it will certainly die. Without individuals buying boats of some kind the “industry” will die. The examples of this happening are so numerous that its hard to ponder. The current approaches of community or club owned boats have created a generation of sailors that are simply not vested in the sport cause they have no “skin in the game”.

What can we do?
We “old timers” need to foster ownership, widen the funnel and do what we can to attract and retain as many young people as we can. How can we do this? Here are some ideas:

• Classes with a legacy need to and are stepping up with youth boat grant programs. These programs need to be more of a priority.
• High end sailing racing and training programs need to create and encourage an ownership model;
• We need infrastructure that can be accessed by young people; Private clubs are barriers to entry for many people, if they are the only access to support boat ownership, then we are in real trouble.
• Make racing accessible by doing it. Remove the formality and make it fun for all of the competitors.

Why is now the time?
The COVID-19 pandemic is offering a unique opportunity; a silver lining to a very dark cloud. Since people are traveling less, they are rediscovering what is in their own backyard. They have boats and now they have the time to fix and use them.

Some one design classes are seizing this opportunity by offering lots of locally oriented events including clinics, new sailor invites, and small scale easy regattas. Builders/ sellers are offering boat-fixing seminars and sales on parts. The pandemic could offer us a chance to breath more life into our sport, but we need to maximize this opportunity.

We should reach out to every sailing venue and push them to do all they can to get people on the water. Sailing boats, kite boards, wind surfers, hydro foils – we need a big tent and we need to unify in pushing. We need to start rebuilding the ramp to ownership for the next generation by showing the next generation what a wonderful sport and way of life this is.

I was watching the movie “Seabiscuit” the other day and had to stop and explain the sport of horse racing to my daughter. She was astounded to discover that this was once a sport followed by millions. I hope to avoid a similar kind of conversation about sailing with my grandchildren.

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