Stable boats are needed to stabilize sport

Published on May 9th, 2021

Nate Hathaway, Sailing Director at The Apprenticeshop (Rockland, ME), observes how progress in boat design is contributing to the regress in participation.


We all know that sailing has struggled for new blood – and modern boats are the problem.

Call me biased because my start was on schooners doing educational programs, from there I learned sail handling and seamanship on boats 100-feet and up from master mariners with big licenses and long careers.

We would sail on and off our anchor or dock if able, reef when prudent, and the youth and adults who came to sail onboard these vessels always felt safe and at ease.

However, reflecting on our 2020 program format with 420s, I quickly saw that parents who ’think’ they can sail simply because, “how hard can it be if it was managed by a bunch of drunks and illiterates 200 years ago”, are not able to hop in a 420 with their child and keep up.

And this is a tragedy.

Not because of their lack of skills or the distance that creates with the child or the invitation of a bad experience on the water (don’t worry, we failed their checkout test and safely towed back to the dock). But because the performance focus of today’s boats has left a sucking chest wound where stable and reliable platforms have disappeared.

SURPRISE… not every sailor is going to the Olympics and not EVERY boat class has to try and resemble a racing class.

How many cruising boats are out there in the sailing world? How is that population and that recreational focus reflected by available platforms for beginner sailing programs? You can’t reef a 420 or an Optimist, arguably the two most popular platforms, and for the chilly waters of Maine they are wet, and not everyone in our community sailing program can shell out for a drysuit in the shoulder seasons or a wetsuit in the summer.

In normal years we have a few smaller keelboats we use, as well as some 32-foot open boats (similar to the outward bound pulling boats) that we sail, using the larger and more stable platform to be able to teach concepts and techniques from inside the boat, and not from a coach boat over the whine of a 25hp outboard.

If we want to make sailing democratized and accessible, it isn’t about shiny boats and lowering prices. The families with a culture of sailing provide reinforcement to their children with experience and assurance that families who don’t sail just don’t have to offer.

Showing junior a picture of daddy in an Opti 20 years ago and then sailing on grandma and grandpa’s big boat to reinforce the message doesn’t happen for new sailors. If you can put someone in a stable boat though, they aren’t as skittish, and performance sailing can always come later.

Again, I live in Maine. I know that despite the balmy 68 degree days mid-season, there is still a small portion of my sailors who are as eager as a golden retriever to get in the water. That might put off more of my kiddos than the balmy climes of my native Maryland (or further south) in the summer, but what I say still holds true in places along the west coast, Great Lakes, and much of the northeast.

So while I might want to foil and I might wish there was a catamaran or 29er to go for a rip on up here, not everyone else does…

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