Growing the sport of sailing

Published on June 16th, 2021

Sam Nedeau

Sam Nedeau, Commodore of the Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation, shares his observation of growing the sport in the Lake Michigan SuRF, LMSRF’s e-newsmagazine:

It is great to be starting the season and I am encouraged by the numbers of boats registered for the various Lake Michigan regattas. While the numbers appear to be on an upswing, I am concerned about the future of our sport.

Sailing now faces considerable competition for outdoor fun. And for all of us that love to race sailboats, it is important that sailing continues to grow. So how do we grow our sport?

While I was working on my sailboat along with one of our Junior sailors, our discussion focused on exactly that, how to grow our sport. He was obviously working on growing the sailing school, so naturally we discussed how to reach those potential future sailors.

But our discussion took a turn when a few other members stopped by and added to the discussion on how each of them ended up as ‘Sailors.’ I found their answers quite thought provoking and worth sharing.

Of the ten of us chatting, only two were introduced to sailing via sailing schools. Four were invited to sail by a friend and two married into the sport. The last two could not remember sailing not being a part of their life. This got me thinking. So over the next few weeks, I made a point of asking people how they got into the sport of sailing.

Now before I go too far, I should define how I am using the term sailor. There are all types of sailors, on all levels and ages and shapes and sizes, but of that played into my definition. Rather, for means of this discussion, I defined a sailor as a person who sails and has also joined a yacht club.

I will also confess that I did not keep perfect stats, but rather did a pretty good job of keeping what I learned in my head and in the notes app on my phone.

What my rudimentary research showed was that by far, the #1 way people found themselves becoming sailors, was that at some point in their lives, they were invited to go sailing.

I note that they were invited to go sailing, not necessarily racing. The remaining group were sailors that were part of a junior sailing program, grew up in a sailing family, or somehow ended up on a sailboat, at a yacht club. Alternately, they simply were smart enough, good looking enough, and had the wherewithal to figure out how join all of us wonderful people, who call ourselves sailors.

Interesting, in my very seat of the pants conducted research project and in my travels over the last several decades, I have come across very few sailors that were products of grassroots out-reach junior sailing programs, or similar programs. That is not to say that those programs are not wonderful endeavors, but rather my data showed that the impact of those programs, thus far, is somewhat limited.

Now is a good time to acknowledge that sailing is not an inexpensive sport, on any level.

Try as everyone has to find ways to get into sailing on the cheap, eventually, that amazing deal for a boat you acquired, needs sails, dockage, a rating certificate, and/or registration. The friend that just landed a Mackinac race spot for the first time, now needs to go get the proper safety gear. All of these things do play a role in who gets asked aboard and whether they will eventually become a sailor.

So as I reflected on the data gathered, I found myself asking why simply asking people to go sailing is so effective. Well, for starters, those we invite aboard our boats are usually hand selected, which is another way of saying, screened. For the most part, the skipper, owner, or crew has not only contemplated the physical, but also the socioeconomic, intelligence, personality and compatibility of the invitee.

Therefore, the vetting process that goes into simply asking someone to ‘go sailing’ is actually complex. This is reinforced by the fact that no one is going to ask their 90 year old grandmother to join them for an afternoon of sailing on a Melges 24. But asking a friend’s 12 year old son/daughter on that same Melges for an afternoon, may very well result in a future yacht club member.

While the simplicity of ‘asking someone’ to come sailing has proven to be a very successful way to grow our sport, it also explains why our sport is so lily white. And that is another reason that we should all support those previously mentioned grass roots programs.

So obviously, my message here is to please take the time to ask others to join you for a sail. Or make time to get the boat away from the dock for more than just the race, but for a nice afternoon or sunset sail. We are blessed to do what we do, but if we are going to keep doing it, we need to share it with other.

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