Hey, wanna go sailing?

Published on December 19th, 2022

Sailing columnist Chris Caswell reflects on his introduction to sailing and suggests how we can make the sport more inclusive:

I’ve been following the efforts of various groups to foster interest in sailing and, while I certainly applaud and support their efforts, I wonder if what we really need are more sailors who are willing to say, “Hey, wanna go sailing?”

After all, sailing is what the marketing people would label an “equipment-intensive sport”. Without a boat, you’re nowhere. It’s not like sports such as basketball or football where a few bucks will get you on the playing field.

Youngsters in the ghettos may be able to parlay a well-worn basketball into a scholarship, and kids from the coal mining towns are able to turn their brawn into tickets to the majors, but sailing has always been controlled by those who own the boats.

As a youngster, I was fortunate enough to have a father who had been a sailor from his youth, and I was racing dinghies long before I could drive a car. But, like those kids from the barrios and steel towns, I wanted to break into the “majors” and sail big boats.

On weekends, I used to hang around the docks, shagging docklines for returning ocean racers and talking eagerly to the crews, all in the hopes of hearing the golden “Hey, kid, wanna go sailing?”.

But today, our boats are protected by yacht club walls or hidden in gate-keyed marinas, so the opportunities have dwindled for newcomers to participate. And that simply has to change. Let me tell you about a couple of incidents so you’ll see how you might be able to help with that change.

My first crewing slot on anything bigger than a Snipe came through the kindness of a man who was basically uneducated and who belonged to that class once derogatorily called “blue collar workers”. But he did have a Six-Meter that he cherished, and Charlie also understood about the dreams of youngsters. When that first invitation, that “wanna go sailing?” was offered, I was ecstatic.

My position was nothing particularly demanding (setting the running backstays on each tack) and it didn’t draw on what I considered to be my extensive knowledge of racing tactics (no one asked me anything), but I was part of a crew! The entire time, I was treated as an equal, although they had the wisdom not to offer a teenager one of their beers between races and, when we returned to the dock, I was taken to the club as part of the team.

It wasn’t until years later when I realized that Charlie had bumped one of his many regular crew to give me my shot at the “majors”. He was handing something back to the sport that meant so much to him. And the mere fact that I had sailed aboard his boat even once added immensely to my sailing résumé, and it wasn’t long before I was in demand on a variety of ocean racers.

Another example of giving something back to the sport took place many years ago at a Star World Championship. The great Swedish sailor Pelle Petterson held a very narrow lead going into the last day of the regatta, and tensions were running predictably high. All the Stars were in the water waiting for a tow to the starting area, when a junior sailor stopped at Petterson’s boat, obviously screwing up his courage to say something.

After a few moments, Petterson broke the ice by grinning at the youngster, whose question spilled out about some piece of rigging. This was long before we knew that athletes must “center” themselves before competition, but that was obviously what Petterson had been doing before his big race, yet he promptly invited the youngster to step aboard his Star.

Stunned, the kid’s face wreathed into a huge grin as Petterson pointed out what all the various lines controlled. I strolled past 20 minutes later and Petterson was still talking, his soft Swedish accent going on about sail shapes, mast bend, and vangs.

Enraptured, the youngster had obviously found a new hero and, I have to admit, so had I. Petterson had taken that one extra step to give something back to his sport and might even have started a future Star champion on a new course.

Perhaps, considering the cost of sailing today, it’s hard to think in terms of owing something to the sport. After all, you plunked down your hard earned coin to buy the boat, you spend more money than you want your spouse or banker to know in maintenance, and here’s someone talking about “owing” something to the sport?

But think back. Sometime, someone gave you a hand, showed you a kindness, opened a door. And for that generosity, you need to pass the torch along to a new generation of sailors.

Over nearly four decades, my memory has filled with the people who have given me breaks, starting with my father who crewed with such patience for a mercilessly demanding son that I realize now what a bond we have had for so many years.

There was Charlie with his Six-Meter, who treated me as an equal and made me part of the crew. George with the 50-footer, who actually gave me a key to his boat, and Ed, who took a youngster on an 1800-mile ocean race.

There are many others and occasionally I think about them, especially at the end of the sailing season when the halyards are tapping a lonely tune in a chilly marina. George and Charlie are long gone, as are many of the others, but I’m almost sure I can hear them saying that now it’s my turn to do the giving.

It is almost embarrassingly easy to find your targets: they’re standing next to you at a cocktail party looking at your faded boat shoes, they’re a fellow worker studying the photograph of your boat on your desk, or you’ll glance up from scrubbing your deck to find them simply staring longingly at your boat.

Go on, now it’s your turn.

Say it.

“Hey, wanna go sailing?”

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