Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The State of the Sport

Oracle on its foils. A new level of sailing performance

I've been thinking lately about the state of the sailing industry in the US, and, frankly, it's not pretty for the designers or the builders. Since the "Great Recession" there has been a decline in yacht design activity in this country. With a few exceptions, most of the designers I know are struggling to find commissions and many builders of custom and semi-custom yachts have diversified into powerboats or other products, or simply shut their doors. Is this the natural ebb and flow of business cycles, or are there other forces at work? It may be a matter of business cycles but I think there is more to it than that. It's pretty clear that the recession took a lot of money out of the sailing industry, which is to be expected since many people have been understandably more focused on their economic survival than new boats.
International Laser at speed

Another factor is the way people spend their most precious commodity, leisure time. Sailing is time consuming compared to other sports that compete for your recreation time. Golf is a good example. You can go play a round of golf on a Saturday morning and be home in time for brunch. You drop your clubs in the garage and you're ready to spend the rest of the day doing other things. Sailing, on the other hand, is pretty much an all-day affair. If you just want to go out for a couple of hours, you head down to the boat, spend a half hour getting it ready, then push off from the dock and, if you're lucky, there is a breeze and you go out and enjoy sailing for a couple of hours. But who wants to sail for just a couple of hours on a Saturday? Instead you spend the day on the water, enjoy the hell out of it, then get back to the dock around four in the afternoon. Then you spend an hour folding sails, hosing down the boat, etc. and perhaps have a cold beverage and watch the sunset. Sounds like a good day to me. But for many, that doesn't work because they always have so many other things to do. Further, in many families not everyone involved in the decision-making process is as enamored of sailing as we are, so compromises must be made. Soccer, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, golf, riding, biking, hiking, surfing, etc. all compete for their time and interest, and most of those sports are less work, less expensive and less time consuming than sailing, so it's no wonder the sailing industry is struggling.

Another interesting symptom of the sailing malaise is the average age of the people you find out on the race course on any given weekend. It's been going up. Of course there are younger people coming into the sport and I am pleased to see the vibrant junior programs of the yacht clubs in my town. Still, the geezer-to-young buck ratio at my yacht club appears to be on the rise. Among the ranks of the cruisers, both local and long distance, the average age also seems to be on the increase. I guess it's all part of that 70 is the new 60 paradigm.
A Hans Christian 38 drives to weather

With all of these forces at work, there seems to be a lot of hand wringing over the changing sociological and economic landscape in the sport of sailing. Declining sales, declining demographics, fewer boats on the starting lines, danger and death at the Americas Cup...Yikes, it's enough to make you trade your boat shoes for golf shoes.

For some this is a catastrophe. My God, our beloved sport is shrinking! What shall we do? Well, I have a couple of recommendations. First take a deep breath and relax. So what if our sport is shrinking? It'll find some point of equilibrium, some point where it's in balance with all the other forces that work on our leisure time, our psyches, and our multifarious commitments. Second, remember that you enjoy the sport. Remember that there are thousands of us out there enjoying our time on the water. If you're in the recreational boating industry, think about building the quality of the sailing experience instead of the quantity. Take your family and friends out sailing and don't worry that some or maybe even most of them don't connect with the absolute pleasure we derive from it. I'll wager that there is someone who has encouraged you to try something new, mountain climbing, horseback riding or whatever, that just didn't work for you. Those sports are no poorer because you didn't go out and buy a new Stetson or ice ax. And our sport is no poorer because someone came, saw... and decided they'd rather be on a mountain trail.
Left Coast Dart headed your way

Frankly, I'm not the least bit disappointed that our sport is in something of a decline. Here in California, in the last year or so we've lost eleven people in yacht racing accidents. The jury is still out on the death of Andy Simpson, the crewman who died when the Swedish Americas Cup catamaran capsized, but the other deaths can be attributed to operator error. So either we need to improve the skills and knowledge of the folks that are already out sailing, or we might be better off if people who don't have those skills took up a different sport, or got the necessary training before heading offshore. Sailing is a lovely sport, pastime, and lifestyle, but it's not for everyone so let's just relax and enjoy it. We can and should welcome anyone who joins in, and we need not be concerned when people don't get it and prefer other things. Sailing and the sailing industry will survive and thrive in its own way, its own time and at its own level.

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