Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Future of Sailing

What kind of sailor are you?

“We were positioning ourselves for the start sequence, with 110 other boats vying for the pole position. My heart was racing, the adrenaline rush was astronomical. The countdown was on. There’s the start gun, go go go go go.”
The club racer

“We made a great overnight passage from the island to the mainland. There was just the right amount of breeze – 15 knots – on the beam, which made for an exhilarating run, but I was looking forward to relaxing at anchor with a cocktail and my sweetheart to watch the sun set over a new horizon. I wonder where we'll go next?”
The distance cruiser

“It was great fun just sailing back and forth, and into the creek with no particular destination or goal in mind. Everything that had wound me up all week just dissipated from my memory. I was at total peace with the world around me. Birds were singing, an otter popped up out of the water. Where did the time go?”
The enthusiast

“I feel the need, the need for speed.  Wahoo, that kiteboard is foiling like the devil.”
The speed demon foiling kiteboarder

“I will be the fastest solo circumnavigator, beating all the records. My boat is ready. My team is ready. If only the weather would pick up. The weather pattern needs to be perfect.”
The long distance racer

“I dream of going places no one has ever been on this earth. Why go to the moon when you can go to sea and find a new world at the end of the earth’s oceans?”
The extreme explorer

“We have to win. There is no try. There is no second place.”
The Olympic athlete/America’s Cup team

I can’t wait to go on the club cruise. Thirty yachts this year. I’m so glad they aren’t racing every day.  But I am looking forward to that navigator’s feeder race. Point to point is great. I learn a lot about my boat and myself.”
The weekend club cruiser

Sailing is a pursuit, not a sport

Sailing. It’s not just a sport. It’s not just a leisure activity. Sailing is all of the above. And each of those pursuits of different aspects of sailing makes it the most challenging to master. In each case, the skills you need are very different from the skills needed in a different aspect. In each case, the vocabulary even changes to describe the metamorphosis of the boat and its crew under different goals and circumstances. Because it is so varied, sailing is undergoing an identity crisis. But instead of embracing the evolution of the harnessing of wind, man and yacht club is fighting the demise of sailing as we know it.  For God’s sake, they are still worried about where to fly the burgee when you have sailboats rearing their bottoms on foils moving at breakneck speeds. The word ‘irrelevant’ comes to mind.

Organizations big and small are grappling with the declining numbers in people taking up the “sport” of sailing.  But what they aren’t doing is listening to the people who are evolving the sport.  They aren’t listening to the kids who drop out of the prescribed sailing programme. Ask them what they think, why they are dropping out?  We did. What we heard made sense.
“I hate sailing alone. It’s boring and scary.” (Opti sailor)
“I hate being yelled at.” (Sailing instructor barking orders from a crash boat.)
“I want to sail to someplace, not just around the marks.”

Why are we insisting on beating the sailing out of the kids who enter enthusiastically and exit betrayed and distraught?  Why aren’t we recognizing that there are different types of sailing that require different skill sets and catering to all of those interests?  Because it costs more?  I don’t think so. Because it splinters sailing?  Better to keep them in than lose them forever. After all, I being a cruiser am very different from racers. Why can’t we recognize that kids have preferences, too?

Let’s just for a moment consider what would happen if
  1. We did not treat every kid as a potential athlete. Some just are not competitive in that way.
  2. We offered kids the opportunity to go cruising rather than racing
  3. We encouraged the kids to go messing about in boats with a naturalist
  4. We exposed kids to old style adventurers who had built their own boats and gone places
  5. We gave the kids a chance to try something really cool, like kiteboarding instead of bathtubs

What if we for once did not think about the sponsorship money and glamour in racing but in the fun and camaraderie of cruising? 

Racing destroys sailing for me. I got into sailing to get away from my inordinately stressful and demanding career. I hate the stress of a starting line and rounding the marks, always in the same direction. I love to sail away, point to point, drop anchor, pour a cocktail, watch the sunset as the birds catch their daily fish and the breeze ripples the surface, and see the bioluminescence light up the depths.  I love setting course for a destination and arriving there exhilarated or challenged. I love exploring the new place. I love learning new things. I love figuring out how to fix things if they break. I love the freedom of picking up anchor and going someplace else if I don’t like this place.

I am a cruiser and I take offense when the bodies representing sailing don’t even think about cruising as sailing, despite there being far more cruisers than racers. When THEY complain about the decline in sailing, they are really talking about racing not sailing. It takes money to race. It doesn’t take much money to cruise. You can get a very inexpensive boat to sail around the bay or around the world.  You don’t need six sets of carbon fibre sails every year, nor the ultimate in cruising instruments or a kazillion crew members.

You know when the wind is too light, just right, or too strong, and you know how to adjust your sails to get you where you want to go. Moreover, you’ll know how to navigate, read the weather, and drop anchor, concepts that are foreign to the racer who often doesn’t even have an anchor. You’ll be eating gourmet meals and washing them down with budget wines instead of mixing up dried camping goo underway or drinking champagne at the finish.  And you’ll have a proper loo as well.  Maybe even a shower.

So why can’t the likes of sailing organizations recognize that there are many types of sailing, all of which require and deserve care and support? Why can’t they understand that sailing is about harnessing the wind and sharing a fascination, a bind that ties people together rather than driving them apart? Why can’t they encourage all kinds of sailing for the joy of it? 

The future of sailing is in the joy of it wherever we may find it. Let’s help the young ones search and find it in a pursuit we all love so much.

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