Sailing's Big Misperception
As sailors, how many mis-perceptions do we live with and how to they affect our sailing and our sport?
Misperceptions can be big things or little things; they can be as small as a delay in sensing a small change in the wind to as big as a public perception that keeps people away from sailing.
It's this latter, public perception of sailing that is of particular concern to me. Supposedly, to the extent that the non-sailing-connected public knows or cares about sailing, the perception seems to be of exclusive guarded and gated private clubs peopled by elderly multimillionaires in ascots and blue blazers and their hireling crews. Unless people know sailors, they have little more than this sort of image to go on; certainly the recent America's Cup antics and legal shenanigans haven't helped.
An image of wealth and exclusivity might be of benefit now and then. It can entice companies that sell luxury products ("carriage trade") to sponsor sailing events. And, it could entice some people into the sport who want to affiliate themselves with sailors they think are wealthy and consequential.
But, as a whole, the image of sailing exclusivity hurts the sport and keeps people away. The image of guarded gates scares people from the sport. The idea of sailing as being a millionaire's sport is a turn-off to many people. The difficulty in too many parts of the country of finding places to try out sailing and learn the basics makes the sport less accessible than it should be.
Sailing, along with other sports that require a significant commitment of time and skill, is declining in numbers in most parts of the US. To stay vital, sailing needs new blood. Sailors need other sailors to teach and to learn from, to race with, to go cruising with, and to band together to fight for waterfront access, stewardship of the waters, and sailor's rights and needs.
Sailing has room for all sorts of sailors -- and certainly not just the super-wealthy. Sailing has room for them, but also for clerks and truckers who need a healthy escape, harried professionals desperate for fresh air, students who need a break, and lots of retirees. And sailing desperately needs more families.
Readers of the big advertisements for boats featured in the sailing magazines might be shocked to know that the price of a decent used 22-28 foot sailboat is in line with the price of a used car... and that for a boat which might even have enough living accommodations to qualify for a second-home tax write-off. And smaller sailing dinghies, which are excellent for learning sailing, are even cheaper. You might find a serviceable Sunfish or Laser in someone's garage for a thousand dollars or less!
What too many people don't know is the dirty little secret that sailing isn't really that inaccessible. Yes, sailing is both an equipment-intensive and skill-intensive sport and we shouldn't pretend otherwise. Frequently, I tell novices that sailing is a sport whose basics can be learned in a day -- but which can take a lifetime to master.
Sailing is quite accessible, however, because sailing happens at many levels, in many kinds of boats, and in many unexpected places. People can learn to sail at commercial sailing schools, in community sailing centers, from sailing coaches, and through programs sponsored by yacht clubs and sailing clubs.
A corner of US Sailing's web site has some basic learn-to-sail pointers, and another has learning materials, and libraries will have some of the many books that have been published about learning to sail, and, in some fortunate cases, videos as well.
And, those yacht clubs are not the unassailable fortresses that some people might think them. Many have paper or website bulletin boards where would be sailors can express their interest in crewing on boats, which is another good way to learn to sail. And many are happy to give people tours and perhaps hook them up with a membership or race committee member who can give them pointers and ideas about how to get on the water. Clubs often host boating safety classes and other events that are open to the public.
And, yet another way to get on the water is to volunteer to help with a club's race committee. Working on the race committee boat gives you lots of access to sailors, including some old-timers who know everybody, as well as a ringside seat at the start of every race. By watching sailboat races close-up, you can learn a lot about boats and sailing.
It's also true that yacht and sailing clubs are not all the same and that there's a club for just about everyone; from posh, elite establishments that require big financial commitments to very minimalist clubs that are surprisingly affordable. Clubs can look the same on the outside, but be very different in their programs, focus, affordability, and the welcome they give people, but most are friendly and there to support sailing.
That's also true with boats; you don't have to own one of the expensive, glossy, super-hi-tech monster yacht from the advertising pages of a sailing magazine to have loads of fun and become a skilled and respected sailor or even a feared racecourse competitor. Most boats are good for at least one purpose; some boats are fairly good at several things, such as racing, cruising, entertaining guests, gunkholing, ocean sailing, trailering, and so on; but very few are bad boats. There may not be one perfect boat, but there are plenty of good - and affordable - boats.
Almost every boat has its purpose, and the best way to match a would-be boat owner is to have her or him try out lots of boats. Crewing is, of course, a great way to do this. Some people will gravitate to sporty Hobie cats or other beach cats or maneuverable Lasers, whereas others will just want to putter around in shallow gunkholes on a West Wight Potter. Some might like the family camaraderie and trailerability of a Flying Scot or other "big dinghy". Some might want something like a Hunter to keep in a marina to either entertain guests dockside or escape from the rat race. Some might want to race on a J/24 or other one-design racing class in short-course day races. Some might want to sail on big blue water boats far from sight of land. Some might want to give a kid a little pram dinghy. All of this is sailing; all of this is time on the water.
Sailing, for its own part, could do more to make sailing more accessible by making it easier to find places where would-be sailors could try out sailing and by providing more know-how support to community sailing programs and for starting new programs. But, the fact remains that there are lots of ways for people to get into sailing and the image of sailing as exclusive territory of blue-blazered aristocrats is far from true.