In a discussion about buying a boat, a correspondent opined that a sailboat is just a big expensive toy and that boat owners are materialist consumers. In answer, I've posted a poll and response on a popular sailor's site.
Is a sailboat just a toy?
1. Yes, and sailors should lighten up and not take themselves so seriously.
2. Yes, and too many owners are into boats as status symbols or ego trips.
3. No, not "just", because toys are very important
4. No, my boat is part of my family and a big part of my life
5. No, a boat is ___________________ (post a comment)
A sailboat is about
1. crushing the competition
2. becoming more skilled
3. picking up chicks/guys/social stuff
4. escaping the land and exploring the world
5. ______________ (post a comment)
Treating the sailboat as an expensive toy or status symbol would be too limiting an attribution of motive for sailors. To be sure, there's ego gratification in owning a particularly well-regarded or well-performing boat, and "yachts" in generally are status symbols. If the "difference between men and boys is the price of their toys", then at least some sailboat owners are potentially very manly men indeed. The perceived and often real exclusivity and expense of yacht clubs reinforces this exclusive image. And, the public regards "yachting" as a particularly inaccessible and upper-class recreation, even if many not-so-ultimately-privileged sailors know somewhat better.
Yet, sailboat ownership and the sailboat as object are bound up intimately with the sport, recreation, lifestyle, and sometimes occupation of sailing, which, depending upon the sailor can be a very engrossing hobby and expression of personality. Sailing as a sport is particularly equipment-intensive, and one in which the equipment varies enormously and has many subtle features, some of which are learned by only the most dedicated and elite within the fraternity. For some sailors the boat is a platform upon which to test their abilities strenuously, and they will risk much of their time, money, health, and safety in so doing. And a few will die, as was so tragically illustrated this season in California. If a boat has performed well in difficult circumstances, such as facing the awesome and humbling experience of storms at sea, it would not be unreasonable for its owner and crew to feel something akin to gratitude. Also, while the bare fundamentals of sailing may be learned quickly, sailing is a difficult sport to perform well and requires a significant investment of a participant's time and attention, much of which has to be spent learning the many peculiarities of the boat and the rather limitless and subtle interactions possible between sailor, boat, and environment. Sailors have to find ways to justify that huge investment, both to themselves and to others, and naturally regard a boat as rather more than a casual tool or acquisition.
And, outside the realm of sport, the boat itself can be a home for cruising sailors and a symbol of escape from limiting life circumstances for others. The boat can serve as an gateway or magic carpet to the world and all its cultures.
Sailing is also very often a highly social sport and hobby. It is one that can be performed on relatively equal terms by men and women, and by youth and elders, and even by the disabled. (No, I don't know what happens in college sailing; I think it stays in college sailing.) It is one of relatively few sports that a couple or family can perform together, and which can be performed, even sometimes at a high level, for a lifetime. And, as a somewhat unexpected quirk, the sailboat racing community is small enough that even newer participants can compete quite often on the same playing field as the elite leaders of the sport.
Aesthetically, sailboats also represent a lengthy evolution in rather gracefully fitting form to function. Sailing craft of course served a historical role in enabling humans to explore the alien majority of the planet's surface, and this memory is a cultural artifact of some significance and ubiquity. Sailors have a long history of personifying their boats, and a long history of creating and maintaining traditions and superstitions about the sea and about their vessels. Sailors are no longer charting new territory in literal terms, yet many feel as if they are doing so as their boat becomes a crucial component in voyages of self-discovery. The sailboat and the obsolete craft and sport of sailing are a nostalgic tie to times past, to voyages of discovery, conquest, trade, and immigration; to tales of heroism, cowardice, suffering, enlightenment, and achievement; to much of civilization's voyage. The unique language of sailing, along with the non-obvious and hard-learned capabilities of the sailboat, give the sailor a feeling of apartness and distinction from the land-bound herd. As members of a somewhat exotic community, sailors are well poised to acquire tall tales and myths with which to entertain their landlubber friends. Not only are sailboats the frequent vehicles of fantasy, but they are also well represented in depictions of romance, in print as well as on screen. And, in aesthetic and artistic realms, for inanimate objects, sailing boats and ships have inspired an inordinate amount of literature and art.
So yes, if life is just a game, then the sailboat is just its toy