Immersion Sailing – CSC Shows How

April 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

First published in SpinSheet Magazine – April 2011

You’re probably reading this because you’re a sailor.

But imagine that you’re not a sailor. You’ve never done it, but always wanted to. You find a sailing club that supplies all the boats and all the equipment and free training to learn to sail and then use the boats as often as you want for about $25 bucks a month. Sound like a good way to start?

You arrive for your first lesson, pull on a supplied wetsuit, a PFD and a hiking harness and help rig a 15-foot planing dinghy with a high-tech high-roach main, a roller furling blade and an asymmetrical kite on a sprit. You’ve never sailed before, but you’re going to start by driving this turboed machine in a 20-25 knot San Francisco bay breeze.

I saw this happen last summer, while visiting the area talking about Saving Sailing. I was a guest crew on a training sail that was extreme sailing for most, but the first time ever for one of the students on board. In two hours, everyone drove, tacked, jibed, trimmed and hiked. We experienced long stretches of white-knuckle planing and capsized twice, so it was thrilling for me, a thirty-plus year veteran and a sport-boat lover. The instructor was excellent — a calm voice with an eye toward safety and big fun — and the students, one a college kid and the other 70-ish, were ready for more when it was over.

But there is more.

The Cal Sailing Club is everything you don’t expect about a teaching sailing organization. It provides immersion learning at its best, but it teaches far more than sailing skills.

There is no paid staff. Not one. There is no formal class schedule. If you want to learn to sail, you put your name on a calendar for the time that works for you, and a volunteer instructor tries to make the time work, first come, first serve. Volunteer teachers are rewarded for giving their time with reduced membership fees. There is no classroom, so most of the teaching happens on the water. And since it happens aboard these ultra fast boats and in big bay breeze, learning comes fast. It might take a newcomer only a handful of on-water classes to “qualify” to use the club’s boats anytime that they want. Training can go on as long as the student needs it to.

Once a Cal Sailing Club member feels confident enough to take and pass a safety and sailing test, they are not just a member with a right to boats, they are also welcome to take guests, but more importantly, to volunteer to teach other newcomers.

Think about that for a minute: you might have just started sailing a year ago, and now you’re teaching aboard a sailing rocket-ship in what might be called a “small craft advisory” in most parts of the world.

I must report that the Cal Sailing Club is an extreme outlier; they sit either on the farthest bleeding edge of innovation in sailing development and instruction, or, arguably, they do things the way they used to be done. Today’s typical sailing teaching organizations are far more structured, with indoor and outdoor curriculum, set schedules, a more conservative fleet and more docile prevailing weather, and paid professionals and coaches.

While it’s true that you will find excellent sailing graduates from both the super-structured schools and the Cal Sailing Club, this place is special in a radical way.

Its structure is highly productive and brilliantly self-sustaining.

Cal Sailing Club sees the sailboat and time on the water on one, as more than just a game or a hobby. Yes, members are immersed in sailing, but they are also equally immersed in giving, and in helping, and in building the organization. Therefore:

  • It has a very large, active and growing membership
  • It has very low operating costs – it pays rent and insurance and uses most of the rest of its membership funds to keep the shared equipment up-to-date
  • It can be very flexible: if a new boat or fun sailing technique comes along, Cal Sailing Club can put it into use immediately
  • All of its members are advocates, because they are also its teachers, repairmen/women, administrators and marketers.

I took two other important lessons from the visit.

1.) Immersion (sometimes called experiential) learning is, by far, the fastest and most effective method of learning. So I’ve recommitted to more time training under sail for my own sailing team, and in my own sailing advocacy. I’m going to reserve one night a week, all summer long, to take newbies and strangers sailing. The best way to learn to sail is to sail. But the greater lessons of sailing come from teaching others about sailing.

2.) Many of us learned and love to sail because it takes us to places that might be uncomfortable or even a bit scary. But we know them to be great places. Perhaps the greatest. So on Thursday nights, we’re leaving the dock rain or shine. And it’s gonna be great.


If you’re near Berkeley, make sure to visit the Cal Sailing Club. And if you’re in Berkeley and plan to stay, join CSC today.

If you’re in Milwaukee on a Thursday, dock time is 5:30pm. I’ll supply the PFD.

Sailing Mentors – Not All Old Men

April 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

First published in Spinsheet Magazine – April 2010

If you ask longtime sailors to explain their attraction to the activity, they’ll say that they love the feeling of freedom, or the competition (if they race), or the time with friends who sail, or the constant challenge. But if you probe more deeply to understand what underlies the strength of their passion, most sailors will explain that they were led to sailing by someone whom they respect, and who took the time to help with sound advice and hands-on training as they learned. Most longtime sailors learned to love to sail from a mentor: a grandmother, a dad, a close friend or a camp counselor. Indeed, people who are lucky to have found a mentor in anything — sailing, singing, career — are often also people who have found ways to live healthier, happier, more interesting and more meaningful lives.

And it’s a two-way street. Mentors benefit in precisely the same way. It seems that if we are privileged to find a protege’ (a daughter, niece or neighbor) with whom to share the things we love to do, we too lead healthier, happier, more interesting and more meaningful lives.

One of the key findings from the research for the book Saving Sailing is that the absence of mentoring is directly correlated to the decline in participation in sailing; which is better explained as a decline in devotion to group free-time pursuits made worse by crushing pressures on family time. Americans still generally think sailing might be cool and an interesting thing to learn. They just can’t find someone to lead them to it and they don’t take the time to do it themselves.

This doesn’t mean that there is a shortage of folks who could mentor another in sailing. It means, instead, that very few of us are doing it.

So what is a mentor and how does one start mentoring?

It’s ironic that the character in Homer’s Odyssey named Mentor, and from whom we get the word, is an old man with little to offer. Perhaps to sidestep the myth that the act of mentoring is the dominion of gray-haired gurus, the goddess Athena takes Mentor’s likeness as she guides young Telemachus into and through a challenging life.

In fact, Mentor isn’t the mentor at all. Athena, goddess of wisdom, strength, strategy, craft, justice and skill (among other things) is the real source of Telemachus’ strength and intellect.

The only thing that good mentoring demands is the confidence of experience. You don’t have to be old. You don’t have to be a man. You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to be a hero or a professional. You just have to have been there, and you have to want to return to help someone else go there, whether the destination is a place or a feeling or a skill. This doesn’t suggest that a mentor must have the same innate talent or be as polished as an apprentice. The mentor only needs to understand the basic environment and the signals within it. Most important, the mentor needs to be able to apply the lessons from one aspect of life to another. This means that nearly all the 2.6 million active sailors in the US today qualify to mentor another in sailing, starting now. It also qualifies nearly every parent that can distinguish between port and starboard.

Homer’s treatment of old man Mentor isn’t ironic only because of its literary twist. Indeed, it is especially telling that even in Greek mythology, mentoring is just as powerful across genders and classes as it is across generations. Indeed, mentors are the bravest people among us. No matter where they come from, they share their own contagious, authentic enthusiasm for life, and create contagious, authentic enthusiasm for life just for the sake of it. Like Athena, mentors sidestep strong social pressures that inhibit mentoring, like the false notions that:

1.) We should have others do our parenting for us.
2.) We can teach as well from a distance as we can in person.
3.) We can’t find the time to help another find good things in life and find good things in life for ourselves in the process.

And like Athena, mentors use their own strengths as levers for teaching. For instance, a mom that hopes to inspire a child to learn to love music through performance doesn’t have to be a great player herself. Instead, she needs to be roundly familiar with music, and able to inspire improvement. This is why, in my view, sailing schools, clubs, and community centers should vigorously move towards intergenerational sailing instruction and programming, if they hope to re-create a strong foundation for mentoring in sailing.

But it can also happen on just one boat and in ways that are quite surprising. I am privileged to sail with many mentors each summer. Our boat is crewed by no less than three K-12 school teachers, all woman, ages 28 to 60, each of them so enthusiastic about sailing as supplemental education that they draw many others into it each year. And my teen daughters Kate and Elizabeth lead friends to the activity all summer long. Kate teaches 7 and 8 year-olds in the summers and some of her students have recruited their parents to learn to sail. I may be among the most experienced on board, but I learn from each of them every time we sail together.

If Athena could pretend to be a wise old man to share what she knew, anyone can pretend to be a wise old man.

Do you love sailing? Do you fondly recall the person or the people who helped you find the love? Then it’s time to share it. Use your passion to inspire the next generation of apprentices, so that they can become mentors themselves. And watch it take on a larger and longer meaning for everyone involved.

If you or your club are interested in sharing ideas, feel free to email me at or post your ideas at

What’s Really Wrong with Yacht Clubs

April 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Published in Sailing Scuttlebutt, April 2010

If I had to make a chart to represent hours of fun I’ve had by originating location, it would show that a big slice of my fun begins at a yacht club. So I generally like them a lot.

At the same time, I’ll admit a personal bias towards the idea that yacht clubs should instead call themselves sailing clubs, and the sooner they do it, the better for sailing. For me, it’s not just about marketing: if I never see, smell, hear or feel a power boat again in my life, I’ll be thrilled. And I hate blazers and slacks.

But more than naming conventions and my pet-peeves, yacht clubs are generally in trouble, because their members are dying faster than they can find or make new ones. They need to make a change. I’ve been studying the problem now for almost 20 years; some of my research inspired the book Saving Sailing. Yacht clubs have an age problem: member average age is usually around 60. Of course most clubs have junior programs as a feeder, but they usually don’t feed. I’ve written extensively about how age segregation is part of the problem – it creates a broad chasm between young skilled, eager sailors, and the older, tiring base of a club. Consider these observations, excerpted from the book:

In most sailing clubs today, the kids show up in the morning, and leave in the late afternoon, just about the time the adults are arriving

…the decline in participation in sailing is better explained as a decline in devotion to intergenerational free-time pursuits.

It is hard to explain why it seems we’ve gone to such lengths to create this gap — separating the generations unnecessarily — except to suggest that:

  1. it is a passive response to a general trend towards youth-sports and away from intergenerational activities everywhere, because youth-sports are easier to market, coordinate and scale, or…
  2. we’ve come to depend on active, age-specific marketing for everything, and we’re lacking the pop culture hero willing to twitter to inspire both 11 year olds and their moms to try sailing. After all, marketing to parents means marketing to their kids, right?

And then some new data hit my desk, suggesting that it has nothing to do with marketing at all. We have it backwards.

Last month I was planning a Saving Sailing presentation at a 110 year old club, and working with a smart, relatively young (40’s) member of the club’s board of directors to ensure a relevant talk. He suggested that in advance he would survey members to understand age, tenure, interests and value delivered. As with most club surveys, his drew an adequate sample of his members, and it confirmed some common findings: average age, 60-ish; average time of service, 20-ish years; outgoing members outpacing incoming members. It is easy to predict that this pace will quicken, and see tough times ahead. Thus the talk. On a hunch, I suggested, and he agreed, that instead of concentrating on turnover trends, we should find the mean age of club newcomers at the time of entry and chart it over the years.

Mean Newcomer Age

And the cause of the age segregation gap popped into view, as did this club’s chief challenge and some suggested solutions, which may be useful elsewhere. For me, these data suggest a clear, new path to sustainability.

Notice that in 1960, the average age of a new club member was 32 years old. By 1993, the average newcomer was over 60, and the age has hovered around 55 ever since. So during the heyday, when sailing was growing, its advocates were right in the middle of the years of active parenting. They were bringing their kids. And they were recruiting their friends who were often about the same age. And they were bringing their kids.

Over the years, as the core group aged, the same advocates no longer had kids at home and their good efforts to introduce new friends resulted in newcomers of about the same age (and also without kids.) So clubs (and sailing) began to shrink when the typical club newcomer became an empty-nester or a retiree, and now sailing is no longer a sport enjoyed by families.

It’s also telling that at this specific club, where today there is a strong commitment to a junior sailing program, there is only one member child in it. The rest of the kids who participate arrive via schools or other youth clubs, or their non-member, non-sailing parents drop them off.

While there is no overall market statistical significance to these data, since this club’s age demographics and member make-up are similar to those found in all of sailing in the US, it is safe to use the data anecdotally to make a point.

What’s wrong with Yacht Clubs? Members aged, and as they did, they seemed to forget that they were once young. One of the keys to Saving Sailing is that Yacht (cough) Sailing Clubs must re-open their doors to people in the active parenting years. Of course, this has much broader implications and creates a new set of needs. Most families don’t have sailboats. Often kids take to sailing earlier and more naturally than parents. Families often have less disposable time than they had 40 years ago, or at least, their schedules are more complex. It’ll be hard to break the youth-sports habit. Most clubs plan parties for adults, and day care for kids (some just say no to kids altogether.) The Sailing Club of the future will have found great solutions to these challenges. And then it will be younger, and more vibrant, and more fun for everyone.

Data source: 2010 Survey of Members, An anonymous US yacht club, N=46.


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