Modern Sailing Clubs can Save Sailing

June 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

First published in SpinSheet Magazine – June 2010

“Finding time”. It’s the first answer given by people who would like to learn to sail but don’t, and it’s also the first answer given by people who used to sail but don’t anymore. This week, I’m looking at fresh data; 150 responses from an annual survey of prospects, members and past members of a not-for-profit sailing club.

To the question: “Which factors affected your decision not to sign up (in our sailing club)?”, most say: “I could not find enough time to take advantage of it.”

To the question: “What made you stop sailing?”, most say: “I am too busy to find time to sail.”

Sadly, most people who leave sailing also add, “I don’t sail anymore but I am still interested.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the mean age of people who leave sailing clubs is 34, while the mean age of people still in sailing clubs is over about 55 (this includes kids). It’s also generally true that if you leave at 34, you don’t come back.

If you read the online discussion forums about Saving Sailing, you’ll find lots of chatter about how it’s all about getting kids into lessons. In fact, it’s not about that at all. Youth-only sailing lessons are fine for teaching skills and can pack a kid’s summer time with fun in the sun. But really Saving Sailing isn’t only about the kids, it’s about their parents. Parents are the people not sailing, precisely because parents are the people with the least time. At best, parents drop off their kids for lessons (like they might drop off kids at soccer). At worst, nobody in a family goes sailing at all.

Now imagine that you’re running a sailing program, perhaps for a club or a community center. What does this mean to you?

I am suggesting bold changes. It’s not just about acting “family-friendly”. It’s about reintroducing sailing to the American family in a new and modern way.

To do this, clubs and organizations will have to create and share a new vision: that sailing is one among a very few ideal vehicles for active parenting, as important and effective in stimulating quality of life as reading to a toddler, or introducing bilingualism early on. To do this, clubs and organizations will reject the notion that sports or outdoor summer activities should separate the generations. They will show instead that sailing is a close-quarters, fun-packed challenging endeavor that everyone in a family can do and enjoy together, and that it can create a vast body of fond memories and lessons for living.

Research shows that when parents (and other guardians and mentors) are made aware of these truths through clubs and other social networks, they usually find their own ways to recover lost time. When you ask a parent, “Would you prefer to drop your child off for lessons, or take lessons together?”, more than 50% choose the latter. (Incidentally, when you ask a single parent the same question, more than 70% choose together-time.)

But to play a part, clubs and programs will have to consider fundamental changes:

First and foremost, clubs and centers will need to create offers tailored for intergenerational participation. These may be all-ages training classes, or a series of events like games or fun races, or special clubs within clubs. The challenges of doing this are usually the same:

When? Finding the block of time that works best for families is tough. Start with Sunday afternoons. And beyond simple schedules, clubs must face the fact that starting when kids are 8 is often too late. Parents need to start the “together time” habit much earlier to have it stick.

How? Leaders who can engage people of all ages are rare. Look for creativity, flexibility and contagious, authentic enthusiasm for all types of sailing over all other attributes. Start with skilled, energetic teachers. And kids often take to sailing more easily: programs need to help parents take to it and keep pace. New curriculum design is in order.

Where? Most families don’t have boats: so sailing clubs should offer shared fleets, but insist that the same families volunteer to help with upkeep. And access to water is under attack from all sides: developers, municipalities, states. Marina’s are viewed as profit centers, as opposed to parks. When more families enter, it will be harder to take this valuable public resource away.

Why? Sailing programs tend to try to compete with other youth-sports activities, like soccer and hockey. This is a mistake. No grandma is going to play hockey with a granddaughter, but grandmas and granddaughters can sail together. Programs need to show how.

Instead of assuming that parents can’t or won’t actively mentor, sailing clubs should provide parents with the tools to engage and teach their kids in their free time, and practical ideas for making more of it.

If sailing clubs do this, then sailing can play a real role in strengthening the fabric of American society in the 21st century.

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

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