The 1 Percent

December 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

First published on SailingAnarchy – December 2011

Almost nobody aspires to be cold, wet and scared. American kids are more likely to imagine themselves walking alongside the Mars Rover encased in Kevlar, breathing tank-warmed earth air, than traveling a few miles aboard a sailboat. Perceptions override probabilities.

To see how, you might follow a school field trip to the beach.

Every May, a second-grade class hums and hops at the top of the Milwaukee bluff, shouting out over endless water whipped blue-gray by a northeaster. They’re there to learn a bit about history, weather, commerce and ecology, and most will.

A rusty lake freighter carrying corn plows north sending white sheets over its bow. One kid wonders aloud if people are driving the ship or if it drives itself. Otherwise, the lake is empty and intimidating.

The class braves prickers and thistles on the Poe-esque descent to the beach, leaving dry breeze and a warm sun for the gray dampness that hovers at the shoreline. The teacher tells of wild weather, shipwrecks, drownings, pollution and extinctions while the kids pick sticks to find a shell or a flat rock in the smelly goo of algae, gull poop and chunks of a gelatinous carp carcass. Gulls screech. Tan waves roll and break. An opossum lumbers in the brush.

It is not sandy sand, more rough and jagged mixed with green glass and plastic pieces, littered with the massive white pine bones of the sailing ships that delivered ore from north to south over one hundred years ago and deformed concrete and rebar leftover from human attempts to slow erosion.

Then, the icy water. A few touch a bare toe to it. Like an electric shock, it punches first, hurts and then numbs to the knees. In minutes the class retreats full tilt and screaming spraying mud to the top of the bluff. There, shivering second graders are unanimous that no sane person should go in the lake nor even near it, much less out onto it in a boat. The teacher and chaperones concur. At home, nearly every listening parent agrees. Some warn that the beach and the lake are off limits. Forever. Period.

Childhood experiences almost always have Americans avoiding the water for most, if not all of our lives. We worry about undertows, or sudden storms, or bacteria, or sharks, or the sure disaster caused by swimming too soon after eating. So the idea of sailing seems so risky and foreign that most, indeed 99% of Americans, will never seriously try.

But a few of us, about 1%, do end up going out in sailboats, as often as we can. Given a myriad of seemingly safer, more productive and comfortable options, 2.6 million of us band together knowing that every hour sailing is another hour of full and privileged living. Some sailors are wealthy, some just getting along. Some are old, some are young. No matter our wealth or age, sailors are alike in the feeling of richness that comes from a large commitment of time to sailing and to the tiny sailing social circle that does what we do and knows what we know.

The numbers suggest distinct haves and have-nots. But the chasm in sailing isn’t between the material or the financial haves and have-nots, it’s between the experiential haves and have-nots. When you ask the 1% who sail, you find out that the experiential haves have enough to share and generally want to do it. And among the 99%, it’s easy to find as many who are willing to see through the thick fog of school field trip perceptions as there are sailing in the first place. So the chasm need not be there at all. It just takes a commitment of time and experience to bridge it.

If you’re on Facebook, search for and befriend one Werner Meybaum of Sailing Lake Calhoun, and you’ll see what I mean. I doubt that Werner is a billionaire, at least in the monetary sense. Yet Werner is among the most generous sailors I’ve ever found. Inspired by childhood memories of sailing on small lakes in Germany, Werner docks an old boat to a city pier in the Twin Cities, and offers free rides to anyone passing by. First come first serve. Only payment: tell your friends. The scale of Werner’s generosity is matched only by a continuous flow of willing and eager newcomers.

Behind nearly every new sailor there is always a bold contrarian like Werner; a teacher, parent, mentor or a leader who provides the time, the access and the assurances; a trustworthy and caring soul who shows, unequivocally, that to be wet, cold and scared is also to be invigorated, refreshed and inspired.

And around every one of these contrarians is a network of friends eager to share their new contagious, authentic enthusiasm for sailing.

Now let’s be clear. All of these contrarians come from the 1% — they have to, because they have a monopoly on experience — but their reach is into the 99% and their impact is to the 100% and beyond. It’s a kind of grassroots movement with its tap roots in a tiny minority, precisely where you would think such a thing couldn’t exist.

Every week or so Werner posts another dozen images to Facebook of big-grinning newbies, dragging bare feet from transoms or toasting a golden sundown, and every week Werner’s list of friends multiplies. Moms and daughters, old and young, college couples, teenagers, retirees, African-Americans, Indians, Asians, sometimes even infants and pets. Every week I count at least another 50 or 100 people no longer in the 99% and I press “Like”.

This has me wondering what it would take to send the Milwaukee second graders to Werner’s dock for the 2012 spring field-trip.

Happy Holidays, Werner. Thank you for reminding us how lucky we are to be in the 1% and for brightly lighting the path to becoming the 2%.

Credit Photo: Werner Maybaum, Sailing Lake Calhoun.

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