Industry Kills. Sailing Doesn’t.

May 23, 2013 § 4 Comments

I’m sure no harm was meant when some sleepy editor let the phrase “sailing industry” slide into a piece about trends or boats or trickle down or some such thing, and the words became the de facto descriptor of our mode of recreation. According to Google, the phrase first appeared in 2007 a year before boat production in the US essentially shut down. Safe to assume that he or she didn’t give it a second thought, needing builders, brokers and sailmakers for income.

But now we need a new name.

It’s not simply a matter of semantics. Words have meaning, they take form, and they sometimes carry big risks. A recent online post lamented that the sailing industry fails its pros, who are unable to hone their craft year-round for lack of sufficient income from sponsors. It went on to suggest that we recreational sailors are obliged to ensure ample patronage, like some great Medici collective. Be honest, are you going to stay ashore so someone else can sail?

When industry goes egomaniacal, as ours is doing in San Francisco, boats become billboards and sailors are the low cost labor that move them into view, no matter the risks.

America's Cup Crash Kills

Source: NY Times

Following industry’s lead, most sailing media began the classic cycle of Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) after Andrew Simpson’s death while training aboard the AC72 Artemis. But the emotional outburst seems to be less about Simpson’s kids and wife, and more on the plight of the sailing industry. One blogger predicted the end of the line for catamaran makers. Another parroted that “any public relations is good public relations for the sport.” The most common retweet was it’s “a sad day for the sailing industry.” I just felt guilty, as if my fun had somehow contributed to a family’s sorrow.

Let’s face it; what they’re doing in San Francisco isn’t sailing. The on-the-bay display is unrecognizable to those of us that spend our free time under way. Early on, it was more like tuning into a space program; captivating, beyond day-to-day reality, and loaded with opportunity. Along the way it has lost all common sensibility; not because it isn’t thrilling, but because of how it is being industrialized. The course is deliberately square to fit on a TV screen. The crashes are live streamed. Footage of shredded, sinking carbon is backed with power chords and drum tracks. In this future, nobody will put down their tablet to pick up a tiller. That kind of sad, “they’ll never do this, but they won’t be able to turn their eyes” cynicism smacks of the WWF. Now that they’ve killed someone, why not move it to the Roman Coliseum?

NASCAR Crash Kills

Source: Huffington Post

If training on ultra dangerous boats like these had been framed and executed as a noble quest for a new, useful technology, to modernize transportation, to prove grand new inventions, to show how everyday people can do more, or to explore some new unexplored place, this tragedy might have been easier to explain. This was showmanship gone supernova. Turner turned Trump in a flaming Kenevil suit at Talladega. Opportunity lost. Now it’s all just risk.

Consider that NASA, when sending people to live on the space station, spares absolutely no expense to keep them alive. If you compare the unknowns of space travel with these huge experimental winged foilers, the metaphor is fair, but it ends there: Simpson was wearing a bike helmet and carrying a couple minutes of air in a can.

So the industry tail wags this dog.

Industry, by definition, is not what sailing is. Nor is sailing, by definition, an industry. All the costs to play games in sailboats doesn’t amount to a sliver of GDP. And, fun, whether theme park owners like it or not, is an externality, meaning it’s both free and priceless if want it to be. That is what makes it valuable and worth doing.

So let me suggest that anyone who cares about sailing — editors, advocates, participants, publishers, pros and amateurs — should begin calling it the sailing community instead of the sailing industry.

Why is this important?

  • Industry thinks it is the source of ideas. Community knows that people are.
  • Industry thinks it enables lifestyle. Community knows that friends and family do.
  • Industry thinks that money matters. Community knows that time and relationships matter more.

This isn’t to say that smart, spirited, innovative, entrepreneurial folks shouldn’t make a buck when they do something good for sailing and sailors. Every community has ample commercial enterprise. It is to say that when the community is the focus of those enterprises, everyone wins. Even the pros and their families.

As a community, we can make certain that this is Andrew Simpson’s legacy. But as an industry, expect more victims.

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§ 4 Responses to Industry Kills. Sailing Doesn’t.

  • Lisa says:

    Interesting read. I agree with the idea that the America’s Cup has become more of an arms race than a sailing race when it comes to the boats, the coverage, etc. However, is it worth the publicity that comes with the bad ‘stuff’ if it ends up exposing more people to the sport in general and bringing more kids out on the water? They likely won’t be racing AC72s in their future, but maybe a J boat or a 420…

  • ndhayes says:

    I’m not sure losing a sailor is a good way to make more.

  • Dave Long says:

    Hi Nick (it’s been a long time…)
    I agree with all your points. I see about as much connection between the Americas Cup/sailing industry and the community I sail in as I do NASCAR and driving my Toyota Camry. That is, I don’t even connect them.

    In fact, you would find about as many avid AC watchers in our club as you would hockey fans (a little different down here in Texas vs your neck of the woods)
    Sure, I became hooked on sailing watching 12 meters 25 years ago, and could even make the connection when we did our family sailing in a Catalina 22. But now? The whole thing is so unrecogizable as sailing to me.
    I don’t know how many people we pick up in the community from being spectators to the winged billboards, but I would guess its few.
    But, I do suspect there are better ratings for the current races than there were for the monohulls of the past. This is attracting a different kind of fan. I guess time will tell…

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