We've read a lot lately about saving sailing, increasing regatta fleets, getting more participation and increasing yacht club sailing programs. I've heard from major players in the marine world and NMMA about how participation in sailing and boating in general is way down from the peaks it achieved years ago.
Of course, it's down. Sailing and boating are interests that use discretionary income. In a recession, discretionary spending is the first item that gets cut. My experience going back over forty years of professional boat design and writing about boats is that Wall Street should incorporate sailing and boating into their stock prediction models because marine businesses turn down about six months before Wall Street and all its tycoons realize we are entering a recession. It takes about nine months to a year after a recession ends for consumers to have enough faith in the economy to start spending on sailing and boating again.
How do we counter this trend? Obviously, we cannot counter discretionary spending issues in a recession but we can be creating future sailors and boaters. How?
1. First, catch 'em young. Get young people involved in sailing and boating before age ten. My sons sailed as soon as they were old enough to go afloat and both now own their own boats, both have sailed in major regattas and enjoy being afloat. Keep kids sailing beyond college by taking them on board keel boats. The Storm Trysail Club has pioneered this initiative. Making it national would be a big step forward.
2. Make it fun. When young people get involved sailing and boating should be fun. Young people get into water sports, not because they want the exercise, but because their friends are in the program. It is a social exercise. Instead of creating gung-ho racing teams, create innovative water sports using boats. Sail to a picnic or a beach party, sail to a swimming beach, give teams water pistols and safety goggles and have a shoot'em up between two teams of pirates, have cops and robbers chases using sailboats as getaway vehicles. Instead of bob-the-apple, sail out to a mark retrieve an apple (or other prize) and sail back again. Use inflatable sailing boats to stage a Wipe-Out-Meets-Sailing event. Hold cross-sport events. For example, a one K run, a half-mile sail around buoys and a hundred yard swim can all increase participation in sailing while not actually appearing to. In other words, make it enjoyable. Racing can come later, when kids and parents have learned to handle the boats and the kids who want to race can move into racing programs.
3. How do we solve the discretionary spending problem and the high cost of boat ownership? Get creative to develop community or yacht club sailing programs. Can two or three yacht club members chip in to sponsor or share a dinghy or boat that kids can use? Can a sponsor be found for a boat? Name sailboats after sponsors (Yes, you can howl that you are exposing kids to advertising, but any time they turn on the TV they are exposed to far more than a name or two on the side of a boat.) Can fundraisers be held to buy used sailboats? Can your local club members develop a non-profit support foundation to buy boats, fund sailing trips, and give kids time on the water?
4. Develop more young adult and adult sailing programs. For example, many yacht club sailing programs put a hundred or more kids through a summer sailing program, but at five pm the program is often over. Why not use the hours between the end of junior sailing until sunset to run an adult sailing program? You can use any type of boat, just get adults on the water. Maybe start a dawn sailing program for adults (with plenty of coffee and donuts!) Use before- and after -work programs to increase participation and utilize your yacht club fleet when junior sailors are not using them.
5. Get entire families involved. If there is one thing sailing and boating has and often fails to promote, is that entire families can participate together. There are already a huge number of distractions for kids, but taking the entire family on a boat keeps everybody together, plus kids can bring their friends. Encourage water sports off your boat. (Make sure you have lifejackets and boarding ladders!) Canoeing, sailing, fishing, swimming, diving, tubing, beach parties, picnics onboard or ashore, or even simply lying on the foredeck in the sun (or even watching TV!) can all be done as a family aboard a boat.
5. Promotion! promotion! promotion! The sailing and boating industry generally talks to itself. Boating writers write for sailing and boating magazines when they could be writing for the general media. We should be telling the entire world what a healthy, fun, lifestyle we sailors have. Instead, we tell each other what we already know.
How do we get the word out?
Have a Ask a-Reporter-Sailing Event (we'll call it ARSE or maybe we should call it National Ask a-Reporter-Sailing Event - NARSE - day!) sometime during the year. approach journalists from every local media source, your local TV stations, local radio, local newspapers and magazines and invite them to bring their families and go out on a boat. Get your yacht club involved and have members take journalists (and their families) out on boats for a day. Put on a darn good show with reporters and their kids going sailing, canoeing, fishing, boating, as long as they are out on the water. Have a BBQ, have drinks on the patio, have fun with kids and parents. Many journalists are parents too and rarely get to take their kids on a story.
In other words make it easy for every non-sailing reporter, journalist, and media person in your local area to leave your NARSE with film, talk, or words that can enhance the image of sailing. (Kids running around with huge grins on their faces is always a good story!) After your event, follow up and ask if the journalist had a fun time. This gives you an excuse to invite them to other events. Media pros don't need to be told to build a rapport with your local media outlet, but many yacht clubs or sailing programs do not develop this type of publicity.
It will take time to build a national sailing marketing program, but if we all start at our local level, the cumulative effect will be huge and we can bring sailing into the mainstream, which will increase participation.