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Old 03-26-2013
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Automated sailing mentality anecdotally

I was really surprised by the vitriolic tone of some of the earlier posts, especially given the rather innocuous nature of this topic. Frankly, it sounded awfully close to the “Name your second and I’ll meet you on the cliffs of Weehawken at sunrise”. Good grief. (In honor of Jon Eisberg *Grin*)

But what struck me was that the point of contention seemed like multiple symptoms of the same agreed upon problem, which in my mind is that fewer U.S. citizens are getting into sailing in part because we, as a culture, are seemingly getting less mechanically inclined, and also amongst those who do take up sailing, there seems to be less of a willingness and capability to adapt to physical requirements and learning process that is required to be a skillful hands-on sailor.

In response, progressively, there seemingly has been a focused marketing effort to make sailing physically and mentally less demanding as a way of getting people out on sailboats. I do not intend to stand here judging the rightness or wrongness of this approach, but clearly this appears to be a trend, and clearly it is in response to changes in the population.

Anecdotally, I see this trend in a variety of symptoms. For example, in the late 1800’s, there were liveries of small rental sailboats all along the Hudson River. Blue collar workers of the era rented these for a day on the River. On Sunday’s the river was clogged with small sailing craft of a wide variety. People of a board range of economic standing, understood how to sail, and would follow sailing events in the Newspapers in the same way that people follow major league sports on cable channels today.

By the 1960’s, it was not all unusual for families to own small cruiser, and I mean small. People would start out sailing comparatively small boats and work their up to bigger boats and more ambitious adventures as they developed skills.

In our case, when I was a kid, my family of four would cruise for weeks at a time on a Contest 25 and later lived summers on a Vanguard 32 (with about as much interior space as the average 28 footer of today). These were simple boats in all ways, 2 burner alcohol stove, an icebox with real ice, minimal electronics (depth sounder and an RDF), minimal deck gear and so on. My Dad did most of his own maintenance. We were pretty typical of the folks that we knew back then.

And as simple as boats were in those days, there was seemingly a tacit understanding that new sailors went through a process to build skills; learning to be sailors thru a gradual and sequential apprenticeship of skill building by reading and experiencing. And within the sailing community there was a near universal sense of old salts reaching out to newcomers and giving them a leg up.

And there was an ethic which went along with that. A sense of accomplishment in fighting through a storm or ghosting through a lull, in trouble shooting some problem, or coming into a slip or narrow inlet under sail, or of a boat well handled and a fast passage time.

But as a culture we build products that the average person can no longer fix themselves, and so over time we have become less handy and less self reliant. And with that loss of sense of accomplistment from learning and doing, is lost a societal sense that there is merit to valuing those kinds of capabilities. And that must filter into the perceptions of sailing, a sport that primarily exists on the ethic of doing a vast amount with an invisible resource and with difficult challenges.

I attended a sailing yacht design symposium recently and at the symposium was a lecture on a strange radio controlled model sail boat called a ‘Footy’ which is foot long, a foot deep, six inch wide, with something like a 1’-6” rig height. And the lecturer said that kids have become so inept at building things that they could design these boats on a computer but could not build them. They eventually were considering outlawing boats built with the use of computer driven cutters and 3D printers to protect the original purpose of the rule which was to get kids build things.

But back to anecdotes on the issue of automated boats. There was a 10 year period which slowed to a near stop about 5 years ago, where a different person would send me a message every two to three weeks in one form or another, saying something like, “ I have read many of your posts. I am new to sailing and I would like to sail around the world. I have $XX,XXX to spend. What kind of boat should I buy?”

And I would give them all the same answer. “Buy a used, small (no more than 25-30 foot), simple, fin keel spade rudder sloop and spend as much time on the water as you can. Sail with as many people as you can on as many different types of boats as you can in as many types of conditions as you can. Put together a list of topics that you will need to study, (and I would give them a sample list) and then study the daylights out of it. In a year or two or three, you will not have to ask me what kind of boat to buy…you should know for yourself”.

But oddly, in the first exchange of email, the vast majority of these folks started out objecting to the idea of doing ‘an apprenticeship”. Almost every single one of them said, they would learn as they went. They did not want to waste time and money on a boat to learn on. I tried to talk them out of it, most time successfully. And there were so many of these folks that I tracked them for a while on a spreadsheet.
• No matter what was said, some only wanted to buy their ultimate boat. (Although they did provide me with some interesting challenges like the cell phone call from a desperate owner of a 45 footer caught in a higher than they were comfortable with winds, with too much sail up and his wife afraid to take the helm.) Those folks almost never made it anywhere. Years of their life would seemingly pass by and most of them would go away bitter.
• Others did not want to buy a used boat and only wanted to buy new boats with all the bells and whistles, sometimes bigger than I would suggest. They wanted something ‘reliable’, more comfortable, easier to sail, less demanding. Some of those took my advice that in part, the purpose of buying a used boat was to learn how to care for a boat, and build up ingenuity and skills. Those who bought new boats, rarely went beyond coastal cruising, but they also often learned that there is nothing wrong with coastal cruising.
• But a large number of folks followed my suggestions. Out of that group many did move on to bigger boats and successful long distance cruises. Others enjoyed the experience of learning to sail enough, and poking around in coastal conditions, the Bahamas or the Caribbean, that it became all of the adventure that they needed. Some discovered cheaply, that sailing was not for them.
• And others, fretted so long over buying or outfitting the perfect boat that they never did get out there, which was probably the best thing for those folks.

And if I had to come away with one conclusion, at least at the start, it was that for most of these folks, it was about an instant grand reward without having to do the heavy lifting. And seen from that vantage point, the idea of boats which are automated and which require little physical conditioning to operate, and which work well as long as they work, may make sense in terms of getting people into the sport of sailing.

And at the end of the day, I have no problem with that as long as these folks don’t hurt themselves and others through negligence or intentional ignorance. But that is a big “as long as”, and it is that particularly big “as long as” that makes me nervous about advertisements that project complex gizmos as the marketing equivalent of “Viagra seamanship”.

Respectfully,
Jeff
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Curmudgeon at Large- and rhinestone in the rough, sailing my Farr 11.6 on the Chesapeake Bay and part-time purveyor of marine supplies

Last edited by Jeff_H; 03-26-2013 at 04:33 PM.
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