Recent survey data from the National Sailing Industry Association reveals that 42 percent of those sailing began doing so at the age of 14. And the average starting age of the sailors taking the survey is 17. That sounds pretty good until you find out that the average age of the current boat owners surveyed is 52 years old. They began young and grew up. Now the average sailor is middle-aged.
Where are the young sailors? What's happened to sailing as a family activity? Sailing couples buy boats and plan cruises, or new sailing lifestyles, or just daysailing afternoons. And, somehow, kids don't seem to be a part of this scenario as much as they werein the past. The family boat is becoming more the parents' boat. Are the kids on a sabbatical somewhere? Where did they go?
Well, they're still aboard, but we don't hear much about them.
This is no surprise from an industry that for years has keyed on the buyers of the sportnot its future buyers. These are, most notably, baby boomers closing in on retirement and cashing in on sailing dreams. The industry has responded by marketing big flashy boats; lavish, far-off charters; and the latest gadgets and gearusually at a flashy pricesto answer every whim.
Those images of young family members joining their parents on the family boat, of kids just having fun sailing, have faded from this new pop sailing culture. And in the absence, the false impression that sailing isn't well suited to youth is trickling down. With this subliminal message resonating, we think maybe it's really not such a great activity for kids; maybe sailing really doesn't fit into the family budget.
I remember one brilliant and golden sunny day in the archipelago off Sweden's eastern coast. It was early season and dozens of Swedish families on family sailboats, mainly around 20 to 35 feet (they seem to prefer smaller boats in Scandinavia) were on the water on this gorgeous early-summer day. In the lee of a rock-strewn island, I watched this array of boats all bristling with kids. There were kids flapping around in the water at the transom, kids giggling in the cockpit, and kids jumping around the dinghy, kids, kids, kids, all while parents relaxed in a corner of the cockpit or under an awning on deckeveryone sharing in the bliss of a sailing anchorage.
Sailing in Scandinavia, as well as much of Western Europe, is a summer recreation and that means a family recreation. This is so much so that you almost sense that sailing without family aboard is like sailing without sheets: You can't capture the wind in your sails without them; you can't get the bounce for your fun without family. In these cultures, children, young and old, are among the components of sailing as a fun, wholesome activitythe very love of the sport.
Where are all the US kids? Are they on soccer fields around the country, maybe on baseball diamonds, maybe on roller blades, or maybe at home, wrapped up in a good game of Myst on the computer?
It's surprising that a sport that expends so much effort attracting women neglects to retain those who are naturally a part of it already as children of current sailors.
But then we can't blame families for finding the sport more expensive that they wish. How many families can afford to suit up their children in the latest high-tech anti-fouling gear? Making sure that each has a good life vest, sailing shoes, and perhaps sailing gloves takes enough gouge out of the family budget.
This naturally wholesome sport is being left behind by scores of young sailors. Sure they continue to join junior sailing programs, such as those offered by community sailing programs, yacht clubs, and ISSA. Programs like the Rolex Junior sailing championships have encouraged young sailors and brought them into top ranks of racing sailors. But, without sponsorship, this kind of sailing is expensive; and leaves a void in casual recreational sailing that isn't competitive by nature.
Imagine giving your children the gift of sailing. Not to sound like a Discover Sailing brochure, but look at the inimitable advantages that sailing brings to your kids. They not only learn a recreation that they can enjoy for their lifetime, but they come away with fundamental improvements to their lives. Among these gains are: self-reliance, appreciation of nature, team building, physical exercise (that rarely causes injuries), building family bonds with parents and siblings, and playing in a healthy environment. Many parents put out large sums to send their children to places like Outward Bound for these experiences.
It's interesting that parents will gladly give their teenager the car keys for an evening, but forget they might just as easily be giving them the painter to the dinghy for the evening.
For a sport that prides itself on creating fresh, clean fun, it's unfair to not encourage the youth of sailing to this beautiful world.
Other sports do. The skiing industry, wisely recognizing the future business benefits of keeping the kids with the parents on ski trips, encourages young skiers, of all ages, to the hills. They've put "kinder-ski-schools" in place, taking care of the kids in hillside daycare centers or teaching them skiing for the day in age-level lessons. This, of course, separates the parents from the children and blocks the interaction of family members, which sailing doesn't do. We're all together on the boat.
Biking has encouraged all family members of all ages to the sport. Chess, though hardly comparable to sailing, has built its future encouraging young chess players. Imagine if it didn't. The sport of chess would have probably died off years ago. After all, what kid would have been naturally drawn to the arcane sport of chess if it weren't for the support of chess programs throughout schools and communities around the country which encouraged children to try the sport.
Sailing, luckily, doesn't require much of a hard-or-soft-sell. It is a natural kid sport. What could be more attune to the whims of children than feeling the breeze on their faces and trying to make the boat go with the wind.
Put sailing back on the family schedule. Put your investment into sailing into your kids, not just into your boat. Take time to make the sport for them too, so that they will grow up to know the sport that will forever make their hearts race, as the wind sends them along.