Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book Review: Saving Sailing

Nick Hayes is in love with sailing. He is one of those people who believes that sailing takes us as close to God as we think we might ever be.

But he is troubled. The numbers tell him that sailing in America is in decline. And he wants to understand why something as rich and rewarding as sailing should be losing popularity. More than that: he wants to work out how to save sailing.

So he has studied sailing and sailors and sailing clubs. He has interviewed more than 1,200 sailors worldwide. He has drawn some fascinating conclusions as to why sailing is decline and what we need to do about it, and he has written all about it in his new book, Saving Sailing.

Actually, in the process of pondering what is happening in sailing, Nick has developed some theories about how people choose to use their free time generally, and how to support any challenging but rewarding inter-generational life-long pursuit. His conclusions are as applicable to making music or hunting or knitting as they are to sailing.

Saving Sailing is a book which challenges you to examine many of your own assumptions about our sport. Time and time again as I read it, I found myself thinking, "Hmmm. That's a good point. How does that relate to my experience at that club or that sailing program? Do I agree with his argument or not?" My mind is still buzzing as I mull over the ideas in this book. I suspect I may revisit some of the issues in future blog posts.

A couple of examples...

Nick argues that one of the reasons that an activity like sailing, a "life pastime" as he calls it, is deep and rich and socially meaningful is that it requires more skill and more time commitment than some "time filler" such as watching TV or surfing the web. Paradoxically fewer people are embracing a life pastime because other options are easier; but those of us who are drawn to a life pastime, like sailing, do so even though it is hard - or perhaps partly because it is hard. Nick concludes that, "If sailors hope that sailing will survive and grow, they won't try and convince others that it is easy. They will rightly call sailing what it is: difficult, time-consuming, evolving, sometimes risky and always worth it." Quite a controversial stance. One that our new president of US Sailing doesn't seem to have embraced (yet).

As someone who was once involved in teaching junior sailing classes, I have always seen the large number of kids involved in junior sailing programs as a healthy sign for the future of our sport. Nick, however, is skeptical about this view. He sees that the vast majority of kids, even those who go on to college sailing, eventually drop sailing from their lives after they graduate college and find more important things to take sailing's place, things like a career and wife and kids. He also sees that, for many families, sailing is just another one of those activities like baseball and ballet and soccer where the parents drop off their kid for some lessons, Mum and Dad are not involved themselves in their kid's sailing, and indeed they often don't even understand what the kid's sport is all about.

After ranging far and wide (and deep) and analyzing the decline in sailing from all angles, Nick develops a set of recommendations for attacking the problem based on a model of mentoring across generations, preferably within the family. He is a strong believer in parents investing in skills so as to be able to transfer skills, in parents doing things with their children not just for them, in parents making difficult time choices in order to share time with their kids in their chosen life pastime.

His vision is compelling. I have seen at least one sailing club where it is working superbly well. I am not totally convinced that Nick's vision is the only way to save sailing, but his book certainly stimulates the reader to think through all these issues.

I would recommend the book to anyone concerned about the future of sailing.
If you are a parent who would like your kids to sail you should read the book; it could change your whole approach to sailing as a family. If you are in any kind of leadership position in a sailing club or a community sailing organization, then you should buy some copies of this book for all the officers of your group, read it, and then discuss as a group how you are going to use the ideas presented to improve your program. If, like me, you are just some old dude who loves sailing as much as Nick does, then you should read the book to rouse yourself to work out what you can do to make sure that our sport doesn't decline any more.

Nick's analysis of these issues is interspersed in the book with anecdotes about different people's experiences of sailing - some good, some not so good. (I'm assuming that the characters in these tales are fictional but based on reality.) As the book progresses we slowly discover that many of the people in these stories are actually connected with each other, and that Nick is writing about a complex web of relationships across genders, generations and ethnicities, a web in which memories are created and passed on and in which one generation mentors the next.

And now for a surprising coincidence and a hopeful sign...

I read the last one of these sailing anecdotes in Nick's book on Monday. It was the final link in the chain of connections between all the characters, but historically it was the earliest story. It was a tale about the seminal incident that had sent ripples of relationships and memories and teaching across families and across generations. It was a story about a sailing race in a Thistle about fifty years ago. A guy whose name began with E. took his young daughter and her best school friend out sailing. Immediately after reading this chapter of the book I turned to my computer and saw that my friend Edward had just posted Sailing Camp on SF Bay, an account of a sail he had with his daughter and her friend and how they were having fun learning about sailing.

I think Nick Hayes would approve. Edward is doing his bit to save sailing. There is hope. Sailing does have a future.

Full disclosure: I was given a review copy of Saving Sailing.


EscapeVelocity said...

Dang, I don't expect my public library will be ordering a copy of this.

That sounds good as far as it goes, but it seems to me that children of sailors are not enough, if we want the sport to expand or even hold steady. And as a person who does not have children and wants to be able to find crew in forty years, that is a matter of pressing concern to me.

Anonymous said...

that was a very thorough review - thanks for your thoughts on the book, and I look forward to future blog posts about it.

as EscapeVelocity said, I agree my public library won't be ordering this one (even if I asked, which I'll try). maybe I'll just have to order it, or wait to receive my own copy to review... how exactly do I get that perk?! :)

Joe said...

I wonder, we live in a world where people play fake guitars (guitar hero) and pretend tennis (wii). Do you think that the decline in sailing goes hand in hand with the decline of all outdoor activities?

Shopping City Chaplaincy said...

I think people have too many hobbies and pastimes.

I have just joined a new sailing club and the dinghy park is full of boats, stacks of boats.
The staggering thing is that if all the boats took to the water at the same time you could probably walk from end to end of the lake without getting your feet wet and yet I have only seen a fraction of the boats on the water at any one time.
There are boats going rotten waiting for someone to sail them.
The only reason I can think of is that folk have more money and hobbies than time.

I think sailing requires commitment to get the best out of it and I suspect that many folk give up becaue they don't get instant gratification.

Chris M. said...

Great article, with top notch writing. I'd like to post your blog on my bloglist. I'm at
You have a new fan!

Klove Hitch said...

Joe has a good point. The virtual can never replace the real, but it certainly is a good tool to introduce one to a new sport, hobby, pastime, etc. Does wii have a sailing program? Kind of like the old driver's training simulators?

Having not read the book, I am curious how Mr. Hayes worked the numbers (I'll need to check it out.)

In my world, sailing experiences are on the rise:-D

BTW Mr. Tillerman, you have 2 new fans FWIW-

Joe said...

Tim, I don't know if it can be attributed to people wanting instant gratification. I think time and cost also play a role.

How much time is needed to prepare for the sailing day, to put gear away and clean the boat at the end of the day, and boat maintenance? I went from an Olson 30 to a Cape Dory, and then to a Force 5 because of the amount of time dedicated to non-sailing activities associated with boat ownership.

How much does it cost to own a sailboat? Berth fees, maintenance costs, gas to tow your boat if it is on a trailer....que barbaridad!

Surfing does not seem to be suffering. It is not an instant gratification sport. Many hours are spent learning how to catch a wave. After one masters the basics, time is spent waiting for a wave. Cleanup is a quick shower. One can surf with or without gear, so cost is very low.

Anonymous said...

There are quite a few junior programs that get young people into sailing but they are not being retained. One of the big issues causing that poor retention rate is the attitude that if you arent winning and the Olympic dream is clearly out of reach you quit!

I have heard again and again from people between the ages of 18-23 that if you cant win what is the point of participating.

I have asked them dont you want to sail and improve and enjoy the sport even though you arent winning at the level you wish to?

I blame some coaches for this. I heard one leading coach say when he was briefing his squad that "Some people need to quit sailing and stop wasting their own and everyone elses time. You know the sailors I mean, the ones that always finish midfleet and never seem to improve"
I have never forgotten hearing that...

As if to say that any midfleeter is a waste of space and should gtfo.

Coaches set the attitudes that prevail within junior sailing. Win at any cost and if you cant win, well go play another game!

Shopping City Chaplaincy said...

Hi Joe,
I guess you may be right but if so then why would folks buy boats, pay thier club fees and insurance for a boat that just sits in the dinghy park? Some of them are really nice expensive boats too.

I think James may have a good point about the emphasis on youth coaching and another thought is that sometimes the pressure of racing can put off the less experianced.

Pat said...

Yes, I agree that, over the years, bad coaches have turned millions of people away from healthy lifestyles and recreation by discouraging the "losers" from participating in sport. Possibly there are lots of people who are anti-sport because of a few bad coaches.

I agree that confining "saving sailing" to our own kids is a declining-option game.

Is there any way to give junior sailing programs an escape from a competitive "Little League" atmosphere and more of the flavor of "Swallows and Amazons"?

Tillerman said...

Great comments. You guys are giving me lots of ideas for future blog posts. Keep 'em coming!

Joe said...

Tim, great point about the boats sitting in the dinghy park. There also a few boats berthed at marinas around where I live that see more action from seagulls breaking open mollusks than from "sailors." I wonder if it falls into the "ab-roller" or "bow-flex" category? People often fantasize about sailing valiantly out into the foreboding sea only to realize after a sail or two that it can get cold. So the boat sits forlorn in the harbour, hoping one day that it will be able to have it's sails hoisted and head-out into the bay.

Carol Anne said...

In response to James ... I'd say it's not just the coaches, but also sometimes the parents, who want the kids to be the very best, and if they're not, it's time to quit.

We absolutely have to have programs in which it's totally OK to be something other than the very best. It's just not mathematically possible to have a Lake Wobegon program in which everybody is better than average. I can second Pat's observation; I once participated in a gymnastics program in which the coaches told me in no uncertain terms that I was totally unfit to continue -- it was actually off-season practice for the high school gymnastics team, disguised as a summer school class so as to circumvent state athletic association rules about unauthorized practice and conditioning sessions.

And what about those kids who decide racing isn't what they want to do, but who might enjoy other aspects of sailing, such as long-distance cruising? So many youth programs are purely about racing, so the kids may not get exposure to the pleasures of anchoring in some quiet cove and snuggling into a sleeping bag in the cockpit and watching the stars slowly spin past the masthead. For that matter, the whole family might enjoy anchoring somewhere isolated and have some together-time away from cell phones and the Internet and all of those other distractions.

Yeah, that's my idealistic view. In reality, that's not so likely to happen. Families nowadays are going off in all different directions. That's a whole 'nother issue.

Tweezerman said...

I see another group writing project, "How I learned to sail". You'd be surprised at the number of life long sailors that learned outside of a junior program.

Pat said...

I'll offer a bit of local rough data. In our region, the number of sailing club members during the past three decades has fluctuated between about 75 and 175 and today's numbers are close to the long-term average but below the early/mid 1980s peak.

The average member age, however, is up about five years from what it was a generation ago.

And the average number of boats participating in regattas and other events is about half of what it was.

We have a higher proportion of less active members and members nowadays seem to have more trouble in fighting free of distractions, financial worries, or time commitments to go sailing on the lake.

One special obstacle we've faced in considering starting a junior program is that our favorite lakes are about two or more hours from most local population centers, and many local kids no longer have the skills or interest in roughing it by camping.

We wanted one particular high school youth (Navy Jr. ROTC) group to participate in an all-weekend regatta, but to get them to come and stay overnight we might have to help pay to put them up in motels and feed them in restaurants, which is utterly nuts and ridiculous.
Desert Sea

JP said...

Sorry late to this post, but one thing must be the range of different things we can do - those that either had the choice of sailing or kayaking before can now do so many different water sport like kite surfing - or blogging!

Also people are working longer hours which means less free time.


Janna Cawrse Esarey said...

Both my husband and I grew up in families that love boating. And so WE love boating (sailed for 2+ yrs on our honeymoon). And now we sail with our daughters (ages 1 and 3) on weekends and vacations and plan to go full-time cruising with them in the next 5 yrs. All this to say that passing boat-love down through fam works. Though I agree with others who've said that it can't be solely relied upon to grow the sport.

So we've got the boat love. That's established. But the big, gnarly issue we're facing now is how my hub's fanaticism (my word) for racing affects our family's free time. Racing--at least around the cans--isn't something you do with a 1 and 3 yr old. So that means mom is at home with kids on race evenings/weekends sans her partner in parenting. Argh. So get a babysitter? Yet another line item in the high cost of sailing. And what about time with kids? And what if one's wife (like me) isn't so jazzed about racing?

Which brings me to my main point: How many sailors or would-be sailors aren't out there b/c their partner isn't jazzed about sailing? I suspect this is a mighty high number and likely accounts for lots of boats sitting idle. Makes me think that getting women into sailing is just as important as those junior sailing programs.

How have we solved our issue? Well, we haven't. But I have agreed to give racing a try (I've only raced once). And, eventually, the girls will get bigger and be able to race too. And so we'll race as a family...or mom will get some free time while dad and girls zip around the cans.

Pandabonium said...

Late comment, but a new (November 2nd) article in SailMagazine is apropos...

The O’pen Revolution - about a program Miami Yacht Club uses which has turned the tide for them.

Captain John said...

You said:

"Makes me think that getting women into sailing is just as important as those junior sailing programs." In April of this year I founded a networking group, with the express purpose of 'connecting those that want to sail with those that sail'.

Something unexpected happened.

After 6 months, 340+ people had joined the group and gone sailing more than 400 times. The surprising thing to me, an old geezer like Tillerman, was the proactive nature of women who want to sail. The demographic I've noticed is not the young mothers. Nick discusses the challenge that young families face in his book.

The proactive would-be-sailor demographic among the Got Wind and Water is single women of all ages.

One cool aspect of the website is that clicking on the member tab allows anyone to see which members have visited the site recently, listed in the order of the last visit. The men and women visit with equal interest.

But the women go sailing.

After some discussions with Nick about this, we (at GOTWAW)are looking for a way to involve families.

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