Friday, January 29, 2010

$20 Gas and the Future of Sailing

What is the future of sailing? Maybe economics and resource shortages will have a different impact than you might imagine...

I recently had the pleasure to read $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner. Of course, as an active racing sailor, I was reading the book not only with an eye to the many fundamental, even drastic, changes to our society and overall lifestyle that Steiner predicts but, more particularly, to how the rise in the price of oil, and everything derived from it, will affect our beloved sport of sailing.

The premises of the book are
  • the demand for oil will continue to increase as the global middle class expands
  • the oil that remains in the earth will become more and more expensive to locate and extract
  • as a result the price of gasoline (and all other products derived from oil) will climb to levels we have never seen before.

Each chapter discusses the changes to be expected as gas goes through $6, $8, $10..... all the way to $20 per gallon. Steiner focuses mainly on the impact on American society; one could argue that many European countries are already well along the path to some of these higher prices, and the associated changes in their way of life.

So here's how the story goes...

Chapter $6: the end of the American SUV as we know it, fewer cars on the road, fewer accidents, less obesity, cleaner air, no school buses, reduced travel in youth sports...

Hmmm. So what does that mean for my sailing? I have been known to drive a 2000 mile round trip towing my boat to sail in a regatta. I expect those days will be over for many of us as gas becomes more and more expensive. Maybe we will all race much closer to home, in the same way that Steiner predicts that the current practice of long distance travel for elite school athletes will die out.

Chapter $8: the skies will empty, all but one of the major American "legacy" airlines will go out of business, it will cost $1000 to fly coast-to-coast and $2000 to fly to Europe, and resort destinations dependent on air travel... Disney World, Las Vegas, Jackson Hole and the rest... will be in major trouble.

Hmmm. There goes the international element of my sailing. No more jetting off to Australia or Europe to sail in Laser Masters Worlds, at least not for so many of us. And will some of my favorite sailing "resort" destinations such as Bitter End Yacht Club, Minorca Sailing etc. survive once the current era of cheap air travel is over? Looks like all of my sailing will be at local clubs and regattas which is not necessarily a bad thing, just different.

Chapter $10: major switch to plug-in hybrids and electric cars.

And in this chapter Steiner addresses directly a change in boating habits under the heading Extinction Will Come for Gasoline-Slurping Big Boy Toys. He predicts the end of snowmobiles, and more to the point jet skis. (Do I hear the sound of applause from my sailing friends?)

And get this next prediction: "The giant fleet of motorboats, speedboats, and ski boats that crowd our waters will be thinned to a tiny convoy. Sailboats, canoes, kayaks and rowboats will rule the waves." (I am sure I can hear you cheering now.)

Steiner goes on: "Many people will have their hobbies stolen from them by the rising price of gas. It will no longer be possible for a family to enjoy a powerboat in the summer... People will get along without their 400 horsepower pick-up truck that drags their 300
horsepower bass boat from lake to lake."

So what will happen to all the powerboaters and jetskiers? My personal guess is that many of them will still be drawn to spending their leisure time on the water. And they will find ways to do so without big gas-guzzling engines. They will fish from a rowing boat or a canoe. Those with a yen for speed will sail high performance dinghies or catamarans. Folk who seek spills and thrills will take up whitewater kayaking or surfing. Those who want to travel and explore will do so in day-sailers and small cruisers. The rise in the price of gas will guarantee the future health of sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, rowing... every water sport you can enjoy without an engine.

Quite by coincidence I noticed today that bonnie of frogma has been thinking along similar lines. In a comment to a post on O Dock she wrote..

I've heard that kayaking is weathering the economy pretty well.

Back when gas was twenty dollars a gallon (or whatever it was when it was at the worst), I was always saying that we should do a campaign for my kayak club by printing up flyers - "Tired of the the high price of gas? Come visit your neighbors at the Sebago Canoe Club!" - and then going out in the middle of the night & leaving a flyer on board each & every motorboat in the Paerdegat Basin.

So what do you think? Am I an hopeless optimist? Or is sailing really due for a major revival as the price of oil rises inexorably to the point where water sports that use engines will be priced out of reach of the average family?

I haven't got my mind around whether $20 gas will have other consequences for sailing. What will it do to the price of the raw materials used in boat-building for example? What other unforeseen consequences might there be?


EscapeVelocity said...

Yeah, the price of petroleum does have a bit of an impact on the price of fiberglass--how many companies went bust in the 70s?

I would think the impact would vary--people who live on the water in areas where there are lots of used sailboats available might sail more, those who trailersail or travel to their boats will probably sail less. Cigarette boats and those great big cabin cruisers will become greater status symbols than they already are, but fortunately fewer people will be able to afford them (I live in Texas--I can't imagine the flagrant destruction of scarce natural resources ever becoming uncool among the ruling classes here).

Sam Chapin said...

Read "Water" by Steven Solomon and you will be reminded we are running out of a lot of things. Life has changed a lot in the last 100 years and it is still bending.

Jack of all Trades said...

Optimist? I thought you were a Laser guy!

I like to think that we are at the beginning of a sailing renaissance, but the reality is that most sailboats are made out of plastic (i.e. oil), so this trend will still pose challenges for making sailing an affordable leisure activity.

But in terms of the the powerboat vs. sailboat debate, I think it's inevitable that sailing "wins" over time, at least in the <50' category (the super-rich may always want their super-yachts).

Joe said...

Did you know that you can tow a small boat with a bicycle or an electric moped? I'll throw a photo up later today so you can have a look.

Tillerman said...

On this issue of the price of the resins etc. used to build fiberglass boats, they are derived from oil... as are most plastics these days. There is a chapter in Steiner's book where he discusses bioplastics - plastics derived from renewable biological sources rather than petroleum. Maybe that will be the future for "plastic" boats?

Or we could build boats out of a composite of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, in which the unidirectional cellulose microfibrils constitute the reinforcing elements in the matrix blend of hemicellulose and lignin. The structure would be built as a multi-ply construction with layers of cellulose microfibrils at different angles to the fiber axis. I think it's been done before. The stuff is known as W.O.O.D.

Adam said...

Wood is a tremendous boat building material. But it is not suited to mass production. It also requires a lot more upkeep.

Possible results: "production" boats become much more expensive and casual boating will likely become rarer. Home building might become more popular (I like the idea of people building things again instead of just buying them). With more one off building I suspect we would see a greater variety of designs, which could be interesting.

One design racing might have some challenges keeping things fair.

A big advantage to wood boats: those that are ugly, can't perform, are generally dangerous and undesirable, or simply get neglected, have the good sense to die and rot away.

Jack of all Trades said...

This book sounds interesting enough that I might just have to read it.

Biomaterials is certainly one way we get to the future, but today their mostly in concept stages, and even when commercialized will likely be much more expensive than today's petro-materials.

More expensive than wood, though? Probably not for a long time, given the cost advantages of fiberglass production. But the cost differential will narrow, for sure.

Tillerman said...

Welcome Adam and Jack. Not sure if you are first-time commenters but it is the first time I clicked on your names to find your blogs. Neither about sailing but each interesting in their own ways.

I'm really not sure what is going to happen to boat-building practices as oil prices go through the roof. I suspect Adam is right in saying that home building will become more popular. I keep thinking back to when I was a boy in the UK (1950's and 60's) and how the Mirror Dinghy (a home build wooden boat) opened up sailing to a whole generation of folk who weren't all that well off but were handy enough with tools to build their own boats. I can imagine that, when fiberglass boats become too expensive for the average working guy, we will see a return to those days.

Jack of all Trades said...

Thanks Tillerman - I've been visiting Proper Course for a couple months, but its possible I haven't commented before.

True enough that I don't often blog about sailing; usually its finance/economics. I've often thought of integrating them - after all, there are enough sailing analogies to cover most everything.

JP said...

It could all be ok - to give two examples.

1) If you live in cities like London with reasonable public transport you don't actually need to own a car

2) If you do need to get a car a real alternative now is electric powered by renewables: it might be more expensive to buy but cheaper to run

Given the damage that greenhouse gases like CO2 does, a high gas/petrol price actually can be a good thing. And if helps sailing and kayaking, then hurrah.

But I'd miss the flying to exotic places

Anonymous said...

I follow this subject pretty regularly. We may have passed peak oil already. I have alot of problems with the ideas in this book. Anyone remember what went on last year when gas climbed over $4 a gallon? Airlines needed life support to stay alive. The us economy begins to wobble. The poor have a hard time keeping gas in the tank. Since EVERYTHING depends on oil all prices will rise. Not only is your food shipped from far away, but it relies on heavy inputs of ferilizer and pesticide. Both are petro derived.

As far as the fleet of alterna cars go I seriously doubt we will see it. Remeber the hydrogen car? Too many problems to get past so that died out. If I am not mistaken it still takes more energy to make bio fuel than you get from the refined product. It relies heavily on governtment subsidies. There isn't enough room here to discuss turning food into fuel when people are starving. Electric cars? Sure if you think the current grid could support such a massive additional load of tens of millions of cars plugged in every night.. Then there is the small problem that most americans are going to be too broke to buy an electric car. For more on peak oil goto: or

Tillerman said...

Steiner would agree with a lot of what you say, Anonymous. The later chapters of his book predict a massive shift of population to living in more densely populated cities using efficient subways and other public transportation. Many people will no longer need a car. And long distance transportation will primarily be by high-speed rail.

I didn't discuss chapters $12 thru $20 in my post because I couldn't see much relevance to the future of sailing, which was my real subject. But they definitely paint an interesting perspective on where we are heading.

O Docker said...

Thanks for giving me yet another idea for a post - if I can find the time to write it in the next day or so.

But I wonder if we don't already have enough fiberglass boats to keep us going for quite some time.

I don't know anyone in a middle-ish income bracket who is seriously considering a new cruising boat when there are already so many out there on the used market - in great shape, well-equipped, and a third or a quarter the price of new.

Wouldn't you recommend this route to the new dinghy sailor, too - especially someone who wasn't sure they would stick with the sport?

tillerman said...

Absolutely OD. If you're not sure you are going to stick with the sport then, by all means, do buy a second-hand sailing dinghy for a few hundred dollars rather than a new one for several thousand.

I have bought four Lasers over my lifetime. All of them were new but two of them were significantly reduced in price; one was a "cosmetic second" and the other was a former charter boat which had very little use and I personally knew of its history. But then I knew from the first time I tried a Laser that it was the boat for me and that I was in it for the long haul.

I have bought three Sunfish. The first two were second-hand because I didn't know whether I was ever going to be seriously into Sunfish. I handed them down to my sons and bought myself a new one, actually a reduced price "demo" boat when I thought I was serious about Sunfish (on the class association board of directors, selected for the US team at the Worlds etc. etc.) Then I realized I wasn't really serious about Sunfish so I sold them all.

I have bought two Optimists. One was a second-hand wooden boat. Then when it was obvious that son #1 was really into Optimists I bought him a new boat and son #2 took the wooden boat.

What was the question again? What does this have to do with the price of gas?

doryman said...

This topic has taken an interesting turn! Anyone who has been to visit Doryman will know what I'm going to say next.

Adam claims that wood is a tremendous boat building material, but it is not suited to mass production and also requires a lot more upkeep.
These are myths.

The home built boat culture is more vibrant than it has ever been. In the last 50 years many very fine wood boats were left to rot based on hyperbole perpetuated by the fiberglass production industry, but sailors everywhere are getting wise to that. Today there are plans available for quality home built boats that can be produced by everyone and anyone. That's what I call mass production.

For more wood boat propaganda, visit
When those old Lasers wear out and are too expensive to produce, I know a couple designs that will outlive them, with style!

Pat said...

Sailors in our club have to drive 50 to 150 miles to our home lake from scattered population centers in the southwest.

So, we operate a mast-up storage lot as a state park concessionaire and have equipped the lot with an old truck. That way, people can choose to drive to the lake in smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles and use the lot truck to launch their boats.

Tweezerman said...

Perhaps for a crystal ball we need to look back, back to pre WW II, before the Interstates, before the three cars in every driveway. Small boat sailors, canoists did travel between the World Wars, just differently and usually saving the big trip for once a year. Canoists attending the ACA Encampment in the Thousand Islands shipped their canoes and themselves by rail to Clayton NY, where they disembarked and then paddled the 15 miles to the Encampment. The International 14 originally had a 14 foot hoist so the masts could be broken down, again to facilitate transport by rail. Mothboaters travelled between Florida and E-City North Carolina by auto with multi deck trailers. I've even seen pictures of trucks carrying about 10 Mothboats.

Obviously, travelling will be easier to do with small, light boats.

As an aside, T Boone Pickens may be right. Natural gas may be our temporary bridge to the new oil less world. My Dad, retired from the oil industry said there are new discoveries of natural gas deposits in the Gulf that could take us 70-90 years down the road.

Yes, I have read Kuntsler, though with anything, it is very hard to nail the timing and the shape of the future down.

Tweezerman said...

Oops, misspelled "canoeists". Tough to do editing after you post the comment.

tillerman said...

Thanks for that piece of history Tweezerman. Steiner projects a future where long distance travel in the US will principally be by high speed rail rather than by car or air. So I was wondering if we will all be transporting our boats by rail too.

The other option I was imagining was where sailors traveled by rail to some distant regatta site and all the boats were charted on site. Of course this would be easier for the mass production boats like Sunfish and Laser. Actually the world championships for these boats are already run with chartered boats. I wonder if this will become a more common way of running other major regattas in future?

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