Sunday, April 03, 2011

Save The Life Of Our Sport

Everyone wants to "save" sailing, but it is a totally ridiculous ambition.

Because there is no such thing as sailing.

Or to be more precise, sailing is not a single thing. It is many things. And it is so many things that it is a nonsense to talk of saving it... or even them.

Let me give you an analogy.

What is sailing?

Sailing is the art (or pastime or sport) of propelling oneself across the surface of the water using the power of the wind captured by one or more sails.

An analogy might be the art of propelling oneself across the surface of the land using one's feet and legs. But there is no single word to describe this art. So let's make one up. Let's call it "flegging."

Flegging includes walking and running and skating and skiing and dancing and hopping and jumping and bicycling and pogo sticking. In sports, it includes all kinds of walking and running races from sprints to ultra-marathons, not to mention long jumping and high jumping and pole vaulting. It includes hiking and long distance trekking and mountain climbing. It includes everything from a gentle walk on the beach to climbing Everest. It is casual recreation. It is extreme sports. It is a pastime. It is many Olympic sports.

No wonder "flegging" isn't a real word. Who would even think think of the need for a single word to describe so many different things? And even if it were a real word, would anyone talk of "saving flegging"?

Sailing is just as diverse and varied as flegging.

It includes dinghy sailing and keelboat sailing and multihull sailing and windsurfing and kiteboarding and riding foils in an International Moth. For those who want to race there is short course racing around the buoys and races around the world and everything in between. You can sail on lakes or rivers or bays or down the coast or across an ocean. You can try and set speed records over 500 meters or across the Atlantic or around the world. You can sail in a wooden boat you made yourself or some high-tech marvel of carbon-fiber equipped with all manner of electronics and gizmos and other amazing technologies. Sailing is everything from a gentle sail in the setting sun with the love of your life, to taking five years to cruise around the world, to racing around the world with a crew of a dozen sweaty hairy men. It is a couple of billionaires frittering away their fortunes trying to win the America's Cup; and it is a man and his wife day-sailing in a Catalina 30 on their local bay.

Sailing is just as varied as flegging. It ain't one thing. It's a hundred things. At least.

So why do people talk of saving sailing?

Does kitesurfing need saving?

Does college sailing need saving?

If you "save" Star sailing, does that mean you will have made it possible for more people to try and set records for sailing around the world?

If you "save" the America's Cup, does it make the International Moth Class stronger?

A very smart chap called Nick Hayes wrote a book called Saving Sailing. I wrote a review of it a couple of years ago. Nick is a good bloke with his heart in the right place and his book makes a compelling case. I'm sure he really believes his ideas could "save sailing." But it seemed to me that his book was really about saving one type of sailing, the sort of sailing that Nick knows best. Nothing wrong with that. It's just not about saving all kinds of sailing. It's as if someone had written a book about how to promote more people to hike the Appalachian Trail in the belief that that would somehow encourage more people to take up ice dancing or the hop, skip and jump.

Gary Jobson is a good bloke too. He must be. He used to sail Lasers. As President of US Sailing he is working hard to save sailing, as he sees it. One of his initiatives to this end is a Yacht Club Summit in Chicago this weekend. They have been having speeches and breakout session on all sorts of topics such as Information Technology and Yacht Club Branding and Financial Stability and Building Membership. I'm sure it's all good stuff. But I fear it's more about saving yacht clubs than saving sailing.

And while we're at it, why do we have organizations like US Sailing or ISAF? Do we have US Flegging or the International Flegging Federation? Would anyone in their right minds think of creating a single organization to administer and promote both speed skating and marathon running; ballroom dancing and cycling? Why do we think that one organization should worry itself about the America's Cup and Wednesday night beer can racing; kitesurfing and sailing solo around the world? It's nonsense.

Our ancestors have been flegging for millions of years. They have been sailing for thousands of years, at least. Both are so much part of our nature that neither is in danger of dying out.

I really think it's a shame that the word "sailing" was ever invented. It confuses people. It makes them think there is such a thing. There isn't.

There is no such thing as sailing.

Just like there is no such thing as flegging.

So let's forget about trying to "save" it.

"Good God! Don't jump!"
A sport sat on the edge.
An old salt who had fainted was revived.
And everyone agreed it would be a miracle indeed
If the sport survived.

"Save the life of our sport!"
Cried the desperate author.

The man from US Sailing
Ran to call the press.
"He must be high on something," someone said.
Though it never made The New York Times.
In Sailing World, the caption read,
"Save the life of our sport!"
Cried the desperate author.

A jury boat passing by
Halted to a stop.
Said the International Judge in dismay:
"The juries can't do a decent job
'Cause the kids got no respect
For the Rules today (and blah blah blah)."

"Save the life of our sport!"
Cried the desperate author.
"What's becoming of the sailors?"
People asking each other.

When darkness fell, excitement kissed the crowd
And made them wild
In an atmosphere of freaky holiday.
When the spotlight hit the boat,
The crowd began to cheer...

It sailed away.

Golly gee! I forgot my PFD!
Golly gee! I forgot my PFD!
Golly gee! I forgot my PFD!
Golly gee! I forgot my PFD!

with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel (and Nick and Gary.)


nautical charts said...

Such a beautiful analogy! I want MN to warm up so I can go sailing soon. State of 10,000 lakes and 10 months of winter.. :(

O Docker said...

I look at 'sailing' pretty much the same way - a blanket term for so many diverse activities that any generalizations about it can't make much sense.

It sounds to me like what's dying are some of the businesses associated with sailing, not the desire to go sailing.

In a tough economy, what do sailors cut out of their personal budgets? Expensive club memberships, dues for national sailing organizations, susbscriptions to sailing magazines, trips to chandleries, and any plans for buying a new family sailboat.

The companies and organizations that rely on that patronage will see sailing as 'dying'. The industry may be hurting, but not necessarily the sport. I think people who want to sail haven't lost interest - they're just looking for cheaper ways to do it.

Dinghy sailing is probably still available to most people who want to sail. And, thanks to a healthy used boat market, nice family keelboats can still be had for the price of a used car. But those sales aren't showing up in yacht company annual reports.

I agree that the traditional yacht club is an irrelevant dinosaur whose day has long passed. Maybe it's taken a long economic drought to finally put the beast down. I think informal sailing clubs and schools are taking over that role, but they may still be too expensive for many when money is tight, so their numbers may also show that 'sailing' is declining.

Does it take a genius to figure out that a sport requiring expensive equipment will 'decline' when the economy does?

SoxSail said...

I think the "danger" that sailing is in, isn't that it is dying, but that it is fracturing into even more sports. More designs mean smaller classes, and the rise of technologies like the kite, multi-hulls, and hydrofoils adds to the opportunities for new designs.

While I agree that the sport doesn't need saving, the inability to pit great sailors against one another, except at the college and AmCup levels is frustrating.

Carol Anne said...

I have to agree with O Docker. I need look no further than my own boat to see what the economy has done. With only one (very small) paycheck, we had quite a long list of parts we'd delayed buying and work we'd delayed doing.

Pat may grouse about not getting as much sailing time as he'd like, but really, not earning a paycheck also means he has had more time for sailing than he would otherwise have had, including some trips to the lake that I missed out on while I was earning the aforementioned small paycheck.

Smilicus said...

How bout this month writing project about sailing and how it can be/have been saved in your are?

Tillerman said...

Maybe Smilicus. As I hope I have made clear I view grandiose attempts to "save sailing" as too diffuse to be worthwhile. But initiatives to promote a particular Laser fleet, develop a local community sailing center, bring together a larger group of friends to go cruising together etc. etc. as definitely worth the effort..

Smilicus said...

Luckily after the great effort of team Shosholoza in the AC numerous small clubs have started with sailing programs for underprivileged children and made the thought of yacht racing as a profession a reality in our country.

But back to the possible writing project, I was thinking around the lines of what is happening around you that is helping the sport and then some clubs can actually get ideas of how to increase the new blood at the club and get the old salts blood pumping again.

Tillerman said...

The other thing that I didn't mention in the post, Smilicus, is that I suspect many sailors don't care a fig about "saving sailing" because they don't need other sailors around to enjoy the sport.

What about the couple who own a small yacht that they take out for day sails on weekends? Or the guy who owns a windsurfer that he has a blast on whenever the wind is right? Why should they care whether more or less people in their area are sailing these days? In fact, the couple looking for a slip in a marina near their home may actually be wishing that fewer people were competing for those slips!

Smilicus said...

All true and good what you are saying, but those people all have a short term view and will ruin there sport in the long run as no new innovations, etc will spawn from the need of hundreds, million new comers that need to get to the water. (not saying there aren't new innovations, just saying it is slow and limited to big budgets)

If we "save sailing" and we get more people out on the water, there will become first a scarcity of means of getting on the water, so prices will increase of boats, etc. But through this need, new ideas, new boating companies will come to life, reviving the industry and with this , prices will drop and our beloved sport will become more accessible to all out there.

And as the need for more boats and designs arise, we will have an influx of new technology, etc that will better the sport and with the big supply of boats then on the market, will help keep the cost of racing equipment and boats lower so more can enjoy the sport.

If we get more people on-board, it will also lead to the resurrection of the back yard boat builder, the garage dinghy builder, etc. Just take a look at the new development classes, the IC, the Moth, and now even a developement class for the 2,4mR class. Most of these are made in people backyard/garage as they try new developments in the sport.

Just saying, people should think long term about this.

This is my 2cents worth

Pat said...

Asking "What is sailing, and is it enough of a thing to be addressed as a whole?" is only one question.

A fundamental question is, "What are the consequences of 'not saving sailing, that is, of sailing actually declining?" That is, what happens when fewer people enter the sport, more people drop out, fewer boats are out on the water, and fewer boats participate in organized sailing activities?

For some sailors, there may be no consequence. They sail their lone way until disabled or dead and that's that for them.

For other sailors, there are negative consequences.

These may come in such forms as diminished resale value for their boats, skippers becoming unable to find crew, sailing organizations losing clout to protect water access, or the inability of groups to continue to organize regattas or cruising events.

And these may come in less tangible forms, too. Some child somewhere may never get the chance to master a craft on her own, instead being dumped into mass-produced, relatively mindless time-sitting entertainment or relegated to the conformity of adult-scripted athletics. Some grandparent somewhere may never get a chance to pass on a lifetime skill to a grandchild. And some family somewhere may never have an opportunity to enjoy one of relatively few sports that can provide legitimate intergenerational experiences.

Nicholas Hayes said...

Tillerman, always fun to read your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

2 quick points:

1.) The words "Saving Sailing" were deliberately chosen as provocative, precisely because sailing isn't something you save, but something you do. I wasn't sure it was a good title at first, but based on the success of the book and the conversations that have followed, I think it worked out quite well.
2.) The book doesn't attempt to save one type of sailing or another. In fact, it doesn't attempt to save sailing at all. Instead, it simply suggests that things like sailing (shared between friends) matter in ways that are bigger than the minutes spent doing them.
Hope you are off to an excellent Laser season.
-Nick Hayes

Tillerman said...

Hi Nick, thanks for stopping by. Sounds like we are more on the same wavelength than I appreciated.

Nicholas Hayes said...

I'm sure of it. -Nick

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