I wrote most of this article sitting at a café in San Francisco – a brief stop on my way back to Sydney after visiting my family a world away.
I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia (on Canada’s east coast for the many of you who will have never heard of Nova Scotia!). I began my sailing life there with my Dad on his 23-foot boat ‘Boreal’ before progressing onto a junior sailing program through to national level dinghy racing.
But this isn’t about my beginnings, it’s about what I hope to see for sailing in the future.
At my Nova Scotian home, I see my four-year-old niece start to show an interest in sailing and the nautical world – or at least in dressing like a pirate and searching for treasure – and that’s something I hope can be nurtured and developed into a true interest in learning to sail.
If only interest was enough.
Without an opportunity to actually get out on the water any interest will most likely fade away and die, or at the best sit in the back of her mind as a little spark that doesn’t have the fuel to help it burn.
Luckily for my niece, she has my Dad and I to encourage and inspire her to start sailing, a mom who sees this as a positive activity once she gets a little older, and she lives close to some great sailing facilities.
She will definitely get an opportunity to try sailing. Whether she enjoys and decides to keep with it is another story, but at least she will get a chance to give it a go.
For many, sailing is seen as an elitist sport, an unattainable activity in a closed world of fancy clubs and luxury yachts that is far out of their financial reach or ability. Or, maybe it’s an activity that just never crossed their mind.
If you talk to anyone around the docks or at your local yacht club, the general consensus is that sailing participation numbers are in decline. I am at the end of a two-month trip that has taken me to visit many yacht clubs in key sailing regions in the UK and North America, and everyone I spoke to about the topic is saying the same. Without statistics to back this up it’s hard to know for sure if it’s really the case, but it is certainly what many people believe.
So, how do we reverse this decline and get more people to start sailing? Or grow this sport we all love and want to see thrive?
According to Australian Sailing, in 2017 just under 30% of regular sailing participants were women. So, this seems like a good place to start.
I am the Women’s Keelboat Representative at Middle Harbour Yacht Club in Sydney’s lower north shore where last year we introduced some new women’s sailing programs, with great success. It seems there is a lot of enthusiasm from women already in the sport to be more involved when given an opportunity.
The Australian Women’s Keelboat Regatta has been held annually at the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron for 28 years, attracting teams of women from all across Australia and New Zealand. The support from local yacht owners is fantastic. This year I attended for the first time with a team from Sydney. The organising committee went above and beyond to assist us and we were kindly loaned a yacht from a RMYS member.
These opportunities help women build skills and confidence in their sailing abilities; something many will need before deciding to purchase their own yacht.
Let’s face it, if people don’t purchase boats, then the sport will continue to decline. But, without people interested and able to crew these yachts, the yacht owners won’t be able to sail. Sailing needs both in order to grow.
Some people reading this may be cruisers or dinghy sailors. Admittedly, these areas of sailing don’t have the same crew requirements as a race yacht. Although, sometimes they do. I have several times joined a cruising sailor to help them cross an ocean, where the extra set of hands is a welcome relief to a weary skipper.
If you’re a yacht owner, providing opportunities for crew to join and learn is also a fantastic way to do your little piece to help grow sailing.
For many people, purchasing a boat is not an option, but having an opportunity to join a yacht as a crew member means sailing is not out of reach. With race participation numbers often in question and lack of crew a commonly cited reason for yacht owners not to race, this is a win-win-win situation for the crew, owners and yacht clubs.
I see opportunities to go crewing as an important way to help sailing thrive, and it’s not a truly selfless act to take some new crew along for a sail.
If you’re cruising, having extra hands to pull ropes, hold the helm or make the coffee makes life a little easier for everyone onboard. To race effectively, you generally need crew to fill the various roles on your yacht; having them on-board is more of a necessity than a luxury. It is also a great way to meet new people and can be a rewarding experience to pass along your knowledge to a new generation of sailors (young or old).
Looping back to my niece – in a few years she most likely will join a sailing school and get an opportunity that many kids never will. But for those who don’t have an opportunity to learn at a young age, all is not lost. With encouragement and opportunities provided by sailors like you and I, there is a place for everyone in sailing. They may just not know it yet.