January 18, 2010

The Numbers Don't Lie


Mr. Tillerman posted this curious graph yesterday, suggesting it indicates an alarming decline in interest in sailing.

While it may indicate that, I'm not sure that's the whole story. It's a graph of how much people are searching for the word 'sailing' on Google, so it might mean people are just Googling less about sailing, or Googling less about everything, or, as one of Tillerman's readers, Sam Chapin, suggested, maybe it means people are actually out sailing more and hunched over their computers less.

I was going to leave a comment, but my thoughts about this were running too long for the comments page, so I decided to just put up this post. And I've found some visual aids online that might help.

First off, Google Trends lets you compare various searches on the same graph, which I found very useful.

Here's a comparison of the search terms 'Sailing' and 'Jello'.

Jello is one of the most boring foods on the planet, so it makes a good baseline against which fluctuating interest in other search terms can be compared. Sure enough, Jello searching remains remarkably constant from year to year, although there are noticeable peaks that I think coincide with the holidays Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Still, I'm amazed that anyone would want to know anything about Jello.

A comparison of the search terms 'Sailing' and 'Popcorn' begins to reveal some of the power of Google Trends. You might think there is no connection whatsoever between sailing and popcorn, but, ah, look what the Google has to tell us. There is a definite symbiotic relationship between sailing and eating popcorn (actually, I think ecologists would call this a parasitic symbiosis). When sailing goes down, popcorn eating goes up, and vice versa.

This puzzled me at first as, on my boat, it's quite simple to sail and eat popcorn at the same time. But, aha, then it hit me. They sold only about 7000 Catalina 30's, but 6.2 bazillion Lasers. Compared to the contribution of Laser sailors to the data, Catalina 30 sailors count for nil. And do you realize how hard it is to eat popcorn while sailing a Laser? Google Trends clearly shows us that when Laser sailors are out there banging the corners, Orville Redenbacher (or his heirs) are crying in their beer.

I knew that I was on to something. Entering a comparison of the proper search terms in Google Trends would unlock the mystery of why sailing is in the pitiful state of decline it is and prove the value of this new diagnostic tool. After hours of painstaking analysis and research, finally I found the silver bullet, the smoking gun, the scourge that is ravaging our sport. And it is?


Bowling? Yes, I'm afraid so. Here is the incontrovertible evidence:

Was ever a correlation made more clear by graphic analysis? Look how closely a fading interest in sailing corresponds to a surge in bowling. Again, the vast numbers of Laser sailors are slanting the data. Each winter, the multitudes go out in their frostbite fleets and return more discouraged, retreating to the warmth of bowling alleys to revive the circulation in their painful limbs. Bowling may not be healthy, it may not require the abdominal strength or cardiovascular endurance of dinghy sailing, but at least it's warm all the way up to the foul line. The worst pain and suffering you might have to endure is the embarrassment of wearing rented shoes.

I never would have believed this, but the infallibility of modern web-based analytic tools cannot be refuted. What can we do about this? Well, as Mr. Tillerman suggests, we can vote for Clay Johnson as the US Male Athlete of the Month in this online poll.

One of his rivals is a bowler.



  1. I find similar patterns for kayaking, skiing, flying, scuba diving, and surfing (same for searches adding "lessons" to those words).

    Could be that people are leaving their computers and actually going out and doing those things. Or, sitting at the computer more and losing their connection to the real world outside their door.

  2. But how many of the popcorn eaters also sail lasers in between bowling games?

    It’s a little know fact that the most famous bowling sailor, Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake (c1540-1596) defeated the Spanish Armada with popcorn, and that was just after playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe.

  3. O Dock!
    Has anyone ever told you that you need to get a Life?
    I propose we (as in the boating "we") all go sailing and bring those numbers back up.
    I'm sure things will improve once Tillerman gets back on his game.

  4. O.M.G. That was brilliant! No wonder there are all those lines outside the bowling alley, and lessening lines outside the Sailing club. The bowlers can eat popcorn and bowl and stay warm!

  5. Mike (as opposed to Michael), thanks for reminding us of the Drake bowling story. Maybe he's the inspiration for all of those frostbitees who are turning to bowling. Now I understand why they're always looking for an open lane.

    Michael (as opposed to Mike), I have a life, but, as you can see, it's not a very interesting one.

    Now is the winter of my discontent, when I can't be out sailing nearly as much as I'd like. So, I'm hunched over my computer playing silly games with numbers.

    You can prove - or appear to prove - almost anything with numbers and some fuzzy logic. While sailing may actually be in decline, I don't think the numbers of searches on Google prove or disprove that. I think things are much more complex than they may appear. You'd have to know a lot more about who was searching, for what, and why.

    Panda (as opposed to Mike or Michael), I think that's part of the puzzle, too. People don't seem to have nearly as much leisure time today as they did a few years ago.

    Hmm, maybe I should do a post on that.

  6. So, like, if you guys are all so worried about googly hits for sailing, all the sailing bloggy people should star writing about cool movie people like Mister Tillerman.

    Then everybody would know that on saleboat blogs you can learn cool stuff like Lady Gaga isn't a schooner so then they will google sailing all the time!

  7. Sixty-five boats were out on Lake Pleasant in Arizona last weekend, doing their part for sailing statistics and raising tens of thousands of dollars for medical research. Pictures to come on desert sea in the next few days.

  8. Thank you, Edward, for supplying yet another data point to support my analysis.

    Good luck in the 3BF. Ironically, I may be puttering about in a Capri 22 with my wife's sailing class around the Richmond long wharf when Valis comes thundering by.

    Keep your popcorn dry.

  9. regarding the Richmond Long Wharf....get within ONE HUNDRED YARDS! That way, people will be taking pictures of you all day and submitting them to the protest committee!