January 22, 2010

Is Sailing Going The Way Of The Dodo?


In my last post, I got a little silly.

As is my wont.

I was having a hard time getting my head around Mr. Tillerman's suggestion that the number of Google searches for 'sailing' had much to do with whether interest in sailing is declining.

But, how do we answer that question? Is sailing going the way of the dodo bird? In the future, will sailing blogs be replaced by blogs about Lady Gaga? Will we all be bowling?

I have no idea, but I strongly doubt it.

There's really no way to chart the decline (if there is one) without doing some serious research. And research costs money that probably no one is willing to spend today.

One problem that makes the question hard to answer is that 'sailing' is like that elephant that the five blind men were asked to describe. You know, one guy felt the elephant's ear and thought an elephant is shaped like a pizza. And another guy felt the trunk and thought an elephant is like the mast on a J24. Sailing is really a thousand different activities. It's different for every sailor.

There are junior sailing programs. There's dinghy racing at all different levels. There's Olympic competition. There's beercan racing, serious local series racing, professional racing. There are sailing clubs, cruising clubs, and cruising rallies. There's coastal cruising and bluewater cruising. There are serious circumnavigators. Some have given up life ashore altogether and live on their boats full-time.

It's likely that some of those activities are in decline, others are doing about the same as they always have, and others are actually growing.

I can speak only about the kind of sailing I do - casual recreational sailing in a mid-sized cruising boat that needs a new autopilot that I'm too lazy to install.

Looking around O Dock, I'd say that kind of sailing isn't doing so hot lately, but in a way that doesn't alarm me at all.


Because in the past 20 years, my kind of sailing has ridden up and down very predictably with the economy.

My personal barometer is the availability of marina slips. When the economy is doing well, finding a slip in San Francisco Bay is nearly impossible. There are waiting lists, there are political games, there are rumors of payoffs. People commit all manner of crimes and misdemeanors just to get a slip.

When times are crummy though, you can find a slip almost wherever you want. While I've never seen more open slips in the Berkeley marina than I see today, I know that things will eventually pick up. They always have before, and I see no reason why they won't this time.

And the bum economy may be affecting other types of sailing, too. The fortunes of junior sailing programs and dinghy racing may not be altogether disconnected from the kind of sailing I do. I think a lot of the kids in junior sailing programs come from families that have larger cruising or racing boats. In times when fewer families are sailing, the pool of prospective dinghy racers can only go down, too.

I wonder what other people think about this. Without trying to make sweeping generalizations about how things are in the 'world of sailing', how do things look over your transom? Is your type of sailing 'in decline' where you sail? If so, do you think it will come back?

Are marinas closing around you? Is your racing fleet shrinking? Is your club in danger of going belly up?

Are you giving up and going bowling?



  1. Although I don't think sailing is going to emulate the dodo, my concern about the future of sailing is not necessarily what's going on now, but what the future will bring for the average income family. If you look at the age's of sailors at O Dock, I'm guessing they are older as they are at the marina's near us. Another "problem" as I see it, is the purchase price of new sailboats, the 309 Catalina, for example. The new 309's are going for about $105,000, there will be some depreciation, but if history remains true, in 25 to 30 years those 309's will still have about the same value. I haven't received a raise in salary for two years, and even when the company was doing gang buster business, company-wide policy was everyone got a 2% raise, which is below inflation. I will never be able to swing a $105,000 sailboat at this rate. I'm not sure todays affordable sailboats, $25,000-$30,000, will still be on the water when they are pushing 60 years of age. Just my view point of course and I would love to hear how I have it all wrong, I think a new 309 would look very nice with Honey Bunny at the helm.

  2. No.

    I had a brilliant amazing insight into the future of sailing this week.

    I'm going to write a blog post about it soon.

    But today I had to write a post about the number 43 for Greg.

  3. I'll try and be serious and answer your little quiz...

    Is your type of sailing 'in decline' where you sail? I've only been here a couple of years but it seems to me that Laser racing is doing pretty well in Southern New England. Several thriving frostbite fleets and plenty of regattas in the summer. Masters Worlds regularly fills all 400 spots anywhere in the world it seems.

    Are marinas closing around you? What's a marina? Is it one of those places full of big boats covered in shrinkwrap? No, I haven't heard of any closing.

    Is your racing fleet shrinking? No.

    Is your club in danger of going belly up? What's a club? One of those places with a swimming pool and a bar where old white guys stand around all weekend? No, I haven't heard of any closing.

    Are you giving up and going bowling? No.

  4. i love the dodo shots. sailing disappearing? !@#@!! sailing and rowing are the future after the oil is gone. am going to the NY Boat Show this weekend to see what the latest fashions in triremes might be. will report.

  5. Captain Puffy, I feel your pain. Actually, I've felt your pain for some time, now. For years, I've wondered just who are these people who are buying new cruising boats, considering how new prices compare to used.

    My wife teaches public school. and my salary is comparable to hers. We're close to retirement and didn't feel comfortable with buying a 20-year-old Catalina 30 until a few years ago. Compared to many folks in these tough times, we're extremely lucky, but still nowhere close to considering a new 30-footer.

    But I think this bodes worse for boat manufacturers than for sailors. If someone stuck $100K in my hand and said I had to spend it on a boat, there are about a bazillion options I'd consider on the used market before I'd buy a new 30-footer.

    The jury is still out on just how long a well-maintained fiberglass boat can be sailed. Certainly, many of the first ones are still going strong 40 years later. Virtually all of the important bits can be replaced or repaired, including the hulls themselves. And used boats usually come with a whole bunch of gear you'd have to go out and buy with a new boat.

    I notice that Catalina has thinned it's line considerably under 40 feet, and, maybe surprisingly, has beefed up their offerings over 40 feet. In cruising boats, 40 seems to be the new 30. I guess many new boats are being sold into charter fleets, where life seems to begin at 40. Some of the only people who can afford new boats are cruisers who have decided to sell the farm and use the proceeds to go off cruising - which today usually means on something over 40 feet.

    For the same economic reasons, yes, I think a lot of people around marinas today are older - it's taken them that long to be able to afford boats. But, in Berkeley at least, I do see a lot of 30-somethings (and younger) too, racing smaller sport boats and crewing on larger boats as they accumulate their own liquid assets.

    I don't think this is too much different than it was 20 years ago. I think sailing's appeal is still as strong as ever, and that those who want to sail will find a way.

  6. Tillerman, thanks for the thorough reply. I know you've already posted quite a bit about this in the past few months. This post started out as a comment to one of those posts and, believe it or not, started running too long.

    No, I wasn't asking everyone to reply to all of the questions. I was hoping one or another might prompt a response.

    And I meant 'club' in the broadest sense. Well, uh, no, not THAT kind of club. We belonged to a 'sailing club' for a few years and I didn't once see a blue blazer or an ascot there. It was just a sailing school that rented out their boats for daysailing to people like me who didn't have a boat of their own.

    I think you were in a club (in Connecticut?) that mainly sponsored a dinghy racing program, no?

    I'm mainly trying to get people to focus here on what's happening in their own sailing scene, because I don't see anything with particularly troubling longterm implications in the sailing that I know about.

    I'm wondering where all of the predictions of doom are actually coming from.

  7. Will, happy hunting at the New York Boatshow.

    I was there once in the late '70s, long before I got into sailing, on a photo assignment for a New Jersey newspaper. I didn't know anything about what I was looking at, but I do remember the place was packed. I'm wondering what kind of crowds they're drawing these days. JP reports the big London boatshow he just went to was pretty quiet.

  8. Will is right. He stole my thunder. More perhaps in a longer post in a few days.

    There are all kinds of sailing clubs. I think the ones that survive will be the ones that attract young people to forms of sailing that are fun, friendly and low cost. I've been members of some clubs that fill this bill.

    I went to the NY Boat Show once. It was crap. All about big expensive fiberglass gas-guzzling monstrosities. The London Boat Show was much better.

  9. Something that's pretty disconcerting is that a segment of the boating industry that's doing phenomenally well is megayachts (and 'gigayachts' - power boats over 300 feet long). Apparently, they can't build these enormous monsters fast enough. There seems to be a limitless market for them.

    The next time you go frostbiting with Larry, ask him to show you his.

  10. Powerboating is not sailing. It's a branch of "my thingie is longer than your thingie".

  11. That's why I love you man, you give me hope for the future, and no, I am not outing myself. As to the boat manufactures, I think they are building larger boats because they are selling fewer of them and to make the same amount of money they need to sell more expensive sailboats. Luxury cars are the same way, larger profit per vehicle. Point being, the manufactures will be OK.

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  13. There was the closure of the Knickerbocker back out northeast... sort of vaguely in T-man's neighbourhood, at least from my western perspective where anything within a hundred miles is local.

    Sailing is our area is down about 30% from a generation ago, but it's hard to tease out longer- vs. shorter-term fluctuations -- for example, gasoline prices, economic cycles, lake levels/droughts.

    New boats aren't an issue in New Mexico and the southwest -- instead, this is an area where older sailboats retire to live out the rest of their lives on sun-drenched lakes. Carol Anne and Gerald last weekend in Arizona sailed on a Wavelength 30 that had escaped from the Great Lakes. New sailboats are an extreme rarity here; the only one in our club is a Colgate 26.

  14. Looking around the Berkeley marina, I see virtually no new boats either.

    I think many new boats today are going into charter fleets or to sailing schools (many of which also charter their boats when they're not being used for classes).

    My wife is taking sailing lessons this weekend and I see the school has a fleet of relatively new Capri 22's.

  15. Interesting contrast in the latest issue of the North American Laser Class newsletter which I just received. There is an article by the class president about how Laser racing is thriving in the region; followed by an article by the builder about how Lasering is in decline.

    Hmmm. My current Laser was new in 1995. My suspicion is that many of us are having fun sailing our 10,15,20 year old boats... but that not many of us may be buying new ones right now.

    If you sail and race you see lots of friends doing the same; if you work at making or selling new boats you see business as slack right now.

  16. 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.

  17. Bonnie, you eco terrorist, you!

    While our boat does have an engine (and the less said about it the better), I think we use about 10 gallons a year on average. On most sailboats with diesels, the biggest fuel problem is not using it fast enough to keep algae from growing in it.

  18. Muahahahaaa. And if they won't come to the dark side the easy way, we'll sneak up & surreptitiouslypuncture their gas tanks!

    Although I suppose there might be some ecological issues with that approach.

  19. Tom Schock (who built my Lido) says the market for boats is the worst he's seen it. The standing joke in the industry is "yes, we sell boats...occasionally". That said, they built nine Lidos last year which is in a normal range. The new boats, like the Harbor 25, have done well (considering) and they will be introducing a Harbor 30 in a few months - a $177k boat.

    As Capt. Puffy Pants said..."the future of sailing is not necessarily what's going on now, but what the future will bring for the average income family."

  20. Panda, as I think I said in another reply, this may be worse for the boat builders than for sailors. There are so many used boats on the market that you can find almost anything you want at a fraction of the cost of new. And when the economy is bad, used boat prices drop even more.

    This is probably toughest for smaller manufacturers like Schock, but Catalina, Beneteau, et al will probably survive. The charter boat market seems to keep them going.

    I think certain segments of the boat market reached the saturation point long before the recent downturn. The California boatbuilding industry's heyday was in the '80s (I think) and things here have been in a long decline ever since. Bonnie says that kayaking is doing OK - windsurfers, too, I wonder?