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The Decline of the Sailing Yacht

August 1, 1998


Since the beginning of this year, I have run across five articles that discuss the decline of sailing yachts, including two feature articles, of all places in the Wall Street Journal, and another in a major London newspaper. In case you're not aware of it, sail boats now comprise less then 10% of all boat sales, new and used. In 1997, only 2,000 new sailboats were sold in the US, a figure I roughly estimate to be about 2% of all new boat sales. Those were numbers that shocked even me. With numbers like that, one has to wonder whether extinction might be a better word than "decline."

One of the most oft cited reasons in all of those articles had to do with quality and seaworthiness. it's no secret that boat builders, just as automakers have always done, have used the elitist allure of racing to try to sell their boats. The writers of these articles attributed the flimsy, unstable designs of production yachts imitating ultra light racing yachts as one of the major reasons. Certainly that does have something to do with it, but I don't believe that is the major impetus. No, I think the major reason for the decline of sail yachting is the same reason I got out of sailing: I just couldn't stand it anymore.

Though it may appear so, that statement isn't meant in the pejorative sense, and I'll explain why. As a full-fledged member of the W.W.II baby boom generation, I was nearly born on a boat (power) and began sailing at the age of 12. By high school I was racing on weekends and weeknights, and soon migrated to the SORC and the bigger boys and their toys. After moving to south Florida I had the opportunity to sail the Bahamas and parts of the Caribbean extensively in a wide variety of boats, both in racers and cruisers. By 1982 the enormous amount of work and general discomfort produced by these boats that I truly loved had taken its toll. I didn't hate the boats, but I did begin hating what they were doing to my body. Finally, I just couldn't stand the relentless heat and inability to escape from the blazing sun that burned my body to a cancerous crisp. After one particularly uncomfortable summer cruise I gave up sailing entirely.

It's doubtful that my experiences are much different than most others. If there's any real difference, I think it's that most other people aren't willing to admit that they can't hack it anymore.  That's not too hard to understand. Most people try to avoid acknowledgement that they're getting older, or that they desire more comfort. And let's face it, the middle aged are hardly well suited for the rigors of sailing.

Another factor has to do with time. When young, time is abundant; as we get older our interests and commitments grow and time becomes ever more precious. It's got nothing to do with age, just that we all end up trying to do too much. Sailing eats up time like there isn't any such thing. For many, if not most, Father Time pushes them into a power boat which can go places fast in a lot more comfort and little need for an able-bodied crew of the well-muscled.

Of course, as people get older they also tend to get wealthier, and therefore tend to buy bigger boats thinking that the bigger boat will offer more comfort. Well, it does in the sense of increased luxury, but in another sense it gets a whole lot worse. A lot worse. While you get more space, everything gets bigger and heavier. Sheeting a jenny on a 50 footer is a radically different experience than on a 27 footer. And so is everything else. Including the cost of ownership.

Previous generations never had any doubts that yachting was the rich man's sport. Only the rich could buy one. By 1960 with production yacht building in fiberglass, all that was changing. The boat building industry wanted everyone to own a boat, the bigger the better. Increasing affluence of society in general made this possible. Barely. The boats turned out from 1960 to 1980 were fairly simple affairs with few amenities. Systems were simple and the boat was overall reasonably, easily and economically maintained. There was very little that owners could not, or  did not, do themselves. Back then there was no such thing a "do-it-yourself-yard" since all yards were that way. Rare was the sail boat that had a water heater, yet alone refrigeration. Remember when we tied a string to a shroud instead of buying a couple thousand dollars worth of electronics to tell us how the wind was blowing?

Then around 1980 that began to change. Inflation drove the cost of materials up, while boaters started demanding more luxury and complexity. And, of course,    the racing bug set in. The Cruising Club of America had been replaced by the North American Yacht Racing Union and by the IOR rule, which was then replaced by yet another hopeless set of complexities. People wanted to cruise and race, only now racing was driving the primary elements of cruising yacht design. That led to another set of problems which I needn't reiterate here.

The cost of boats went up and up, while the size of boat they could afford went down. Or they had to sacrifice quality to get the size they wanted. All these factors came into play in creating the current state of sailing. Back in 1965 I crewed on boats owned by school teachers. Today that's almost laughable. Small sailing clubs were everywhere, even on tiny inland lakes. Today, most of those are gone. The people who owned the boats are now priced out of boating, and because they were predominantly middle class (by the standards of those days), what we now call call "working class," which hopefully is not in contradistinction to the non-working class. The sort of people who's wealth does not materially increase because, as they get older, they rise up to management positions. They don't get that far. At one time I crewed for a laborer in a steel mill on a Cal 30. He'd have so much fun getting drunk and sailing that we'd stuff him in a genoa bag with only his head sticking out and a straw to drink his beer with. Won a bunch of races that way, too.  That was a whole lot more fun than crewing for Ted Turner, (the mouth of the south) I can assure you.

The steel mills are gone, and so are the little people who used to make good money. In the interest of low interest and labor rates, the powers that be are determined to keep that class poor. These people would probably still be in sailing (I know scores of them who aren't) were they not priced out, no matter how abusive sailing is on their bodies. But they have been supplanted as the majority sailboat ownership by wealthier owners who, by the way, basically own the same size boats. As the wealthier got older, they also got less willing to put up with the rigors of sailing, and have begun abandoning sail boats in favor of power boats in droves. That's why motorized cocktail barges are such big sellers these days. One need only to read over the reams of e-mail I get that start off with, "I used to be a sailor but am now considering my first powerboat . . . . . " to see how true this is.

I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that sail boat sales hit their peak sometime in the early 1980's and have been in decline ever since. Current sailors rue this state of affairs, while those who gave up their sailboats for power don't. Sure, they look back on sailing with nostalgia, but they don't forget the discomfort and the huge amount of time sailing takes.

Will sailing ever make a comeback? I think the W.W.II baby boom holds the answer to that. The boomers fueled the rise of sailing and, barring an event that spurs such a boom again, the answer is no. The past boom in sailing was the result of a boom in a single, huge generation of people all within 7 years or so of age. This lead to the creation of unprecedented number of people entering the sport all at once. And that is not likely to be soon repeated.

What does the future hold in store? Sailing is probably at a low ebb now, and however long it lasts there will surely will come a time when circumstances make it possible for a resurgence. Some economic factor, such as an interruption in the supply of oil will fuel the resurgence just as the 1973-4 Arab Oil Embargo did. Or maybe it will turn into a fad again amongst the young because there is no joy in owning cars that all look alike, or the internal combustion engine becomes as politically incorrect as smoking or making jokes about women. Maybe because powerboating is beginning to resemble boating in a blender, or a demolition derby, all the power boaters will begin to abandon their stink pots. Who knows. Whatever the case, the romantics will always be with us, so sailing isn't going to disappear. Its fortunes will continue to rise and fall, albeit not quite so dramatically as in the past.

Who knows, maybe even the Luddites will return?

Posted August 1, 1998


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Biography - Long version

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