Saturday, November 5, 2016

Small Boat Sailing: Whither the Millennials?

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Millennials (ages 19 - 35 in 2016) are slowly turning the U.S. on their head. Specifically, they don't seem to be into owning big stuff. In the previous post I mentioned the Millennials are more apt to be in an apartment than a single family house with yard. They are not into cars like the previous generations. (WaPo had an interesting article about the hot-rod hobby turning definitely greybeard.) They are more urban than suburban and seem to embrace living small. Many reasons have been offered up for this cultural shift: the crushing burden of student debt in the U.S. has left the Millennial generation cash poor, and/or the Millennial generation is much more conscious of their environmental impact...

This past summer I had an interesting conversation with Mike O'Connor of the Larchmont YC V-15 fleet where he indicated that sailing dinghy ownership by Millennials was also down, particularly in the racing dinghies. He attributed this to several factors.

Burnout. Modern junior racing and college racing programs are high intensity sports. When a young sailor is subjected to eight to ten years of year round training, they are ready, upon graduation, to do something else for fun. If they do want to race, they want to show up on the dock with a life-jacket and race a boat they don't own.

Local focus. There is not the desire to travel long distances, boat in tow or car-topped, to support a class regatta. Travelling with your own sailboat to race against like sailboats is seen as more hassle than fun. (There is sometimes a fair amount of large stuff you need to own to travel, a large car, a trailer and you do burn a fair amount of greenhouse gasses for your weekend enjoyment.)

What would this trend mean in the future? An increase in community sailing programs with community owned boats? Yacht clubs forced to finance their own club-owned sailing fleet? A focus on local fleets and not so much on a national class? I'm not sure but I think the current popularity of the super-portable, easy to store, easy to rent, stand-up-paddleboards (SUP's) may be a harbinger of a future shift on how we approach dinghy sailing and racing.


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you've noted above and I'll add one item. When I was in that age range, I simply couldn't afford a boat. I remember the struggle it was to scrounge up the money to buy a 20 year old Laser with spider web cracks all over it. I sure enjoyed it, but it was tough to fund it, pay for moorage and club membership...

I sometimes think clubs would be more successful if they did have more boats you could come down and check out as part of the membership fee.


doryman said...

There are a lot of distractions today and it seems the focus required to be competitive has been delegated to elite athletes. It's not fashionable to work your self to exhaustion and get wet to your ears. People probably still spend all they can on whatever it is they find entertaining, it's just not quite so vigorous as it once was.

Alden Smith said...

I agree with everything that has been said but I think there is something more which is probably an unpopular thing to say - that is most sports including sailing have become far too competitive with the direct result that it has become far too expensive and the providence of rich professional elites with the rest of us sitting on our arses watching it all on T.V.

I think the drug saturated Olympic games has a lot to do with this as well. How does a weekend amateur find their way around trying to compete with all this unless they too become professionals - and quite frankly, who would want too??

A competitive Olympic Finn here in New Zealand $56,000. An OK Dinghy $29,000. Even an entry level local class like the little Starling dinghy is $10,000 brand new.

In the old days, clubs in NZ ran building programmes and boats were affordable, but the introduction of exotic go fast materials and a win at all costs attitude has meant just one thing - the abandonment of sailing among the young who have many more interesting and less expensive ways to fill their leisure time.

Tillerman said...

I agree with Bruce. Until I was about 33 or 34 I couldn't afford a boat either, so I am not going to wring my hands about those poor millennials today who would rather spend their money on tattoos, yoga pants and craft booze.

In any case, until recently, most existing sailing dinghies that were affordable were not all that exciting.

But now we have boats like the RS Aero and the UFO - fun, exciting boats at an accessible price point that don't look like they were launched in the same decades as the transistor radio or the VCR. Perfect for the adventurous young person in their early 30s who has figured out how to make a good living in today's economy, and is ready to change the world of sailing.

Tweezerman said...

When I got into the Laser in the 1970's (the Laser was the new thing), the design had completely captured the 18-30 demographics. If you were young and wanted to race dinghies, there was a high probability that you owned a Laser. I wasn't rich either but I found a used Laser for $500 which I raced for a couple of years. (if I remember the introductory price of the Laser was somewhere around $650, it rapidly went up to $800 in the first year and by the end of the 1970's was over $1000.)

As my blog piece suggests and Tillerman openly says, new performance dinghies may have to grow without the young demographic. How that will work will be interesting.

Joe said...

I belong to 2 community sailing programs in the Bay Area. Both have seen a large downturn in folks sailing. They've both turned into a geezers clubs.

Want to know where the millennials went? Repeat after me, kiteboarding....and surfing.

Chris T said...

I'm not sure about people in their 30s, but the 20 somethings I meet (and we regularly have random postgrad students of my wife's crashing in our place, as we've had over the last few weeks) wouldn't care less if the Laser looks like it was created in the same era as the transistor. Many kids these days are listening to '80s and '90s music (damn kids are stealing my generation's bands like The Clash), they love riding their dad's old bike, they play SNES. They aren't obsessed about what's new and old. Youtube has perhaps collapsed the idea of old and new; everything is the same age when you can just look it up on your phone.

A few years back I asked a teenage windsurfer I know whether kiting was cooler because it was newer. "Is it?" was the reply - because of course, as I realised, both windsurfing and kiting are older than a teenager today. They are both as old, or as new, as each other, to people under about 30. Foiling is getting close to that same status. As the very first singlehanded class found out in the 1800s, the problem with having novelty as a selling point is that it doesn't last very long.

It's arguable how updating to a new medium-performance cat-rigged hiking singlehanded dinghy is going to "change the world of sailing". The Brits have been doing that for years. In a sport in which significant singlehanded classes for adults range from the 1913 vintage International 12 gaff dinghy to foiling kites, going from being about 48% as fast as the fastest singlehanded craft to 50% as fast isn't going to shatter too much of the sailing world.

I'm not sure about the Laser's appeal when it first came out in the USA, but by the '80s in Australia it wasn't trendy. The trendies were into windsurfers. The Laser class still grew like wildfire.

Tweezerman said...


I can see kiting or surfing being a big draw if big breeze and big waves are close at hand - not so much on the Chesapeake. You need to drive 6 hours to the Outer Banks for a partial approximation of what you have served up to you in San Francisco. The Annapolis Community Sailing has no permanent residence, it remains a traveling road-show in the summer, primarily introducing youngsters to kayaking and sailing.


I agree with you. Sailing along at 4 knots can be enormously entertaining in its own right. I've had great fun in International Canoes and El Toros and a bunch of small craft in between.

I had the great fortune to be present at the pre-regatta of the First Windsurfer Worlds at Association Island (the International 14's were wrapping up their National titles) and sitting down at a table with eventual champion, a scrawny 16 year old named Matt Schweitzer. Definitely a laid back California vibe, no overthinking technique, rules, or anything we obsessed over with the I-14's.

Several of my racing friends got in windsurfing in the 80's when the boards got shorter but it made windsurfing a hi-wind sport only. Eventually most of them drifted back to conventional sailboats.