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Changing demographics dominate Sail America conference

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Are sailors overwhelmingly “male, stale and pale?” The need to adapt to changing demographics was the overriding takeaway earlier this month at the Sail America Industry Conference. The message was relayed loud and clear by several of the presenters and speakers at the biennial conference.

In her lively keynote address, America’s Cup sailor Dawn Riley, who now heads the Oakcliff Sailing Center, which trains young professional sailors, warned that the industry needed to acknowledge the “changing age and face of sailing.” She said community sailing programs were doing a good job of opening sailing up to members of minority groups, but that was only part of the process.

“Imagine you’re a young Hispanic family that’s gone through the community sailing program, you’re just falling in love with sailing and now you walk into a boat showroom and no one looks like you,” she said. “The Hispanic market is going to be huge and our marketing needs to reflect that.”

Nick Hayes, author of Saving Sailing, continued the theme with an engaging seminar highlighting the growth in female participation in sailing. He explained how his local sailing programs in Milwaukee had experienced signal growth in female membership and that nationwide the traditional male-female ratios of engagement in the pastime were tilting toward the “mature female”— that is, women ages 25-plus.

Hayes backed that up with figures showing that among sailors over 50 the ratio of men to women entering the sport is 7-1, but in the 25-to-45 age group the ratio is now 1-1-1/2. Women, he said, are more inclusive than men, are twice as likely as men to share their experiences via social media, and “selfies” and videos of their friends having fun on boats are a powerful factor in luring women to learning to sail. The future, he contends, is far from male, stale or pale.

An interesting presentation on boat sharing put some perspective on another growing trend. Sarah Swenson, from Boatbound, and Jaclyn Baumgarten, from Cruzin, outlined the benefits — both to boat owners and the boatless — of their boat-share start-ups, and Sailtime’s Todd Hess, speaking from the vantage point of an established model, gave us a window into the world of shared ownership. All of these companies have one thing in common — getting people onto the water who might not otherwise have an entry point, either financially or because of the time commitments involved in boat ownership.

And lastly, North Sails head and top ocean racer Ken Read wound up the conference with a message that could be condensed to “adapt or die.” How, he asked, could it be that the main youth training dinghies, the Optimist and 420, are respectively 68 and 52 years old while a raft of new, exciting designs that could inspire youngsters goes ignored by clubs and schools?

Should keelboats be discarded from Olympic competition in favor of planing dinghies and multihulls? Why are we bothering to court TV coverage when YouTube and social media are increasingly becoming the dominant means of disseminating information? How long can yacht clubs last unless they become more inclusive?

Hopefully, at least some of these questions will have been resolved by the time the next industry conference rolls around in 2016.

Peter Nielsen is the editor of Sail Magazine.

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