Beyond the blow from the Great Recession, sailing faces pressure from aging baby boomers turning toward powerboats and millennials enjoying broader leisure options.
The number of U.S. residents who sail has been roughly flat for a decade, with about 3.5 million to 4 million people going at least once a year and 1.2 million sailing at least seven times a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and research by industry groups.
That's despite a rise in the U.S. population and trends for the affluent to seek "special experiences," such as sailing, Sailing World publisher Sally Helme said during this month's Strictly Sail boat show in Miami, the largest sail event in South Florida, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
Richard Jordan feels the strain at his Jordan Yachts brokerage in Dania Beach, which specializes in used sailing yachts and employs five brokers.
His company's revenue tanked during the Great Recession, recovered slowly from 2010 through 2012 and stayed flat in 2013 and 2014. It’s still roughly 20 percent off pre-recession levels, he said.
Yet even before the recession hit, the sailboat business had been declining.
"It used to be the dream to get a sailboat and cruise off into the sunset, but maybe people are working more and don't have the time," Jordan told the paper.
What's more, baby boomers are turning to less physically demanding powerboats and millennials are less exposed to sailing than earlier generations that had fewer options for leisure, Jordan said.
At the Gulfstream Sailing Club in Fort Lauderdale, membership is down to about 90, off more than half from its peak decades back. And most members are older, even though the club welcomes sailors without boats and offers programs to teach children, said commodore Mike "Mick" Sawzak.
"Millennials really aren't taking up sailing now," Sawzak said, noting that some are put off by the cost of dockage and insurance for larger boats. "I see them up and down the canals in kayaks.”
The most recent industry survey presented by Sailing World magazine highlights the hurdles. In 2014, sailboat brokers in North America reported sales roughly flat, at $463 million.
No one expects a quick return to the heady days of the 1970s, when 12 million Americans sailed at least once a year. Families worked shorter hours, commuted less, had fewer child-only activities and could afford to take three hours on a weekend afternoon for a family sail, said Nick Hayes, author of "Saving Sailing." He welcomes community sailing clubs that foster multi-generational sailing.
"If we could get only 50,000 more people sailing [regularly in North America every year]," said Sailing World's Helme, "that would make a real difference to the industry."