Sailing’s true value isn’t found in boat sales

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Sailing has always left a disproportionately large footprint for the number of new units it cranks out a year. And to trying to measure the impact of sailing by that metric is too myopic — it misses the larger point, the greater value.

When was the last time you saw a boater signing autographs? Thought so. Doesn’t happen very often.

I watched it take place two weeks ago in the model room at the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan, a place where tradition still means something. There was Anna Tunnicliffe, 2010 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, signing away after winning the prestigious sailing award (and another engraved Rolex) for a record third consecutive year.

Tunnicliffe is a great ambassador for sailing. For boating. For sports. Young, fit and confident, the 28-year-old won a gold medal in the Laser Radial at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Her current goal: winning a second Olympic gold in the 2012 Games in London.

The English-born world champion, who now lives in Plantation, Fla., spends a good deal of time working with youth sailors, serving as a mentor and role model. Understandably, the kids are wowed by the gold medal, which Tunnicliffe often lets them hold or put around their necks. That’s inspiration, folks.

Fifteen or 20 years down the road one of those kids, who are 11 or 12 today, will be at the helm of a large yacht — or a large company. And looking back, he or she will say something to the effect: “I remember the day Anna visited our sailing program. And I got to hold her gold medal.”

Count on it.

Those youngsters are the future of sailing, the backbone not only of the sport but also of an important segment of this industry.

Stan Honey won the 2010 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, serving as navigator aboard the French trimaran Groupama 3, which galloped around the world in a record 48 days, 7 hours and 45 minutes to win the Jules Verne trophy. The average speed was an astonishing 24.7 knots over more than 28,000 miles — try to maintain that in a powerboat!

The 55-year-old Honey, of Palo Alto, Calif., said it was a “unique characteristic of sailing that we can pursue it throughout out lives and be honored at age 55 with an award like this.”

He’s right.

A lifelong sailor, Honey graduated from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and applied science, and from Stanford University with a master’s in electrical engineering. About 13 years ago he co-founded a company that is a leader in live-tracking enhancements for television sports, including the development of the yellow first-down line for TV football, according to his biography.

Suffice to say, Honey understands technology. In the pivotal role of navigator aboard the Groupama 3 he took the long way around, sailing thousands of additional miles to keep the “magnificent” but fragile 103-foot trimaran in ideal conditions, which meant winds of 35 knots or less and consequently smaller seas.

With a boat as fast as Groupama 3, you can actually outrun weather systems, which means you can sometimes choose your weather. While circumnavigating the globe, Honey says, the team spent a mere 3-1/2 hours in winds stronger than 35 knots — a remarkable feat of seamanship, know-how and technology.

A factor sometimes cited as a disincentive to sailing is that it’s too “complicated,” that people don’t have the time to learn, let alone master, a more challenging sport or activity.

Well, sailing around the world in record time or winning a gold medal is not accomplished by sitting on your duff. Nor is changing careers or running a small business or just trying to keep up with technology.

As the father of an 11-year-old sailor, I couldn’t be happier that he’s learning something that isn’t “easy,” that doesn’t have a direct correlation to the electronic games and joysticks he has so easily mastered — that he’s engaged in an activity that will continue to challenge him and leave him satisfied when he’s as old as his father is today.

You won’t find that in the metrics of the sailing industry, but it’s pure gold.

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Metstrade Day Three

Soundings Trade Only Editor in Chief Michael Verdon continues his conversations with marine industry executives from the U.S. and around the world.