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The big-tent approach: Everyone is welcome

Success in our industry will continue to be determined by the economy and its allies, from consumer confidence and employment to the stability of financial markets.
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Success in our industry will continue to be determined by the economy and its allies, from consumer confidence and employment to the stability of financial markets. Growth in boating also will be influenced by demographics, from population shifts to generational trends, with their effects on everything from culture to the economy.

We begin a two-part series this month on the generational divide by associate editor Reagan Haynes that makes for very interesting reading.

My experience with generations and boating has been up close and personal.

Until fairly recently, four generations of family and friends ventured forth on the briny with me: One belonged to the Greatest Generation, and the rest were made up of baby boomers, plenty of wet-footed millennials and a few members of the Gen X tribe. The senior crewmember has since gone to his reward, replaced (but not forgotten) by three grandchildren and a fourth due in the spring. These young ankle-biters have been categorized as Gen Z. And in a bit of a generational shift, their mothers view properly fitting child life jackets with the same serious-mindedness as they do car seats and seat belts. Smart.

I can also confirm firsthand some of what you’ve read about the leading edge of the millennial generation (those in their early to mid-30s). Mine fledged the nest at the appropriate time and have home mortgages, car loans, day care expenses and lingering student debt. My two married daughters and their husbands work full time and are solidly middle-class, but they neither have the time nor the money to buy a boat. The good news is they love the water and want their children to get out on their grandfather’s boat as often as possible. I am a willing accomplice in their indoctrination in all things nautical.

But will their 30-something-year-old parents eventually own their own boat? That is the $64,000 question (an expression I am certain would cause my two teens to roll their eyes). The boating seeds were well planted, and only time, economic circumstances and a host of other factors will tell.

What do we do in the meantime? I believe the industry is on the right track by promoting initiatives to increase the amount of on-water training available. In a society where no one seems to have enough time, how can we expect a newbie or non-boater to find the hours to learn to operate a boat?

You don’t become a competent boater in a weekend. Depending on the size and complexity of the boat and the waters you’re operating on, it can take several seasons (or more) to reach a level of proficiency where skipper and crew feel safe and comfortable.

There is no substitute for time on the water. Many of us grew up in a slower era, when there was still “time” to learn to run a boat through trial and error. We paid our dues, made our mistakes, figured things out and, in the process, became lifelong members of the boating fraternity.

Today, time is as precious as money for some. But we can shorten considerably the road to competency and confidence through on-water, hands-on instruction.

The flip side of the new boater — be they of the Gen X or Y cohort — is the seasoned owner, the baby boomer. And we need to do everything we can to keep them happily in boating for as long as possible. It’s not rocket science.

The things that are good for the septuagenarian are also good for young families just coming to the sport: clean, family-friendly marinas; reliable, well thought out, reasonably priced (whatever that means) boats; and good service.

I spoke recently with my brother, who is a boat captain, about those clients of his who have steadily drifted north of 70. What are they looking for in boating today? They like to go by boat to waterfront restaurants and on harbor cruises with family and friends. They’re looking for boats that are easy to get on and off, which means well-engineered side and transom doors and swim platforms. They want handholds in the right places and plenty of comfortable seating so they can relax and talk with their friends. And they’re looking for more protection from the sun.

Who doesn’t want those features?

And me? I continue to do my best to make sure there is no generation gap on Swamp Yankee. I’m spending more time than you can imagine trying to find the best swim ladders to work for 3- and 4-year-olds, a gaggle of teens, a pack of 60-somethings and a heavyweight. (Seems like only yesterday when my brother and I could board our 13-foot Whaler from water over our heads by simply pushing up on the rail and swinging over the side — boys as light as feathers.)

I’m getting beanbags for Gen X-Z and working on removable, adjustable canvas to cover the open foredeck for the wee ones and the oldsters. We’re set up to tow, to fish, to swim and to putter through summer harbors sipping a cold one and admiring all the pretty boats. It’s the big-tent approach: Everyone is welcome — no age restrictions.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue.

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