Sailing. Is it really a sport in decline?

© Christopher Davies

If one regularly reads featured letters and opinion pieces that bounce around the internet (e.g. Junior Sailing Needs a Reboot), one might be excused for thinking that the sport of sailing is in decline shedding existing participants, struggling to attract new ones. With so many other activities to choose from there is understandably genuine concern about how best to promote and develop sailing to get youngsters and novices involved and to keep the more proficient motivated. Ideas flow in from all directions which is great, since I don’t doubt it pays to keep this 'issue' at the forefront of our thinking.

All sports and past-times need to introduce youth and enthusiasm while retaining wisdom and experience in order to survive. A concept now frequently and irksomely described as creating a 'legacy'. I am only too aware that getting kids interested in anything other than screen-based entertainment comes with a major parental hazard warning. (In case any of my progeny come across this article by mistake: “You are doing fine; although perhaps a bit more enthusiasm about cutting the grass wouldn’t go amiss especially if you want be able to access the trampoline”).

Like every outdoor activity, sailing is competing with the comfort of the couch and the virtual world. It is also competing with other sports that perhaps require cheaper equipment, less infrastructure and, dare I say, commitment. Boats need time spent on them out of the water, just as much as on the water to get the most from them. Otherwise they break and everyone goes skateboarding instead. Yes, this is bitter personal experience speaking. At least they did not start messaging their friends about their useless parent … in front of the useless parent.

This past weekend, though, made me wonder about this supposed declining interest. What are we offering the uninitiated? How do we compare to other sports? Are we showcasing our virtues? Well, it proved an exceptionally entertaining few days for an armchair bound sailor recovering from broken foot surgery, armed with an adequate broadband connection and time on his hands.

The following is a glimpse of what was on offer at the top end of the sport: Transat Bakerly – solo offshore sailors toughing it out mid-Atlantic in a mix of craft; M32 World Series & LVACWS – youthful speed freaks in catamarans duking it out in close combat in Copenhagen and New York (Cool, like, Manhattan New York? Yes, kids, downtown New York. Wow, can we go? Er, no not this weekend).

And that wasn't all: Star Sailors League – Olympic gurus going head to head in Hamburg for prize money and managing to smile even in the face of cruel defeat; Clipper Round the World Race: amateur adventurers in the midst of a 4000nm passage to Panama; 60th Finn Gold Cup – single-handed dinghy sailing of the highest pedigree off Gaeta, Italy; Para World Sailing - the equipment evaluation on Lake Garda proving we value all participation in our sport; North Sea Race – 30 cruiser/racers bashing over from Harwich, UK, to Scheveningen, The Netherlands ahead of next week’s North Sea Regatta; Joe Harris and Gryphon Solo - completing a single-handed circumnavigation; and, even our international federation, World Sailing, was hard at it in Lausanne, hammering out some important decisions on various essential aspects… I need to read about that later, there was too much else going on.

With apologies to the many regattas and races and series and meetings and adventures I missed (particularly PalmaVela, pointed out to me by a colleague), this was a weekend to marvel at the range, innovation, commitment, skill, excitement, bravado, dedication and health of of our sport. I accept that none of the events particularly address the need for junior programmes, novice taster sessions, low budget options, but they offered me considerable enthusiasm and reassurance that the future is in fact bright if we recognise and encourage the diversity of attractions.

This morning, I still have the cast on my foot, but I’m feeling inspired. For sure we should continue to worry about falling participation numbers, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest the outlook need not be gloomy. Looking on from the sidelines, over one weekend, I was impressed by the number of stories out there to grip the young and uninformed, that demonstrate we are a relevant sport, and, importantly, that remind me why I got involved in the first place. I might even fix the boat, when I'm fixed.

Giles Pearman, is a British national who has lived in the canton of Neuchatel since 2008. A former lawyer, Giles has over 20 years experience in the communication industry working with multi-national brands and clients, principally in the sporting environment. In 2016, Giles founded Quinag, a creative and grounded communication agency. Further details: www.quinagcommunication.com