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Is Sailing's Mystique a Mistake?

It's no secret that the popularity of recreational sailing in America is ebbing and, sadly, has been for decades.  According to the US Coast Guard, since 1999 sailboat registrations have dropped by more than 25% , a trend that began back in the early '80s, and now barely 2% of all registered boats are powered by the wind.

It's no secret that the popularity of recreational sailing in America is ebbing and sadly has been for decades. According to the US Coast Guard, sailboat registrations have dropped by more than 25-percent since 1999, a trend that began back in the early '80s, and now barely 2-percent of all registered boats are powered by the wind. Strangely, in spite of spiraling fuel costs, powerboating hasn't seen a similar decline. 

Numerous explanations have been offered; the most obvious being the high cost of sailboat ownership. But, while the purchase price of new sailboats eliminates many, the market is rife with seaworthy used boats, some costing less than a second hand SUV.

Some hold sports like golf, bicycling, tennis, and running responsible for filling the leisure hours of active Americans, while others feel the sedentary lifestyle of the video game generation is to blame. Still others point the finger inward, attributing sailing's decline to the absence of quality mentoring programs for our youth.

And while all of these are certainly factors in the decline, there's another, more personal reason that may be uncomfortable to admit. It involves our collective egos and how we view ourselves at the helm. As experienced sailors, we take pride in our ability to skillfully maneuver our boats using only the power of the wind, as well we should, but sometimes we choose to make the process appear more difficult than it really is... especially when there are non-sailing guests to impress.

While making fine adjustments to the back stay, traveler, cunningham and boom vang are critical in squeezing out that last quarter knot of speed on Wednesday nights, that tweaking is hardly critical to a pleasant weekend sail around the lake. In fact, many captains who are out for a leisurely Sunday afternoon sail don't even concern themselves with sail shape... until guests come aboard, that is. Consciously or not, many of us work hard at emphasizing the enigmatic nature of sailing.

Adding to the mystery is sailing's baffling terminology. Sheets and blocks, halyards and forstays, leeches and luffs become just more pieces of the confusing puzzle. As a result, many Sunday afternoon guests return to dry land overwhelmed with sailing's complexities rather than excited about the prospect of entering a sport that, while challenging, is well within their financial means and skill level.

If recreational sailing is to recover from it's three decade long ebbtide, experienced sailors must put their egos aside and demystify the sport. We must act as mentors for our adult guests as we would for students in a classroom, offering instruction in functional terms rather than the obscure ones that serve to further reinforce the sport's elitist image. Instead of stressing the complexities of sailing, we need to show our guests how simple, affordable, and safe sailing can be. 

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