My favorite possession as a child was not a toy or a pet, but a life jacket with the characters from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” printed on the front. Flounder sat smiling on my right shoulder, while Ariel floated elegantly on the bottom left. To me, the lifejacket being dragged out of the basement was the most exciting part of the summer. It meant Daddy was taking us sailing!
Fifteen years later, that life jacket no longer fits me, but sailing with my family is still a highlight of my life. From charters in the British Virgin Islands during spring break to the Marion-Bermuda Race, which we tackled this summer, my father has fostered a lasting love for sailing within me—which apparently makes me a part of a vanishing breed.
Most sailors these days are between the ages of 55 and 64. According to Nicholas Hayes, author of the book Saving Sailing, members of yacht clubs and sailing clubs are retiring and dying faster than they are being replaced by younger members. Although college sailing is growing at an incredible rate, those sailors don’t seem to be staying in the sport after graduation.
The American University club sailing team, of which I am a member and will be president in the fall, may be small, but it represents the college sailing demographic well. Almost all of its members started sailing with their families. Senior Russ Gasdia, for example, learned to sail on his father’s Catalina 22 as early as he can remember. Chlo Troia, a junior, grew up in Delaware, the “Ocean State,” and attended summer sailing camp on Cape Cod with encouragement from her sailor mom.
We are also familiar with the challenges faced by today’s student sailors. Although the country’s leading collegiate sailing teams have dedicated coaching staffs and support from their university athletic departments, teams without coaches are left to fend for themselves—and with volunteer administrators you often get what you pay for. Sailing becomes a chore instead of a fun way to spend what little free time you have. As a result, busy college sailors often lose their drive to compete as they drown in regatta registration forms and dues collecting. College sailors have the drive and passion, but without help from the sailing community as a whole, that passion can easily run dry.
It’s also important for organizations to continue supporting young sailors outside of college and after college graduation. Mentoring and outreach programs not only allow younger sailors to get out on the water more, but also allow them to meet and learn from older sailors and to see that sailing is not something that has to be forgotten once they enter the “real world.” Every little bit helps.
That goes double for parents. The more time you spend with your kids on the water the better, whether it’s racing, cruising or just drifting around on a sunny afternoon. As each generation of sailors gets a little saltier, it has to do its best to make sure the next generation will be ready to take the tiller. The best way to hold the interest of generation “Y” is to make sure we remember our Little Mermaid life jackets, and why we fell in love with boats in the first place.