I’m sitting in a yacht club, having dinner with three other members of my crew, all of them men 40 years my senior. They’re lamenting the tragic state of sailing. “Look around us,” one of them says, gesturing to the other patrons. “Where are the young people?”
Another turns to me, “Why don’t people your age sail anymore?” I didn’t know it then, but it’s a question that I would be asked again and again over the next few years.
Today, America’s yacht clubs, and sailing in general, appear to be experiencing a population crisis. There are many reasons for this. Sailing’s reputation for posh exclusivity has gone out of style. There’s also the question of cost. Based on 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data, on average Millennials (currently ages 25-35) make 20 percent less than their parents did. Women make even less, and women of color even less than that. Finally, there are many other roadblocks to sailing: social barriers, informational barriers, geographic barriers. Race, sexuality and socioeconomic status are all factors.
Fortunately, in recent years a solution has quietly begun to take shape in towns and cities across America in the form of a growing number of community sailing centers.
Currently, US Sailing recognizes about 50 accredited centers (ussailing.org/recreation/community-sailing/). There’s no single definition of a community sailing center, but a qualifying factor is that each center owns boats available for use by its members or the general public. This shifts the startup cost away from individuals and lowers the barrier for entry. Today’s sailing centers often have an outreach and education curriculum, but there are as many different ways to organize these as there are sailing centers.
The appeal of this system is obvious. If you can’t afford a boat, no problem. You want to sail but don’t know anything about boat maintenance? That’s fine. Same thing if you have no place to store a boat, need a few lessons to gain confidence or don’t have any sailing friends. The list goes on and on. The model works especially for young people. It’s no exaggeration to say today’s sailing centers are welcoming a whole new generation of sailors from communities that would likely never have otherwise been able to get out on the water.
Hudson River Community Sailing (HRCS) in New York serves as an excellent example of a program going above and beyond in its efforts to expand water access in its community. Like many community centers, HRCS is young—founded less than 15 years ago by Bill Bahen with four donated Rainbows. Today, the center has many programs, including adult sailing and an adaptive sailing program for veterans. However, its shining star is a youth program run in conjunction with the New York City school system. Every year, about 200 middle and high schoolers from all five boroughs take part. In addition to learning how to sail, students build boats and learn about weather, marine sciences and conservation. And while students receive course credit for these efforts, HRCS takes the most pride in teaching life skills like communication and problem-solving.
“I am fond of saying, ‘Don’t teach sailing, use sailing as a venue to teach other amazing things,’” says HRCS’s community sailing director Don Rotzien. “Sailing creates stronger communicators, better leaders, better problem solvers, better neighbors... The benefits go far beyond time on the water. If you can figure out how to sail safely and effectively, you can apply that kind of problem-solving to every day you’re at work or interacting with people.”
Though the focus is on teaching sailing to develop life skills rather than to create life-long sailors, graduates often find their passion in the program, with alums going on to careers sailing tallships or working in marine sciences. Some even return to work with HRCS.
What follows are just a few of the many great programs out there working to raise the next generation of sailors:
Community Boating Incorporated, Boston, MA
CBI’s mission statement is “Boating for All.” With adaptive sailing programs and youth memberships starting at just $1, CBI strives to make sailing accessible for anyone interested in getting out on the water. Its fleet includes Rhodes 19s and Mercuries based out of a boathouse located on the Charles River with a scenic view of Boston.
Courageous Sailing, Boston, MA
Courageous offers a number of programs with a particular eye to low-income access. Their Swim Sail Science program combines sailing with summer supplemental education and swimming, and participants receive transportation and meals at no cost to their families. Youth members are accepted in a lottery system and full scholarships to youth programs are available to families on government assistance or under a certain income cap. It also has adult programming and, unlike some other community centers, Courageous has a cruising option where adult members can take out J/80s and Rhodes 19s overnight.
Downtown Sailing Center, Baltimore, MD
This nonprofit sailing center is one of the country’s older community sailing centers, having granted water access to the greater Baltimore area for the better part of 30 years. Since 2011, the focus has been on access and integration across all programs, memberships, camps and adaptive sailing. Essential to Downtown Sailing’s mission is frank open dialogue about issues and the understanding that accessibility and diversity programming is not charity, but essential to the survival of the sport. Downtown Sailing also works with the Siebel Sailors (a not-for-profit dedicated to increasing participation among demographics that are underrepresented in sailing) and has a Women-on-the-Water program.
Mission Bay Aquatic Center, San Diego, CA
One of the larger community water-access programs in the country, Mission Bay Aquatic Center is owned and operated by San Diego State University and UC San Diego. Its mission is to provide “the best watersports experiences in a safe, fun and sustainable environment.” The center offers sailing, SUPs, kayaks, surfboards and rowboats to the community. A $150 initiation fee and $45 per month get you unlimited access to the center’s fleet of keelboats, Hobie 16s, Lasers, J/24s, Sabots and more.
New England Science and Sailing, Stonington, CT
NESS is an education-based program that combines boating with STEM topics. With outreach programs that bring science to classrooms and field expeditions that get kids out on the water, it is the first school partner program to be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). NESS also offers adaptive versions of their programming.
Sail Newport, Newport, RI
Sail Newport is known for Pell School Sailing, a program in which every area 4th grader is taught sailing as part of their regular school day. This 16-week course covers STEM topics and sustainability. Sail Newport also has options for adults. Its spacious new facility at Fort Adams State Park rents out a fleet of J/22s and runs a number of community racing programs throughout the sailing season.
Sail Sandpoint, Seattle, WA
This nonprofit sailing center’s mission is to “bring the joy and life-enhancing benefits of sailing and small boats to people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.” To this end, it offers camps, classes, race-team coaching, rentals and boat storage, in addition to an outreach program, which awards thousands of dollars in program scholarships. The center is also committed to developing its adaptive sailing program. Sail Sandpoint’s fleet comprises over 50 boats, including Optis, Lasers, FJs, RS Quests, C420s, Hobie Waves, Hobie 16s and windsurf boards.
Treasure Island Sailing Center, San Fransisco, CA
Founded in 1999, Treasure Island is a non-profit that to date has served over 10,000 sailors of all ages. Its fleet of over 100 boats includes RS Fevas, Optis, Vanguard 15, Lasers and J/24s. Treasure Island has offered adaptive sailing programming and works with Siebel Sailors.
Wayzata Sailing, Wayzata, MN
Wayzata Sailing, just west of Minneapolis, seems to offer a little bit of everything, with corporate adventures, racing, summer camps, collegiate sailing and a STEM program, just to name a few. It’s also committed to diversity and accessibility, and partners with VA Hospitals and Disabled Sports USA to create opportunities for individuals of varied mental and physical abilities in custom-equipped boats. It also works with housing organizations and provides scholarships to help low-income sailors get on the water.
Despite the success of these programs, growing the sport of sailing is no walk in the park. These kinds of organizations face a host of different challenges with little precedent for how to navigate many of them. “Every community sailing center has to operate with a start-up mindset,” says Rotzien, who is also a member of US Sailing’s Community Sailing Center Committee. He jokes they’re gluttons for punishment because they’re constantly seeking new barriers to whittle away in order to get everyone access. It’s a superhuman amount of work—partnering with schools, writing grants, doing outreach to underrepresented communities, getting waterfront property access, maintaining the fleet of boats, troubleshooting retention issues. “We have to fight to get people who don’t see themselves in the sport in the door,” Rotzien says.
A few hundred miles south, Stuart Proctor, the executive director of the Downtown Sailing Center, finds himself dealing with the same thing. “To non-sailors, sailing just seems like old white guys yelling at each other on the water. That’s not appealing to Black people. That’s not appealing to young people. That’s not appealing to women. All community sailing centers are weighed down by that perception,” Proctor says. “We need to do a better job selling the lifestyle of adventure, freedom and self-reliance. All Americans want that.”
That said, while the sailing stereotype Proctor describes may be especially associated with yacht clubs, yacht clubs and community sailing centers are anything but natural enemies. Just the opposite. According to Rotzien, they have a lot to offer each other. Specifically, yacht clubs tend to have more of a racing focus while community centers often focus on widespread access so, symbiotically, community centers can bring new sailors into the sport and then funnel talent into the race teams at the clubs. In turn, yacht clubs can support community centers by offering experience and resources.
“The flow of ideas between leadership has changed a lot as community center and yacht club staff have flowed laterally,” Proctor says. “My Rolodex has just as many yacht club staffers as community center staffers. Clubs are recognizing that they can provide something and get future members in return. And we have learned a lot about how to run a business from some of these bigger clubs.”
In other words, while sailing’s population crisis may seem like a major problem, the situation is far from hopeless. This is a classic example of a challenge also providing a golden opportunity to make sailing stronger than ever. So, if you’ve ever looked around the sailing world and worried about where all the young people have gone, why not head down to your local community sailing program and see what you can do to welcome the next generation?