What’s Ailing Sailing? It’s Not the Boats. Well, maybe.

We human beings think that if we just build a better mousetrap, the problem will be solved. And, not by coincidence, if we’re the individuals to come up with it and market it, we might just make money in the process.

In the last hundred years or so, a lot of people have built better mousetraps than that old spring loaded knuckle-rapper that I grew up with. And a lot of people have come up with great boats.

A modern dual purpose boat, the Jeanneau 349. With it's lazy jacks/built-in mainsail cover, non-overlapping furling jib and asymmetric kits on a short sprit, what's not to like?
A modern dual purpose boat, the Jeanneau 349. With it’s lazy jacks/built-in mainsail cover, non-overlapping furling jib and asymmetric kits on a short sprit, what’s not to like?

Even before Garry Hoyt went on a holy mission to make sailing easier, sailboat and equipment manufacturers have been hell-bent on making sailing easier.

If you look at today’s cruisers, cruiser/racers and flat out racers, they’re really really nice and well suited to their purposes. They’re better boats. I’ll use my 1979, 12,500 lb. C&C 36 (which by the way I love more every time I go out) as a kind of baseline. Take your pick of a similarly-sized boats. Hunter, Catalina, Beneteau, Jeanneau, Hanse – to name just a few. Where are actually some things I like better about my plastic classic, but there’s no getting around the fact the new boats are very good indeed. They’re roomy, comfy and sail fast. If you haven’t been to a boat show lately, go. Better yet, ask a salesman to take you for a sail.

With new sail handling systems and modern sailplans, the new boats are easy to handle. No athleticism necessary. There are in-boom furlers, electric winches, autopilots that steer better than we do, electronics that can put us safely into a slip without ever having to actually see the dock with our eyes.

The Catalina 355 has a layout best suited for two couples.

These boats are positively palatial in volume compared to the C&C 36. They’re fuller in the ends (and sometimes even the middle), and all that area is devoted to living space. There are huge double berths, massive heads and galleys with ample space to cook for all the kids that are not going to be there. Interestingly, a lot of the layouts are clearly two-couple layouts. I tried putting my two boys in the vee berth. Let’s just say we called that experiment “There Will Be Blood.” Oh, for a good pilot berth or two.

My C&C 36 has pointy ends. No room for a athwartships double under the cockpit - not even close.
My C&C 36 has pointy ends. No room for a athwartships double under the cockpit – not even close.

That’s right, kids may appear in the marketing materials, and sometimes even on boats, but you don’t see enough of them on real live sailboats. I’ll save that discussion for another day, but for now let’s just say there’s a lot of other things we parents are pressured into doing that have nothing to do with sailing. Resistance to those pressures may not be futile, but it’s not easy.

In 1979 my parents and I raced and cruised our C&C 27, sometimes 1000+ miles in a short Midwest season. When I speak to long time sailors about the good old days, almost invariably they reminisce about dubious and dangerous adventures on open boats, or cruising with the entire family (including three kids and a dog) on a 20-something footer for three weeks at a time. Our 27 felt like a cruise ship for my small family. Kinda begs the question why my boys can’t share a vee berth.

Garry Hoyt's Freedom Yacht line pushed the "simple-is-better" thinking.
Garry Hoyt’s Freedom Yacht line pushed the “simple-is-better” thinking. This 25-footer was set up so a singlehander could do everything from the cockpit.

Hmmm, it might not be too big a stretch to say there’s an inverse relationship between ease/comfort and enjoyment.

I’m not saying we should all go looking for an Ericson 27 or equivalent for a good time. There’s no need for that. But if anyone tells you that you need a fancy boat to enjoy sailing, they’re full of bilge water.

And as far as racing, boats are also far superior to what was. Carbon, with all its lightness and stiffness, is becoming more common. The days of runners/checkstays and an inventory of 16 headsails are long gone.

Today's racer, like this J/111, are great racing platforms. Even with the throttle open downwind, they're steady on their feet.
Today’s racers, like this J/111, are great racing platforms. Even with the throttle open downwind, they’re steady on their feet.

One person can now three around a bagged genoa where it used to take three. Asymmetrical chutes on sprits mean ordinary humans can do bow without putting their lives or dignity in danger. (Though I confess I rather miss that challenge). Sails have near perfect shapes built in.

All-out racers and racer-cruisers are getting farther apart every days, but both types have improved markedly.

If it were a simply a matter of making a better mousetrap, there’d be no ailing in sailing. The mousetraps out there are very good.

One could make the argument (and I’ll make it here) that the emphasis on making better boats has not enticed more people to sail. The new boat sales numbers certainly bear me out.

The emphasis on making better boats, however, has driven up costs a lot, and those costs are making it prohibitive for many people to pick up sailing as a pastime. Anybody cruising the net or magazines might easily think that they need a $200K, 35-foot “entry level” cruising boat. It might as well be $2 million to a lot of the people in what’s left of the middle class. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Things have changed financially. “Disposable” income is getting disposed of on house payments, Lexus payments and those $500 summer camps their kids have to get into this summer while the parents work and nobody’s going sailing. Oh, that $200K might pay for small part of a four-year college education. But again, this is a topic for another day.

For now, let’s just say the boats per se are not the problem. The price of boats, or lack of “disposable income” depending on how you look at it, certainly is part of the problem.

Kurt grew up racing and cruising in the Midwest, and has raced Lasers since the late 1970s. He has been Assistant Editor at Sailing Magazine and a short stint as Editor of Northwest Yachting. Through Meadow Point Publishing he handles various marketing duties for smaller local companies. He currently is partners on a C&C 36 which he cruises throughout the Northwest. He's married to the amazing Abby and is father to Ian and Gabe.

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