Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Saving Sailing - A Review

As a response to my post Sailing: The Reports of Its Death Are Exaggerated, Nick Hayes asked me to review his new book, Saving Sailing, examining the dilemma I discussed, the apparent decline of the sport and the contrary instances of wild enthusiasm for it. So here goes.

It is obviously difficult to make generalizations about sailing because it takes so many different forms with so many different relationships between sailors and their sport. Nicholas Hayes takes on this “mission impossible” in order to find some general truths and come up with some specific conclusions. The major virtue of the book is that it explains and advocates ways in which the quality of the sailing experience can be improved for current sailors and transmitted to prospective and future sailors. Hayes’ interesting and insightful analysis and conclusions offer some solutions for protecting the core quality and values of the sport. The implication is that improving and guaranteeing the quality of the sailing experience will translate into more overall participation.

At the very heart of both the lack of participation problem and the solution is a very interesting discussion about the use of time. Hayes makes a distinction between “time choices” and what he calls, “time charters.” A time choice is “a slice of time that we take into our own hands, that we give shape to.” A time charter is “made for us by other people,” a thing we consume, subscribe to, or are entertained by; it is a product and something we buy. Movies and theme parks are example of time charters. They deliver a pre-packaged experience. A time choice requires some personal investment, big or small, and “becomes a source of pride and personal and community growth” when it succeeds and becomes a lesson when it doesn’t meet expectations. In our current culture, time charters are becoming more popular and time choices less so. Hayes suggests that we collectively and personally re-examine our behavior to spend time in more rewarding and valuable ways, and that this leads us to finding meaningful “Life Pastimes.”

Hayes believes that the future and value of sailing depends on personal relationships. Aside from the pleasure sailors take in sharing their experiences with each other, they must share their enthusiasm across generational lines to ensure the future success of the sport. He cites some encouraging statistics showing that 92% of all sailors are willing to facilitate the learning of others in some way. But he also explains a multitude of ways in which it is very difficult to pass on a commitment to a “Life Pastime” to other people and to the next generation. He claims that leaders and teachers, as valuable as they are, are not enough. What is required are mentors.

Hayes has some strong opinions about how kids can be brought into the sailing community in such a way as to develop a “Life Pastime.” He speaks harshly of sailing programs where kids are dumped off and picked up by taxi driver parents who want to expose their kids to a variety of activities, without really being committed to or involved in any of them. Too many of these kids never become sailors. Sailing programs, he says, are not typically very good at developing the mentoring relationships that are required to make a kid into a sailor.

Unfortunately, the mentor / mentee relationship is complicated, and there are not enough mentors. He says mentoring “requires a commitment from the mentor that is usually reserved for one’s own offspring.” From here, his focus turns to families where an older generation family member is a successful mentor to a younger person. Youth programs should find ways to involve parents, and parents should work both with programs, and independently from them, to develop mentoring relationships. This requires the parents to make time choices for their families via “Life Pastimes” which span a time continuum across the generations.

Hayes’ weave of time choices, personal relationships, sailing education, mentoring, and family choices presents an undeniably powerful vision for becoming and developing life long sailors.

But in keeping with the job of independent reviewer, I have a few quibbles with the book. The first is that I find the focus on the family as the primary way the love of sailing is transmitted a bit limiting and hardly a big enough solution for something as grand as saving sailing. I think most, or at least many, of the people I know who I would call real sailors have not gotten their love of the sport through families. Second, that while I totally agree that mentoring is incredibly valuable, I think relatively few sailors have had true mentors, in the strict sense of the word. However, I feel quite certain that they have benefited from a variety of relationships with teachers, coaches, peers, and organizations. I would have liked Hayes to discuss the ways in which this assortment of relationships might add up to mentoring or something very close to it, or even how he thinks they might be inadequate.

I hate to sound like a former English teacher, but I think the problem – solution structure of the book does not really do justice to its virtues, but instead does some undercutting of them. The “problem” is defined in a statistical, quantifiable way as the declining participation in sailing (40% decline since 1997 etc.), but the “solution” focuses almost entirely on improving the quality of the sailing experience. The connection makes intuitive sense, but the book never demonstrates (even anecdotally) the connections between “time choices” and mentoring to the quantitative decline or potential quantitative improvement of sailing. The structure sets up an expectation (perhaps an impossible one) that the “problem” will be solved on the same terms in which it is presented, but I don’t really think that is really the author’s intention.

Nor do I think it is necessary. The insightful things Hayes has to say about more meaningful ways to invest time, the value of mentoring, the potential for better family relationships, and building “Life Pastimes” are important whether or not sailing is in statistical decline. They are really solutions for quality of life problems, and they apply across a broad spectrum of activities. They may help lead us to more satisfying lives, which is, after all, more important than what percentage of the population goes sailing.


  1. Thanks for reading and reviewing. I think this is a fair and thoughtful critique.

    I'm glad you arrived at the quantity vs. quality question. It seems like a critical question, but, as you point out it can't really be answered: people must take control over quality of life through their own actions, commitment to leadership and role in communities. I don't think family is the only place to start, but I do think that programs can and should act more like families when they elect to take on the parent-surrogate role. That's a topic for a different book.

    I wish you well as you build your fleet and the level of fun and excitement that it offers!

    Nicholas Hayes

  2. wow - a very thorough review! I've had my eye on this book and added it to my wish/shopping list at Amazon, but was waiting to read more reviews of it.

    thanks for doing such a great job, and being very independent and honest.