Power boat grab: Is the sailing lifestyle sailing away?

The pursuit of sailing is fighting head winds.

Beyond the blow from the Great Recession, sailing faces pressure from aging baby boomers turning toward powerboats and millennials enjoying broader leisure options, industry leaders say.

The number of U.S. residents who sail has been roughly flat for a decade, with about 3.5 million to 4 million people going at least once per year and 1.2 million sailing at least seven times per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and research by industry groups.

That’s despite a rise in U.S. population and trends for the affluent to seek “special experiences” like sailing, Sally Helme, publisher of Sailing World magazine, said during the recent Strictly Sail boat show in Miami, the largest sail event in South Florida.

Richard Jordan feels the strain at his Jordan Yachts brokerage in Dania Beach, which specializes in pre-owned sailing yachts and employs five brokers.

His company’s revenues tanked during the Great Recession, recovered slowly from 2010 through 2012 and stayed flat in 2013 and 2014. They’re still roughly 20 percent off pre-recession levels, he said.

Yet even before the recession hit, the sailboat business had been declining.

“It used to be the dream to get a sailboat and cruise off into the sunset, but maybe people are working more and don’t have the time,” Jordan said.

What’s more, baby boomers are turning to less physically demanding powerboats, while millennials are less exposed to sailing than earlier generations that had fewer options for leisure, Jordan said.

At the Gulfstream Sailing Club in Fort Lauderdale, membership is down to about 90, off more than half from its peak decades back. And most members are older, even though the club welcomes sailors without boats and offers programs to teach children, said commodore Mike “Mick” Sazak.

“Millennials really aren’t taking up sailing now,” said Sawzak, noting that some are put off by the cost of dockage and insurance for larger boats. “I see them up and down the canals in kayaks.”

The most recent industry survey presented by Sailing World magazine highlights the hurdles. In 2014, sailboat brokers in North America reported sales roughly flat at $463 million.

The number of sailboats imported and those made in North America both rose, led by sailboats under 20 feet. Yet the value of new boat sales fell, as fewer people bought larger sailboats, the survey found.

North American sailboat production last year hit its highest level since 2008. But the roughly 7,000 sailboats produced still lagged far behind the 22,000-plus made in 2000, surveys show.

To encourage sailing, advocates are pitching the sport as affordable.

“Sailing has the perception of being expensive, but you can get a great used boat for a thousand bucks or less and still have a lot of fun,” said Helme, referring to boats under 20 feet that can be parked in a back yard and don’t require payment of dockage fees.

Boaters also can share ownership or join boat clubs to cut costs on larger sailboats, advocates said.

No one expects a quick return to heady days of the 1970s, when 12 million Americans sailed at least once a year.

Back then, families worked shorter hours, commuted less, had fewer child-only activities and could afford to take three hours on a weekend afternoon for a family sail, said Nick Hayes, author of “Saving Sailing.” He welcomes community sailing clubs that foster multi-generational sailing.

“If we could get only 50,000 more people sailing (regularly in North America every year),” said Sailing World’s Helme, “that would make a real difference to the industry.”


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