Round-the-world racers, hunkered down in Miami, hope to rev up interest in sailing

When the ’round-the-world regatta known as the Volvo Ocean Race stopped over in the United Arab Emirates a few months back, the event was so celebrated that the rock band Coldplay served as its opening act.

In April, thousands packed the shoreline in Brazil’s port city of Itajai to welcome the four resilient yachts that survived the 7,700-mile, trans-Pacific voyage from New Zealand.

But as the fleet of extreme sailors turned into Miami Beach’s Government Cut Wednesday, arriving at their lone North American destination after 17 days at sea, only a handful of boats and a few hundred — at most — land-bound well-wishers thought to greet them.

Chalk it up to South Florida’s infamously finicky sports fans? Perhaps. But for many of those who hold sailing — both recreationally and competitively — most dear, it’s just another example of the activity’s diminished popularity.

“It just isn’t how it used to be,” Andrew Buys, a well-seasoned man of the sea, said wistfully as he watched the competing boats arrive. “Miami is a motorboat town now.”

By most every recordable metric (including the skewed powerboats-to-sailboats ratio in local marinas), Buys is right — but the trend is not limited just to South Florida.

Nationally, only 4,300 new sailboats were purchased in 2010, according to industry numbers provided by the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Strikingly, that’s off the sales figures of a decade prior by more than 80 percent. Furthermore, there are roughly 50 powerboats — new or used — purchased for every sailboat sold in the United States, the association said.

Among the casualties of the sudden sailing exodus: the parent company of Hunter Marine — “North America’s largest manufacturer of sailboats” — which declared bankruptcy last week.

Even worse, the sport, quite literally, has gotten old; the average age of American sailboaters is now over 50.

But if anything is going to catch the ever-fleeting attention of kids these days, it’s the super-fast, super-light 70-footers that can navigate three-story waves without splitting apart. At least that’s the hope of organizers of the Volvo Ocean Race, the triennial event formerly known as the Whitbread Round the World Race.

They are using the race’s Bicentennial Park headquarters, in part, as a marine outreach center. Volvo’s waterfront village features kid-friendly race simulators, 3D movies and even sailing lessons — all free of charge.

“The sport has been struggling a bit [in the United States],” said Knut Frostad, a Norwegian yachtsman who heads up the Volvo race after participating in the event four times previously. “There are so many things to choose from, and sailing is a challenging and complicated hobby to start.

“Compared to jumping on a skateboard, you have to make a much different effort.”

Nicholas Hayes, the Milwaukee-based maritime researcher and author of Saving Sailing, thinks such efforts are noble, but are only a small part of what it will take to get Americans back in sailboats.

Hayes says America has lost some 10 million active sailors since 1979, but doesn’t attribute that drop-off solely to stunted attention spans and economic hard times. Rather, he sees something more fundamental: Sailing is no longer the intergenerational tie that bound together families in the past.

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