By Michael Degen
Photo by Sarah Culver
Declining trends in weekend regatta participation have the Annapolis Yacht Club’s Race Manager Linda Ambrose concerned for the future of the sailing in Annapolis. In 2006, the A.Y.C.’s 70th Annual Regatta started 86 boats across two days of sailboat racing. In 2008, the number was down to 76 boats. This year 55 boats made the start for the 74th Annual Regatta.
Relatively speaking, fifty-five was a good number, down by only 2 boats in 2009. But last year, for the first time in the club’s 70 year history, the A.Y.C. race committee cancelled its Summer One Design regatta because of a lack of participation. Not even a year later, in May 2010, the A.Y.C. cancelled its annual Spring Race for the same reason.
And the A.Y.C. is not alone. Yacht clubs across the region are experiencing steady declines in weekend racing.
The Eastport Yacht Club’s Spring One Design Classic saw 15 boat entries this year, down from 24 in 2009. The same event raced 46 boats in 2008. The Shearwater Sailing Club’s decision to drop its Early Spring Race in 2008 was due in large part to the fact that it raced only 43 boats in 2007, when three years prior it was racing over 70. The S.S.C.’s Hospice Cup in September, while currently holding strong at 80 boats, was at one time racing 120.
Something is happening in America’s sailing capital, but club racing committees can’t quite put their finger on it.
Theories to explain this large overall decline range from sailors getting burnt out over the course of the long traditional racing schedule, to an oversupply of races, to a struggling economy. But the prevailing wisdom cites something even less tangible—changing lifestyles within Annapolis’ sailing community.
Whereas sailing used to be the predominant weekend family activity in this city, more and more non-sailing recreations are vying for the time of would-be weekend sailors, many of whom have chosen to leave their boats on the trailer for other pursuits.
“One of the things that’s interesting about sailboat racing is that we very often get affected by things like baby boomers and lifestyle changes within the sailors themselves,” Ambrose said. “My peers… we were sailing in our twenties, but now that we’re in our thirties and forties and have kids and families…like so many other things, some age out and others just change lifestyles.”
As Jonathan Bartlett, the A.Y.C. Fleet Captain, sees it, the difference is that today’s sailing family is “less focused.” In other words, Bartlett, 50, like so many other racers in the region grew up in a sailing family that spent a lot of time on the water. When he wasn’t on a sailing boat he was out crabbing or fishing. Mark McGonigle, 41, was sailing as soon as he could walk. “From Memorial Day to Labor Day, I raced every Sunday morning at 9 o’clock. Then I went onto another boat at around 2 o’clock and I crewed for somebody else in the afternoon races,” McGonigle said. “I did that for years. It’s just what you did.”
But more and more this is what McGonigle and others are hearing. “I’ll hear other boats say ‘Well, I couldn’t get out there because three of the guys on my boat… their kids had something else to do so they couldn’t race,’” McGonigle said.
When he first started racing in Annapolis, McGonigle crewed for 4 years on what was predominantly a family boat. “It was the doctor, the missus, the son, the two sons-in-law and the two daughters. And there was me and one other guy. The whole joke on this boat was since it was a family boat there was no room for promotion.” The daughters then had kids who got into other things, like horses, soccer and lacrosse. “My generation, ten years – plus or minus – are having our own kids and we’re getting them into a whole bunch of stuff,” McGonigle said.
But these days the typical Annapolis “sailing family” is just as much into soccer, horseback riding, tennis and lacrosse.
“There is pressure on people, both skippers and crew, for their available time on weekends,” Chip Thayer, race committee chairman at A.Y.C., said. “Their kids are now not only playing sports on the weekdays after school, they’re playing weekends, and so mom and dad have to go do that as well as fit in their own schedules.”
The popularity of the weeknight race series is perhaps the best evidence in support of this. While Ambrose is crossing her fingers in hopes that the A.Y.C. will draw a number near last year’s 57 entries for the 2010 Annual Regatta, she has no problems attracting over double that number every week for the club’s Wednesday Night Race Series.
Wednesday night racing began at the A.Y.C. in 1959, and according to Thayer, has drawn an average of 120-140 boats for some time.
The reason? “Weeknights are fun; they’re easy. It gives you the opportunity to deal with the rest of your life and get family time in,” Jean Kluttz, said. “And it’s more laid back racing. There are plenty of hotly competitive people doing it, but there are plenty of people who are out there just for a good race on a lovely weeknight.”
Kluttz, 63, a past commodore and committee member of the Shearwater Sailing Club, has seen peaks and valleys in sailboat racing before, and she has always felt conflicting demands on peoples’ time to be the primary factor. “You have situations with married sailors with spouses who don’t participate [in sailboat racing] so there’s, ‘Hey, how about some family time?’ Or they have other interests. And their spouses might share this interest too, so you choose how you’re going to spend your time. So you got the kids, you got the spouses, and … you got the lawn care.”
And of course family demands have always been there, Kluttz said. But within the last 10 or so years, the sailing community has changed and more young families have gotten involved in the sport. “When you’re busy with [family] it’s hard to put together racing. Even if you’re into sailing and your kids start sailing, then you’re driving them to Optimist racing events instead of racing your own boat,” she said.
While sailboat racing in Annapolis is by no means in danger of extinction, the fact of the matter is that the kind of racing that we’ll be seeing on the Bay in the near future is going to be markedly different. Eastport Yacht Club is embracing the idea of introducing new, more exciting events into its schedule. “The sport needs a shot of adrenaline,” Kristen Robinson of E.Y.C., said. “It will mean dreaming up new events. Like the Solomon’s Island race, how long have we all been doing that?” Robinson also hopes to bring more national events, like the U.S. Sailing Match Semi-Finals E.Y.C. hosted in June, into their club’s schedule.
In the meantime, Thayer and Ambrose at A.Y.C. will be tinkering with traditional formats. Their guinea pig is another one of the A.Y.C.’s floundering regattas, the Fall Series.
In 2005 the Fall Series started 153 boats across the three-weekend event. In 2006 that number was down to 146 boats. “In 2008 we had 116 boats. And we had 95 in 2009,” Thayer said. In an attempt to boost those numbers back over 100 Thayer has revamped the entire format for this October’s Fall Series. “We’re trying to change the format and see if that fits people’s schedules. You get those who say, ‘Well I can get off one day a weekend but I can’t get off 2,’ and then you get the other group that says, ‘Well I can’t get off 3 weekends in a row…if you only had it one weekend I could do it.’ So it’s very hard to know, but you have to just try and run an experiment and see whether it fits,” Thayer said.
As with all experiments, only time and tide will tell what the future holds for “the sailing capital of the world.” Check back in over the next few months as we continue to update this story, and in the meantime, tell us what you think about the state of sailing in Annapolis.