By Pat Reynolds
As I cruised past the Marina del Rey breakwall in my 14-foot inflatable Feb. 16 to photograph the 84th annual Midwinter Regatta, billed by race chair Simon Dekker as the “largest and most unique regatta in all of North America,” it seemed the ocean was emptier than I anticipated.
Although when I started shooting these races 10 years ago, I remember hearing sailors complain about participation numbers and I recall quite a few more boats competing. But this is a topic that will energize any yacht club bar – is sailboat racing dying?
Don’t get me wrong – the Santa Monica Bay still had plenty of sailboats competing in this widespread race. With over 25 host clubs all up and down the Southern California coast and into Arizona, the Midwinter Regatta is still a formidable event on the California yacht-racing scene. But the sport’s core demographics, the rising costs of boat ownership and the logistics involved in being active in the sport all seem to be contributing to fewer competitors both locally and nationwide.
“Getting sailors out on the water in organized events is definitely getting tougher each year,” said race organizer and longtime racer Randy Reynolds, who produces the Border Run International Sailing Event every year. “This year is going to be very challenging for race organizers; we have spent great efforts to get sailors out on the water with so-so results compared to past years.”
Reynolds has been a heavily active racer since the mid-1970s, with many high-profile victories and ties to the America’s Cup Oracle Racing Team. He has been a race organizer for the past five years and has noticed a difference from both sides of the fence.
“The exceptional effort by race organizers for the Newport to Ensenada Race, as an example, is still keeping them surprisingly well-shy of 200 boats so far,” he said. “Just eight years ago, this race used to get 400 boats. Even the Border Run, which has seen growth the last two years, has seen a hit in early entries.
“As a racer, I think the combination of the tough economy, lack of sponsors, who help keep entry fees low, busy lifestyles of families and the lack of new blood has made it tougher to get boats out on the water. I think the sailors are still out there, but it’s up to organizers to get them excited about getting out on the water. We need to rise to the challenge of creating fun and challenging events.”
Nearly any longtime racer, like Reynolds, will mention the “glory years” of the late 1970s and 1980s when the sport was thriving. For these sailors the disappointment is hard to mask when pressed to speak of how the sport is fairing currently.
“Looking strictly at Marina del Rey, perhaps the biggest evidence of entry erosion shows up at Califonia Yacht Club’s Sunset Series each Wednesday night during the summer,” said Tom Leweck, founder of the popular sailing website Scuttlebutt, contributor for Sailing World magazine and a local racing institution. “Entries last year averaged less than 69 boats – that’s not much more than half of the boats that raced in this series during the height of the glory years.”
Leweck points to evidence within the boat manufacturing industry indicating both a shift in consumer mindset and a failing market.
“Thirty years ago Marina del Rey had a prospering dealer selling Cal boats, another selling Islanders, another pumping out Ranger racer-cruisers, plus an Erickson and a Schock dealer,” Leweck said. “Columbia, Catalina and its sister brand Capri were also successfully marketing racer-cruisers. We’d see these boats on the race course on Wednesdays and weekends, and at the island a couple of times each year. Most of those brands are now gone, replaced in this market by Beneteau, Hunter, Hanse and Jeanneau.
“Nice boats to be sure, but they certainly weren’t designed with racing in mind. Currently, J/Boats seems to be the only brand still successfully selling racer-cruisers in this market. However, it’s been quite a while since a brand new J/Boat has been seen on a Sunset Series starting line.”
The boats Lewick references are “nice” indeed, and not cheap. It’s no coincidence that these successful years, these “glory days” happened when sailing was a less expensive prospect. Buying, maintaining and harboring boats was more affordable decades ago. And perhaps it’s this aspect that most effectively tells the tale of decline.
“The expense of running a boat has gone up dramatically over the past 10 years,” said South Bay Yacht Racing Club Staff Commodore Rick Ruskin. “When I first started sailing about 20 years ago, I bought a Santana 525; my slip fee was $160 per month. Today, that same 25-foot slip is $270.” In truth, Ruskin would be lucky to pay $270.
“Over a three-year period, slip fees run about $10,000, a spray bottom about $2,500, sails about $1,500 each, plus bottom cleaning, insurance and property tax,” Ruskin continued. “It costs about $510 per month just to maintain.”
With costs this high, younger sailors have less ambition to break into the sport as boat owners, which keeps an older demographic in charge of keeping the sport alive. While junior and collegiate level racing still thrives, the financial and time commitment of boat ownership seems to block a youthful influx.
“Sailing is not a cheap past time and boat ownership costs a lot of money even if you never use your boat,” said Nik Vale who co-owns Open Sailing in Marina del Rey, a manufacturer of high performance sportboats.
“A lot of other sports have become more accessible and affordable and people like to do it all, rather than just choosing sailing. They like to ski, fly, paddleboard, race cars, hike – whatever,” he said. “Weekends are premium time and committing to an entire weekend of sailing has become a much bigger challenge.”
That said, Vale, who is in his 30s, leads a popular one-design class of Open 5.70s and continues to manufacture and sell the Pogo 2, a 21-foot ocean-going racer designed for single-handed sailing.
Vale, like many of his breed, is optimistic yet realistic about the future of the sport. With the America’s Cup gearing everything from the designs to the marketing messages towards a younger audience and local programs like Introduction to Yacht Racing 2013, (coming in March), which focuses on local recruitment, sailboat racers are mindful of the dilemma and working to keep it all afloat.