Why the future of sailing is important … and how it can be strengthened
By: Steve Eliason
What is it about sailing? What does it do to us? What can it do forus?
The answers lie in the imprint it leaves on our sense of who we are. Sailing weaves together natural forces – wind, waves, currents, tides and all sorts of weather. It also melds the invisible forces of math, science and the mechanics of navigation, so that we are challenged to grow in self-reliance, resourcefulness and our ability to think and adapt quickly. In doing so we gain a sure-footedness in all of life.
As one sailing director beautifully described, “Those who sail carry themselves differently in the world.” Not to mention the pure, raw fun and “hair-on-fire scream” of a great ride in a big blow. Today’s generation of high-speed, lightweight, advanced design sail craft makes 20-, 30- and even 40-knot speeds open to many more recreational sailors than was possible just a decade ago. There’s never been a better time in history to sail!
A sea of change
If you haven’t followed what’s going down in the sailing world in recent years, it’s a whole new landscape: 45-mile per hour, 70-foot catamarans – like the boats used in America’s Cup – foiling boats, skimming along the water surface, hulls aloft, riding through the water only on the knife-blade hydrofoils. Kiteboards now hold the sailing speed record near 60 miles per hour. In all, the design of sailing vessels has exploded in recent years.
Of course, the traditional sailing which you might have tried or come to love as a kid – perhaps aboard a Sunfish at summer camp – still delights sailors and kids new to the sport, cruising along at four knots, a gentle, cool ride with nature’s turbine on a sweet-water sea.
And yet, we’ve heard the canary-in-the-coal-mine alarms – sailing, like virtually every outdoor and adventure sport, has been in decline for decades. This despite all the cool new innovations in sailing.
The reality hits hard that it’s more challenging than ever before to lure kids away from electronics. Families are more time-starved than ever. Highly-organized, year-round youth athletics preclude almost every other activity in childhood – siloed into soccer, baseball, gymnastics, cello lessons, etc.
Could we be facing a future with ever fewer “masters” and “commanders” among us? Could the rich well of dreams, ideas, far-off places, navigation, ocean-crossings, exotic islands, naval architecture and building one’s own craft be vanishing from the seascape?
Imagine a world without the lives of the giant minds, the great dreamers and explorers – the navigators who conquered the oceans, the globe and the elements, as well as the battles within. Think of names like Sir Ernest Shackleton, Joshua Slocum, Herman Melville, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Add to the legends list more current celebrities who sail – Morgan Freeman, Neil Young, Bob Seger, Steven Colbert and Kate Middleton. Across political, age, gender, background scales, sailing is for big lives, big ideas, big dreams and big adventures. If sailing even nearly disappears from our landscape, it’s much the same as the extinction of a species: our world – our lives – are simply less full, less rich.
There’s a real bright spot in sailing, however, and that is the way that anyone can get into sailing and reap the benefits of all those great skills and pure joy. Community sailing programs, like our own Green Bay Sail and Paddle, offer a simple formula on which to learn and appreciate sailing. Launching out of South Bay Marina on the far southern end of the Bay of Green Bay, this program introduces super-simple boats like the Hobie Cat Wave catamarans, ultra-simple instruction at the first level – steer, trim, sail around the buoys – and then a full roster of more advanced courses to refine skills over the course of a season, or even a lifetime.
The same is playing out in community sailing centers across Wisconsin, such as:
- Bayfield (North Coast Community Sailing)
- Kenosha (Kenosha Community Sailing Center)
- LaCrosse (LAX Sailing)
- Ephraim Yacht Club (actually a community sailing center, as opposed to an exclusive or restrictive “yacht club”)
- and a host of other similar organizations.
What if every kid could shove off into the big waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan, and skipper their own vessel completely competent, staring down the wind and waves, navigating to a given destination, getting the boat back upright after a capsize, and back to port? Or what if a busy adult could take a super-simple, basic, hassle-free learn-to-sail class and almost instantly get the hang of skimming along on a catamaran on wind power alone?
That’s the idea behind Green Bay Sail and Paddle – “Sailing for all, regardless of means or any other restriction.” In only its second year of programming, the organization is emerging as one of the largest sailing programs in Wisconsin, teaching 1,200 participants from northeast Wisconsin to sail during 2017. The program’s pilot run, “Green Bay SailWeek,” planted the seeds for success in 2016.
What’s especially effective and predictive of success for Green Bay Sail and Paddle is its broad base of support. On the founding and leadership side, there’s support from:
- The business and philanthropic communities
- Sailing and paddling enthusiasts
- The world of education
- The world of economic development
- Private marine business interests
- Human service agencies and youth advocates.
On the “sailor” side of the equation, the program has partnered with Green Bay Public Schools, local YMCAs, area Boys & Girls clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Greater Green Bay Chamber, area Women in Management chapters, and a host of other organizations.
“Green Bay is a fantastic place on a fantastic body of water which we’ve simply overlooked for too long, and sailing and paddle sports are the perfect ways to encounter the beauty of our waters, locally – it is our “Fresh Coast,” said Wendy Townsend, president of the Green Bay Sail and Paddle Board of Directors.
Green Bay Sail and Paddle now has a full fleet of Hobie Catamarans and a beach-based permanent home for sail programs throughout the summer. As past Green Bay board president and past Milwaukee Community Sailing Center Executive Director John Kelly shared, “There’s good reason that these couldn’t-be-easier-to-sail Hobies are so popular in warm-climate beachfront resorts everywhere around the globe – they’re as close to fool-proof as sailing can get – plus simple, durable, attractive, all while delivering a great, thrilling ride in moderate winds. So a perfect platform for new or seasoned sailors.”
A new generation of sailing wanderlust among our youth? Adventurous explorer-dreamers reviving sailing, paddling and the outdoor life? It might be within reach through these great efforts around our region through these kinds of organizations and passionate, committed individuals championing and mentoring our next generation of sailors.
Steve Eliasen is founder and executive director with International Youth Sailing of Oshkosh, the largest school-day sailing program in North America, having brought more than 10,000 students into sailing over the decade since the program began. He also serves on the board of directors and sailing director with Green Bay Sail and Paddle.
In addition, Eliasen works the cold-weather season as community outreach director for Big Snow Resort, home of Indianhead and Blackjack Mountains in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s also an elected member of the Board of Education for Oshkosh Area School District. He shares life with his skiing/sailing wife, Sara, and three children.