Monday, April 8, 2019

Adventures in Sailing, Part 2

The Bad.

This may piss some people off. Take it with a grain of salt, keeping in mind that I am outsider to the world of sailing, and the comments I am about to make are based solely on my experiences. I will also say that I am difficult, because of three things. My advanced level of outdoor experience, my training as an educator with a focus on outdoor education, and my understanding of how retail and outdoor education mix.

Okay, with that out of the way, the sailing community in the United States - at least in my experience - doesn't understand its potential customers, how to get them, and most importantly how to educate them. Let's break that down.

Sailing doesn't understand its customers or how to get them. Just about every reputable kayaking dealer knows the importance of educating kayaking customers. I live in the southeast US, and near me I can take kayaking lessons from no less than three different outdoor retailers. One of those retailers offers kayaking lessons from Alaska to Florida, and Boston to San Diego. I use kayaking as an example because that is what I do, but it is equally true for mountain biking, rock climbing and backpacking. I had a very hard time finding access to sailing instruction. I finally found a wonderful instructor based out of a yacht club that is very welcoming to new sailors - and I had drinks with a friend who had a similar experience in Georgia. Once you are hooked up with a yacht club, life is pretty easy. Getting started isn't.

For example, because of my schedule I couldn't wait until May to start lessons and I couldn't do the group lessons that were Monday evening to Friday evening and all day Saturday. I reached out to sailors I knew, and said "hey, if you know an instructor I'll pay cash for private lessons." everyone said yes, they knew many sailing instructors, and yet I never heard back from anyone. I finally found my instructor - did I mention she is fantastic!? - by emailing a local yacht club and explaining my situation, and it still took close to a month to get started. In researching other yacht clubs in my state I see similar things. People like to sail, they start a yacht club - but really they are sailing dinghy sailboats, which are small, and not very yacht like - and they offer sailing lessons and access to boats. This is an inherit misunderstanding of where the growth of your sport comes from. The sailing community is great at teaching little kids to sail - usually at camp - and a small percentage of them become life long sailors. It is very difficult to start as an adult. Don't get me wrong, the sailing community is very welcoming to new people, but it has to be super engaged new people, who are willing to put themselves in a difficult situation - walking into a yacht club, and saying "I don't know anything" which is intimidating. The people sailing are very nice, and super welcoming. But I suspect most of the people who are thinking about learning to sail hit too many roadblocks along the way to make it happen.

Sailing doesn't understand how to educate new sailors. When I google sailing lessons, I get two options. Moderately expensive lessons from a yacht club. Really expensive lessons to learn to sail a keeled, full size boat, and a minimum of three days to learn both. Here is the problem with the yacht club sailing schools: Who do you think the instructors are? I'll tell you, they are highly skilled sailors who are leaders in the school. Here is the problem, while someone may be an expert in a topic, that doesn't mean they can teach the topic. One of my employers says they don't want their instructors to be the best outdoor practitioners, they want their instructors to be the best educators of outdoor practitioners. Do you see the difference? They want their people to be educators first. In my experience it is far easier to be good at something than to be able to teach something. I work with a woman whose background is in education, and she is new to outdoor ed. She is an amazing educator, and I learn from her every time I work with her. Sailing has fallen into the age old trap of, because I am good at this, I can teach this. That isn't always wrong, but it frequently is. Sailing schools should be hiring people that teach, and then teach them to teach sailing. I'm not saying those people can't be sailors also, but it isn't the most important thing.

I suspect these problems are similar to becoming a private pilot. But at least in the case of private pilots (meaning aircraft pilots) there is a governing body - the FAA - that says this is how you become a pilot. I could go buy a boat and just teach myself to sail, which I guess I couldn't do if I wanted to become a pilot. Maybe my mistake is that I am thinking of sailing like I think of kayaking, and I should be thinking about it like learning to fly an aircraft... I'll have to give that some thought.

Stay tuned for Part 3, the Ugly.

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