Sail­ing in the UK is chang­ing. Will Bru­ton takes an in depth look at what’s hap­pen­ing, seek­ing opin­ion from ex­perts across the in­dus­try

Yachting Monthly - - CONTENTS - Words Will Bru­ton

How peo­ple go sail­ing is chang­ing. We in­ves­ti­gate how clubs and in­dus­try will have to evolve

How did you get into sail­ing?’ is a ques­tion with an of­ten as­sumed an­swer. The re­cent film drama­ti­sa­tion of Arthur Ran­some’s

Swal­lows and Ama­zons, a hal­cyon day’s tale of ad­ven­ture un­der sail, couldn’t have dis­tilled the raw ap­peal much bet­ter to chil­dren. It did lit­tle, how­ever, to give an im­pres­sion that it is an ac­ces­si­ble sport to any non-sail­ing par­ents.

Two re­ports were com­mis­sioned to in­ves­ti­gate the state of the UK ma­rine leisure mar­ket. The first

Bri­tish Ma­rine: Fu­tures, com­piled last year by Liz Rushall, looked at the state of play within UK sail­ing. The sec­ond re­port, Seg­men­ta­tion and Bar­ri­ers to Boating, by mar­ket re­search com­pany Arken­ford, looked at why peo­ple were not tak­ing up, or were stop­ping sail­ing. Com­bined, they give the most in-depth ap­praisal to date of the cur­rent state of sail­ing in the UK and the rea­sons be­hind it.

At the crux of the Fu­tures re­port are in­di­ca­tors that ac­cess to our pas­time is re­peat­edly cited as an ob­sta­cle too great for many. Fur­ther­more, we in­creas­ingly com­pete with new sports that are seen to be eas­ier to get into, such as pad­dle­board­ing, and, whilst the no­tice­able boom in large yacht sales would sug­gest the in­dus­try is flour­ish­ing, the re­al­ity is that this is un­der­pinned only by the baby-boomer gen­er­a­tion. Sail­ing is in a pe­riod of flux, and while nei­ther of the re­ports claim to have a magic so­lu­tion to boost par­tic­i­pa­tion, they have been able to iden­tify sev­eral trends that could be ex­ploited in or­der to bring new par­tic­i­pants of ev­ery gen­er­a­tion on board.

Whilst a rapidly chang­ing mar­ket is an is­sue for the ma­rine in­dus­try, it is also one for the leisure sailor. Fewer new yachts are be­ing built be­tween 20-40ft, mean­ing that mak­ing the leap from dinghy to cruiser may be seen as too great by many. Clubs that are strug­gling to bring in new mem­bers are fac­ing the re­al­ity of de­clin­ing mem­ber­ships, bring­ing their con­tin­ued ex­is­tence into ques­tion. Rather than ac­tively caus­ing its de­cline, the tra­di­tional path­ways into yacht­ing have pas­sively al­lowed things to stag­nate. This, com­bined with in­creas­ing yacht own­er­ship costs, means a gap is emerg­ing be­tween those that al­ready own a boat and a new gen­er­a­tion that is not get­ting onto the lad­der of yacht own­er­ship.

Liz Rushall re­searched and wrote the Bri­tish Ma­rine: Fu­tures re­port, which looks at these is­sues. We spoke to her about her find­ings to un­der­stand what it might mean for cruis­ing sailors.


Early in 2017 Bri­tish Ma­rine, the ma­rine in­dus­try trade as­so­ci­a­tion, com­mis­sioned a project to un­der­stand the fu­ture cus­tomer for boating.

The project re­mit in­cluded look­ing at all ex­ist­ing pub­lished data on par­tic­i­pa­tion, as­sess­ing changes in buy­ing habits that will likely af­fect the leisure boating sec­tor. Chris­tened the Fu­tures project, the fi­nal re­port is a sub­stan­tial doc­u­ment with a sec­tion for each ac­tiv­ity and in­cludes rec­om­men­da­tions for Bri­tish Ma­rine to take for­ward.

The RYA and Bri­tish Ca­noe­ing sup­ported the project with ac­cess to data, and the RYA re­cently

ran a we­bi­nar based on the Fu­tures im­pli­ca­tions for sail­ing, for its af­fil­i­ated clubs and classes, that is avail­able to view on­line.


Since 2002 par­tic­i­pa­tion in sail­ing is trend­ing down­wards. En­cour­ag­ingly, yacht cruis­ing, and to a lesser ex­tent yacht rac­ing, have ral­lied since 2015, although the over­all trend is still down.

The ma­jor­ity of par­tic­i­pants, ‘ca­su­als’, only sail be­tween 1-5 times a year, and rep­re­sent three times the num­ber that sail fre­quently, sug­gest­ing there is an op­por­tu­nity to find new ways to en­cour­age and en­able ca­su­als to sail more reg­u­larly.

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern is the drop in num­bers of 16-34 year olds in yacht rac­ing and cruis­ing, small boat sail­ing (dinghies and open day­boats) with small boat rac­ing worst af­fected. Since 2010, num­bers have ral­lied although over­all the trends are still down.

The pic­ture is not much bet­ter for the 35-54 year olds, ex­cept for yacht cruis­ing, which is sta­ble. Yet the 55+ age group is grow­ing in most ac­tiv­i­ties, which is keep­ing the sail­ing in­dus­try tick­ing in the short term. The big ques­tion is how long can this be sus­tained, and how can we at­tract the younger gen­er­a­tions?

Many clubs are see­ing a dip in mem­bers aged 20-40, and these trends sug­gest the of­ten-held con­cept that young peo­ple learn to sail, go to col­lege or start fam­i­lies be­fore re­turn­ing to sail­ing later in life, is not hold­ing true.

Con­versely, water­sports such as pad­dle­board­ing, kayak­ing and surf­ing are grow­ing across all age ranges for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. The de­vel­op­ment of in­flat­a­bles has opened up the ac­tiv­ity to many more peo­ple. The equip­ment is por­ta­ble, easy to store, can be hired rather than pur­chased, launched any­where, and ses­sions can be short.


The UK cen­sus data sug­gests that in 5–10 years time the over­all num­bers of adults age 55+ will re­duce and there will be fewer 20-30 year olds. Ev­ery leisure ac­tiv­ity will be com­pet­ing for this group’s time and money.

Con­sumer and so­cial trends re­search data shows that younger gen­er­a­tions con­sume me­dia prod­ucts and ser­vices very dif­fer­ently from their par­ents, due to tech­no­log­i­cal and so­cial trends.


The Mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion (mid 20s to late 30s) want to try new and dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences and are less likely to own things such as houses and cars. With 80 per cent of peo­ple now liv­ing in cities, the col­lab­o­ra­tive econ­omy has cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties for eas­ily shar­ing as­sets, such as houses, and book­ing in­stant ser­vices, such as UBER cars.

Sport Eng­land also iden­ti­fies a move away from for­mal train­ing, which is re­flected in Bri­tish Ca­noe­ing and the RYA’S starter train­ing fig­ures, and also from or­gan­ised sport. The move is to­wards ac­ces­si­ble ex­pe­ri­ences, per­sonal chal­lenges, shorter for­mats and nat­u­ral fit­ness. Ac­tiv­i­ties such as Boot Camps and Park Run fit this model. More than 10,000 peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in Swim Win­der­mere each year and over half a mil­lion peo­ple have done Tough Mud­der since 2010.


Dig­i­tal trends and so­cial chan­nels such as What­sapp are en­abling vir­tual ‘clubs’ to or­gan­ise ac­tiv­i­ties, and tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing how peo­ple par­tic­i­pate. Wii Sports has peo­ple do­ing out­door sports at home. Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity are cre­at­ing ac­tiv­i­ties un­heard of 10-15 years ago. Apps such as Zwift have cy­clists train­ing and rac­ing from home against rid­ers world­wide, with the full phys­i­cal and vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence of the iconic routes. It’s safe, quick and can be done any­time.

So­ci­ety is also see­ing a more ac­tive ‘third age’, liv­ing longer, and more com­plex fam­i­lies with more gen­er­a­tions to look af­ter, and wider age ranges of chil­dren due to re-mar­riages. At­ten­tion spans are get­ting shorter, and many sports of­fer al­ter­na­tive for­mats to en­cour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion. Rush hockey, car­dio ten­nis and walk­ing foot­ball are ex­am­ples of sports that have adapted to ap­peal to dif­fer­ent groups.


Per­haps most im­por­tant for re­tain­ing young peo­ple are Sport Eng­land’s find­ings in­di­cat­ing they want ac­tiv­i­ties that en­able them to in­ter­act, spend qual­ity time with friends, share their ex­pe­ri­ences, and are spon­ta­neous, ac­ces­si­ble and easy to or­gan­ise. Here could be an­other trip­ping point. For the last cou­ple of decades, many UK clubs have de­vel­oped pro­grammes of for­mal train­ing for young peo­ple based on race train­ing mod­els orig­i­nally de­signed for young adults.

Of­ten in sin­gle-handed dinghies, very young kids are sent afloat in all weathers to sail around buoys,

Young peo­ple want ac­tiv­i­ties that are spon­ta­neous, ac­ces­si­ble and easy to or­gan­ise

with some­one blow­ing whis­tles and shout­ing in­struc­tions. Ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists have evolved the teach­ing of sport to young chil­dren to be much less di­rec­tive. It raises the ques­tion whether race-style train­ing for the very young cre­ates the best, fun and mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ences that will help to keep them en­gaged?

Cer­tainly, a com­pet­i­tive path­way sys­tem is es­sen­tial for suc­cess in any sport. As with mar­ket­ing any good prod­uct, it needs to be of­fered at the right time, and only when its rel­e­vant, such as if that per­son shows in­ter­est in com­pet­ing. Given the de­cline in adults age 16 – 34 and beyond, a gen­uine con­cern is that there is a gen­er­a­tion that may not have had the best ex­pe­ri­ence, and may well not re­turn given the plethora of other ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able.

Many of the cur­rent 55+ gen­er­a­tion grew up mess­ing about in boats and may have taken up rac­ing en route. What is es­sen­tial now is try­ing dif­fer­ent for­mats to en­gage peo­ple of all ages, and en­cour­age more to adopt ‘sail­ing for life’.


Hav­ing com­pleted the anal­y­sis it feels like ev­ery ma­rine or­gan­i­sa­tion, in ad­di­tion to the gov­ern­ing bod­ies, needs to un­der­stand their cur­rent and fu­ture cus­tomer base and adapt their prod­uct of­fer and ser­vices ac­cord­ingly.

Sail­ing is a fan­tas­tic sport with dif­fer­ent craft of all sizes, for all ages and ex­pe­ri­ences. The so­cial, well-be­ing, phys­i­cal, emo­tional and learn­ing ben­e­fits are ex­ten­sive. Yet that mes­sage, through fac­tors in­clud­ing ac­cess, ex­pe­ri­ence, chang­ing needs, over­all im­age and mar­ket­ing, is sim­ply not strong enough.

With peo­ple want­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in pref­er­ence to own­ing kit, we need new mod­els ad­dress­ing costs and ac­ces­si­ble so­lu­tions, to en­able both ini­tial and on­go­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion. Re­tain­ing new and ex­ist­ing par­tic­i­pants of all ages is crit­i­cal. Well-main­tained craft that can be hired to cus­tomers or mem­bers, and

turn-up-and-go ser­vices will likely ap­peal to peo­ple with cost and time re­stric­tions.

De­sign and in­no­va­tion is im­por­tant too, ex­per­i­ment­ing with al­ter­na­tive for­mats and also the hard­ware and equip­ment. If in­flat­a­bles can rad­i­cally change par­tic­i­pa­tion for kayak­ing and SUP, equip­ment that makes things eas­ier to rig, store and main­tain could mean more time ac­tu­ally do­ing the ac­tiv­ity than pre­par­ing for it.


The par­tic­i­pa­tion trends show peo­ple un­der­take mul­ti­ple leisure ac­tiv­i­ties, not just one sport. For busy fam­i­lies with dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests, of­fer­ing fit­ness, so­cial or cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties may be strate­gies to max­imise mem­ber­ship and in­crease foot­fall through un­der-utilised as­sets, such as club build­ings.

Re­mov­ing some of the bar­ri­ers that cre­ate per­cep­tions of elitism is im­por­tant too. Sail­ing can learn a lot from how other leisure ac­tiv­i­ties are be­ing pro­moted, in terms of lan­guage, tone of voice and imagery. Tak­ing a ‘mystery shop­per’ ap­proach to un­der­stand the mem­ber/cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence may re­veal ar­eas for im­prove­ment too. The gym in­dus­try has had to rein­vent it­self. Look at their wel­come signs, flex­i­ble mem­ber­ships and no join­ing fees.

Rais­ing the pro­file of the sport on­line is es­sen­tial, as is mak­ing sure peo­ple can eas­ily find and book ex­pe­ri­ences by mo­bile de­vice. The cur­rent on­line ex­pe­ri­ence for new­com­ers is poor com­pared to many other ac­tiv­i­ties. Pay-and-play op­er­a­tions ex­ist for sail­ing, but many or­gan­i­sa­tions are too small to have suf­fi­cient mar­ket­ing clout to be eas­ily found.

A key rec­om­men­da­tion made to Bri­tish Ma­rine in the Fu­tures re­port was to ini­ti­ate, with the sup­port of the in­dus­try and other gov­ern­ing bod­ies, the cre­ation of a cen­tral dig­i­tal plat­form un­der one mem­o­rable name. List­ing all providers of sail­ing ac­tiv­i­ties on one easy-to-use dig­i­tal plat­form is al­ready tech­ni­cally pos­si­ble. It just needs the in­vest­ment and ef­fec­tive mar­ket­ing to give sail­ing a chance to at­tract and re­tain peo­ple in a fan­tas­tic ‘sport for life’.

RIGHT: The dream? Sail­ing hol­i­day com­pany The Yacht Week has built des­ti­na­tion-fo­cused sail­ing hol­i­days for be­gin­ners into a hugely suc­ces­ful busi­ness that puts thou­sands afloat for the first time ev­ery year BELOW LEFT: Is tra­di­tional race-style train­ing for the very young the best ap­proach to keep young­sters en­gaged?

An en­chant­ing idyll, but un­re­al­is­tic

RIGHT: Easy-ac­cess sports such as pad­dle­board­ing and surf­ing are draw­ing young peo­ple away from sail­ing

ABOVE: En­sur­ing young­sters have a pos­i­tive sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence now is the key to ig­nit­ing a pas­sion for life

ABOVE: Any sport that gets young­sters out on the wa­ter has to be a good thing

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