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Selling sailing to the masses

Downtown sailing centers, Road Show are introducing sport to newcomers

By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

6:40 PM EDT, August 27, 2011

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John F. Kennedy once remarked that sailing was in the blood of every American, saying that "all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean. ... We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came."

The only problem with the then-president's speech, made on the eve of the 1962 America's Cup races, was that a large percentage of the U.S. population had never been on a sailboat.

And in the nearly half-century since, the number of participants has dropped precipitously. According to Nicholas Hayes, whose 2010 book "Selling Sailing" chronicles the sport's decline in popularity and offers remedies for its revival, participation fell from approximately 12.5 million Americans in sailing's heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s to around 2.5 million today.

Hayes, a member of the board at the Milwaukee Sailing Center, said in an interview that sailing suffered in the same way as hunting and fishing as families became more involved in activities such as soccer where parents acted as chauffeurs and cheerleaders rather as guides and co-participants.

"Instead of having your father or mother or an uncle teach you, kids learned how to hunt or fish or sail at a certification course," Hayes said.

In an attempt to resuscitate interest in sailing, those whose lives around the sport are trying to change its image.

Once considered a sport for the affluent dominated by the likes of television magnate and former major league baseball owner Ted Turner — a perception that many blue-collar sailors disdained — sailing's base is slowly moving away from tony suburban yacht clubs to more urban settings such as Baltimore's Downtown Sailing Center.

"I think the America's Cup — the old America's Cup — certainly had a mystique and attraction to it for the blue blazer set, but that isn't what got a lot of people involved in sailing," Kristen Berry, the center's executive director, said as he sat near the dock off Key Highway on a recent morning. "The freedom that comes from being on the water and get where you want to go being pushed by this invisible finger is what attracts most of us.

"For us, that's why we exist. It's about providing an opportunity for people to experience that."

Lee Tawney, executive director of the Annapolis-based National Sailing Center and Hall of Fame, said the mission of sailing is now simple.

"The bottom line is getting butts in the boats," Tawney said in an interview.

With that goal, the culture has undergone a noticeable shift. Evidence to that came last year, when for the first time in its 42-year history, Annapolis Race Week was run out of City Dock rather than the Annapolis Yacht Club.

"This was a private event that was held at a private yacht club on a hill, and you might have walked by on the street and seen all these people in the tents and you had no access to it. So we literally brought the event to the people," said Karen Masci, first-year president of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Association, which runs Race Week.

The taking-it-to-the-masses mentality will be on display again later this week, when U.S. Sailing puts on small boat demonstrations as part of its Road Show, first at the Downtown Sailing Center and later at Race Week, a three-day amphibious festival that will bring between 175 to 200 boats as well as thousands of sailing fans to downtown Annapolis for competition and camaraderie.

Masci acknowledges that moving an event that had its roots in some of the area's private clubs was not easy and came only "after years of discussion" with club members and Annapolis city officials. Resistance came more from the city's former mayor than from what Masci called "the old guard" of sailors in the area.

Gary Jobson, the Annapolis sailor and Hall of Fame inductee who is now president of U.S. Sailing, said Race Week can play its part in a local rejuvenation.

"It's important to show off a little bit — see the boats, see the hubbub, kind of like being in the pits for a car race, you're a part of it," Jobson said. "And then you have people saying, 'Let's go do that — how do I get a sailing lesson?' "

Jobson and others credit community sailing centers such as Baltimore's for the recent spike in the sport's interest.

"Sailing has done a better job — not a perfect job — of making itself available to nonsailors or people who are curious about what the sport is all about," Jobson said.

Berry calls the Downtown Sailing Center and others like it "the YMCA of sailing" for their access and affordability.

A basic membership costs as little as $245 a year and go up to $850 for those who want to race. The 600-member club has access to some 60 boats and offers free sailing opportunities at least once a month, as well as programs for those with disabilities.

"People come and take their one time on the water with us and say, 'That was really fun,' and then they come back and take a class," Berry said. "And after taking a class, they say, 'How can I get more time on the water?' We can provide that as well."

Juan Peralta and LaKeisha Johnson are proof.

Peralta, who has lived in Baltimore since he was 8, didn't even know how to swim when a representative from the Downtown Sailing Center came to nearby Digital Harbor during his sophomore year. The center was offering an internship program for students to become a sailing instructor trainees.

"Before that, I had the same perceptions that everyone else has of sailing being a sport for the wealthy," said Peralta, now a junior at Maryland who eventually took over running the center's junior program. "The DSC was saying, 'No, it's not — try it out,' and I fell in love with it."

Johnson had sailed at a summer camp at St. Paul's when she was in middle school, but never thought of pursuing it further until she found out about the sailing instructor trainee program. Now a junior at UMBC, the 19-year-old from Parkville has tried to get her friends and family involved in the sport.

"It's rewarding to be exposed to this aspect of sailing, and this aspect of life — things you don't do every day," Johnson said.

Jobson, the president of U.S. Sailing, sees that sea change firsthand.

Recalling the scene at a regatta on one of the upstate New York Finger Lakes earlier this summer, Jobson was impressed with the egalitarian nature of the event.

"There were 44 boats, and I would say that half of the people pitched tents and had cookouts going — the social activities were just as important as the racing," Jobson said. "It kind of told me that sailing was not just a rich man's sport."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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