When I tell the people that I was an athlete in high school, it often piques the interest of many fitness-focused Californians.
When I tell them that my sport was sailing, however, the dialog usually takes a bit of a different turn.
Most of the reactions I get when I speak of my accomplishments on the water range from confused to downright hostile. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve been told that sailing isn’t a sport, as if someone had been continuously tricking me during the 12 years I spent learning how to propel myself with just the wind.
This response has always struck me as a little funny. The fact that people who have never watched a regatta in their life feel obliged to draw conclusions about the activity doesn’t make a lot of sense. In truth, it seems about as ridiculous as saying that Picasso’s “Guernica” is not art because it doesn’t look like most of the other war paintings from the 1930s.
But even to those who give me the benefit of the doubt, my admission usually leads me to a dead end. So few individuals have ever made an attempt to understand what sailing is about that it quickly becomes impossible to continue the discussion.
To me, this is a real shame. Not only does this knowledge gap represent a missed opportunity to digest a truly exciting form of entertainment, but it also greatly diminishes the fantastic accomplishments that modern sailors are achieving.
In essence, sailing isn’t that different from running in that everybody goes through a starting line and proceeds around a course until they arrive at the finish. While running is largely a test of strength and mental intensity, sailing is a more tactical challenge. Finding the areas of the water with the most favorable wind conditions represents the difference between winning and losing. As a result, good sailors use their feel and knowledge of the current conditions to find a way to break free of the pack in the best areas of the course.
Developing a good game plan, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. Typical sailboats have dozens of ways to make adjustments that help determine boat speed, and it can take years to learn how to manage them effectively. As one newbie to the sport told me bluntly, “It’s really a lot to keep track of.”
Even once these settings are in place, it still takes a physical effort to keep the boat under control. In high winds, small-boat sailors have to suspend their bodies over the water for several minutes at a time to prevent the boat from flipping. It’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.
People have responded to the above with a remark along the lines of, “Why bother?” While it’s fair to say that sailing’s transportation value may no longer be what it was 200 years ago, I don’t see why sailing is any less pointless than most of our other sports. Winning a regatta brings with it the same thrills of victory that all other competitions have, and many high honors are at stake for those who truly excel.
In the past, this seems to have been more understood. Professional sailboat racing predates almost every major modern sport (darn you, rugby), and most of its trophies have long and interesting histories. The America’s Cup, for instance, has been around since 1850, almost a decade before the game of baseball had even been invented.
Sailing has also been included in every Olympic program except the one in 1904, an impressive run for something many people consider more of a “hobby.”
To be fair, some of the stereotypes about sailing do have elements of truth. Flying over the water can require some reasonably complex and expensive equipment, and as a result it certainly isn’t all that accessible. Boat manufacturers and junior sailing programs really ought to make an effort to alleviate this problem, as it ultimately is quite harmful for building interest in the sport.
But it’s hard for me to imagine barriers to entering the sailing community are that much greater than those in cycling or golf, and they certainly are much lower than in commonly accepted sports like Formula One racing. Thus, using this criterion as some sort of grounds for disqualification is simply illogical.
It’s easier than ever to start viewing the accomplishments of sailors today, and in truth, one simply needs to look in our own backyard. The Stanford sailing team is consistently the top program on the West Coast and one of the best in the country. There are decent odds that someone — sophomore singlehanded skippers Luke Muller or Haley Fox perhaps — involved with it will become a national champion this year. The team’s alumni have likewise gone on to accomplish extraordinary feats, and one of them may have the chance to represent America in the Olympics this year.
Sailing has increasingly started to become televised as well. The America’s Cup now features regularly on NBC, complete with excited commentators explaining every move. With many different nations slated to compete on an extremely fast and modern class of boat – a 45-50 foot foiling catamaran – the 2017 iteration of this event has a chance to be one of the most exciting yet.
The next time you run across a regatta while driving over Treasure Island or see some AC45s racing while you’re changing channels, I ask you to take a second and pause. You just might find yourself enjoying what you see a little bit more than you thought.
Andrew Mather only took up sailing because he wasn’t athletic enough to be a rower. Ask him where you can send ointment for this burn at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.