Monday, January 28, 2013

The state of sailing on the Salish Sea

(I normally try to keep the posts in this blog positive and uplifting.  However there are times when that is not possible.  If you are a reader who looks for the positive, you should perhaps eschew this post -Ed.)

We went to the Seattle Boat Show this weekend.  This always serves for me as a barometer on the state of boating under sail here on Puget Sound (aka 'The Salish Sea' - subject for another post).  Now our boat show here is really two boat shows, run by two different organizations,  held simultaneously - one inside in the Exposition Center, and one in-the-water, held at South Lake Union - an interesting idea.

I felt pretty good about things afterwards.  In the indoor show, the number of sailboats (not counting Macgregor or the Hobies and other sit-on small boats) increased by 100% over last year.  That is, this year Beneteau had 2 boats inside - a nice showing.  For Beneteau anyway.  (Last year I ranted on this some, because we had taken our daughter and son in law and their very young kids to the show, hoping to get them aboard a couple of smaller sailboats.) 

The outdoor show also was an improvement over last year - there were a total of 16 sail boats available for boarding.  Catalina had 2 boats (35' and 38'), Hunter had 2 (27' and 33' - and by the way, that Hunter 27 is the only boat in the entire show that would have been suitable our kids...), Jenneau had 5 (33'-45'),  there was a Nauticat 37 and there was 1 catamaran (Lagoon 40).  The remainder were older used boats.

And I feel I must say this here - Jane and I prefer the older boats - where wood is used, it is teak - and there is lots of wood.  The modern boats, in an effort to stay just within reach financially have eschewed teak, and in the most budget-conscious boats, have even substituted laminates for wood entirely.  The charm of a traditional teak interior is impossible to beat.

As I say, I felt pretty good about the show.  And then I read this report by friends TJ & Deb of their visit to the Chicago boat show.  This is an indoor-only show (Chicago; winter).  And yet they had a much larger representation of sail boats than Seattle.  Look at the pictures!

And that got me thinking.  In my rant last year, I laid this problem at the feet of the Boat Show organizers.  But that is unfair - they simply bring the boats to the show that will sell.  Instead, it appears that it is simply the case that sailing is becoming less popular in Puget Sound.

As additional evidence, I offer these two observations:
  • When we first moved onto G Dock in 2000, it was pretty much a sail-only dock.  Oh sure, there were a few of the 2-story tall power boats, but they were scattered widely between the masts.  Today, the dock is almost entirely power boats, with a small enclave of sail out here on the very end, and a thin scattering of 4 or 5 masts towards shore.
  • There used to be three sailboat-only brokerages out here at Shilshole.  Now there is only one brokerage, and they deal with both sail and power.
And then there was the Boat Show.

What's happening?  Well, for one thing, I see no tangible interest on the part of the manufactures and dealers in selling the small boats - the ones that get folks hooked on sailing.  The 21' - 28' class boats - most are trailerable -  are the size that folks will be buying when they are just entering the sail marketplace.  I submit that a long-viewed manufacturer would sell boats in this size range almost at cost, knowing that he would be creating sales in the decades to come.  Two-foot-itus is a real thing, and young families outgrow smaller boats as kids appear.  

But maybe today's business climate does not allow unlimited loss-leaders.  OK, then how about Catalina or Hunter sponsor annual contests (500 words on "My dream under sail"?) with 5-boat giveaways in the 21-25 foot class.  That would whip up some interest.

And it should be possible to do something with the used boat marketplace as well.  Most used boats in the introductory size range now sell on craigslist.  Could a Catalina or Hunter dealer somehow sponsor a contest linked to craigslist sales?  Or perhaps they could partner with the sellers to offer boats as "dealer inspected and certified"?  This could be done with an at-cost charge to the seller, collected at the time of sale.

But I am not a businessman;  perhaps these are impractical ideas.  But you businessmen out there, you need to work on this.  I mean, come on.  How hard can it be to sell boats that move for free, when diesel is selling for $5 on the docks?



Robert Salnick said...

Now what do I do? In moderating comments, I fat-fingered one on my iPhone, and instead of publishing it, I deleted it. And I can see no way to pull it back.

Here is the comment:

From John Enders:

Robert: Your numbers are not scientific, purely anecdotal, so I would love to see some data on power vs. sail in Puget Sound. Up here in Anacortes, where I keep my Crealock '34, we have almost as many sailboats as power boats. Of course, that doesn't mean anything either and is my own anecdote. I see lots of sails on the water up here, at least when it's warm.

Anonymous said...

The exhibitors at the boat show are motivated by money. If they feel they can make more money by exhibiting, they will do so. If not, they won't.
Perhaps the sailing community isn't spending enough money to make their participation financially viable?

Anonymous said...


Robert Salnick said...

Thom -

Of course, you're right. And thank you for making my point.


Robert Salnick said...

Anon -

I don't know what to say - are you a lawyer? I have no data on sail vs power on Puget Sound - did I say I did? And as an engineer, I'd need to know what you actually mean when you say "data". Certainly, counting sails out on the Sound, as you suggest, is one measure. So is counting boats in slips on G Dock. Or sailboat brokers at Shilshole. Or sailboats in the Seattle Boat Show.

Deb said...

I'm afraid your observations are pretty much the norm in a lot of marinas around the country. The problem is that the sailboat market is following the people with money, the baby boomers, thus the increase in size. Young folks are simply not entering the sailing market. I had a conversation with a group of young people this past summer who had come to the marina with a friend of theirs, a daughter of one of the marina tenants. I used the opportunity to get some input and asked the kids (all 13-15 yrs old) why young people were not interested in sailing. One of the kids looked up from his iPhone long enough to tell me that the "cool" factor was too low. Sailing was boring. It will probably take a good many racing programs for young people in fast, small boats like Lasers or Vipers to drum up the interest again. Maybe you can suggest such a thing at your marina.

S/V Kintala

Robert Salnick said...

Deb -

Thanks for your observations - I think you are right about the manufacturers following the demographics.

I agree that some kind of entry-level racing, or perhaps the Moth (have you seen them? Amazing!) could stir interest in the young. And should be pursued.

But I also think that dreams - dreams of white sand beaches, palm trees, and days spent cruising thru clear blue water - can also be a powerful motivator.

I think we need to pursue both.


Anonymous said...

Why does this come as a surprise?

Sailing on the Puget Sound is tough, either too much wind or not enough. How many times have have you seen sailboats acting like power boats with big antennas, even in good breezes? My opinion, unless one gets a boat capable of taking advantage of the light winds, say a multihull, an owner's schedule will dictate motoring.

Further, many couples want an 'apartment on the water' and the power boat offers far more light, space and potential conveniences than a sailboat does.

Lastly, sailing on the Great a few words: Good, consistent breezes. I've done regular 70 mile days on Lake Michigan, 90 was not unusual and had one, very long, 105 mile day. Sailing is easy with many marinas available. Sailboats on the Great Lakes sail. Powerboats on the Great Lakes spend a lot of time sitting in the marinas, with their dockside picnic tables and gas grills (seriously). Powerboats are treated more like a shore-side cottages, visited on the weekends.


Courtney said...

Here's what I found when solo-sailing: Summer is beautiful, but not many windy days to hoist sails and get anywhere. Also, because the Puget Sound area is full of inlets, bays, and different tidal patterns, sailing from point A to point B becomes more of a science and less of an outing. With few exceptions, most marinas are not directly on the Sound, but the Sound is where the wind is the most consistent. Therefore there's a lot of pre-planning to leave port with the tides and to return to port with the tides. And because of all the land, wind is flukey. If there's one thing I hated doing it was turning on the diesel and motoring.

When is the wind more predictable and consistent? Winter, when it's cold, wet, and typically miserable.

Powerboats can get to point A to point B without worrying as much about conditions, tides and so on. They're also mostly enclosed, thus more comfortable in the winter months.

I prefer sailing, and I'd like to think I represent the "younger" demographic. What I found was that people who prefer to sail are the same people who prefer to anchor rather than dock, the same people who love the peace and quiet. The powerboat crowd tends to be the opposite.

Al said...

I will add my own observations at Shilshole. On K dock, the mix of sail/power has stayed roughly the same for the 30+ years we have lived there. I don't know why the difference but I think both you and Courtney have something. On our dock there a number of new young used sail boat owners over the last couple of years. On our boat we fall into the go slow, anchor out, peace and quiet category but go out for sure.
BTW there still are three brokerages at Shilshole (Seattle Yachts, Sail NW, and Windworks) that mostly sell sail(which also mostly have power) boats, although all have some power only boats.

Robert Salnick said...

Hi Al -

Thanks for the observations and corrections.

Yes, I forgot about Sail NW. And I excluded Windworks, because I thought they were primarily a training facility that was selling off their old boats. Now I find that they are also a dealer for Dufour.

Oh well - maybe things aren't as bad as this old curmudgeon thought.


SV Pelagia said...

Vancouver's "Boat Show" is no different -- mostly power boats, especially those for wake boarding.

mike said...

Lee Youngblood with Gig Harbor Yacht Sales is also still at Shilshole, He was with I think Admiralty (the one that closed and had an office at Shilshole) - he is in their old office that is now occupied by Dock Side Solutions - so you have the same number of companies as last year - but I have talked with a couple of brokers and they all say sales are slow

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