Photo credit: Andreas Ronningen
Where are all the young sailors? A millennial’s perspective
We bought our first sailboat 5 years ago; we were 24 and 29. As we immersed ourselves in the sailing community we began to notice that all of our friends were in the 50+ age group. We found ourselves wondering, “Where are all the young sailors?”
In 2015, millennials surpassed boomers as the largest living generation in the US, so it seems fair to assume that they would be more equivalently represented in sailing. Through personal experience and many dockside chats (with sailors young and old, racers and cruisers, old salts and landlubbers) we’ve developed a couple of working theories as to why there seems to be fewer young sailors. Firstly, there are young sailors out there – you just won’t see them in the usual places. Secondly, part of the reason you may see fewer 20-40 something sailors, is because our age group faces a unique set of challenges to getting out on the water.
The beginnings of a millennial wave
We believe sailing may be experiencing something of a watershed moment among millennials, with many of us now reaching a place in life where boats are a financial reality. Anecdotally, there’s a lot to suggest a very real uptick in the number of young cruisers. When we recently queried a group of young PNW cruisers, everyone agreed that they’d seen a significant increase in young cruisers over the last 4-5 years. “I see more young people out sailing than ever! It’s not just an “old boys” game anymore,” said Jesse Matthewman a Gulf Islands sailor, “It seems that a ton of people my age have boats. Maybe not as much time to do distance cruising, but certainly loads of weekending.”
One of our cruising friends, Chris Wyckham of Sail Mentor suggested that new sailors are cropping up as a result of much broader societal change. “I have a theory that we’re seeing a culture shift. There seems to be a nexus between sharing economy, tiny homes, hipsters, location independent income, minimalism. Some people are expressing this new break from the standard American dream through sailing and cruising, especially in older or shared boats instead of fancy cars or houses.”
While the number of young cruisers may be on the rise, it turns out you likely won’t see them in the usual yachtie hangouts. “I think young people are more independently minded,” said Sarah Rosenthal, a young PNW cruiser, “And as such aren’t joining yacht clubs and power squadrons.”
Also, some of the young cruisers we spoke with thought that young people were more likely to be found aboard cruising boats versus racing boats. “Racing can be very expensive. I’m not seeing a lot of new people in that area. You do still see some older boats out there racing, but it’s mostly older, established people, especially on the newer, more competitive boats.”
While the number of young cruisers seems to be on the rise, there are still several obstacles that millennial’s face when getting into sailing.
The financial hurdle
Many sailors refer to their boats as money pits; a less-than-winning sales pitch to the up-and-coming generation who are simultaneously paying off student debt and making their first major purchases (cars, homes, etc.). So, while a lot of young sailors may fondly remember summer sailing camp, they’re just not able to shoulder the cost of owning a boat.
In our case, owning a boat was only financially possible because we decided to live aboard in a city where housing costs are sky-high. We could put much of our rent savings back into maintaining the boat.
As our age group starts to become settled and enjoy more disposable income, owning a boat will become a financial reality. As Sarah Rosenthal recently told me, “Many of the young people I know out there are planning on cruising ‘sometime’ but can’t take the time now, due to finances.”
We’ve also noticed a misconception that to be a sailor you must be either retired or a trust-fund baby. To some young people, the sport comes across as expensive to the point of exclusion even though there are numerous ways of getting involved without breaking the bank (e.g. sailing coops, boat-sharing, trailerable boats). See 10 ways to go sail for under $100 a month. As Sarah pointed out, “Older boats, are a dime a dozen, and cheap. There still is an idea that “sailing/cruising is for the elite” and that it is too expensive for most, which is not true (well, to some extent).”
Most millennials didn’t grow up with a torque wrench in one hand and a soldering gun in the other. While our parents’ generation spent their teens rebuilding old cars, we spent our time building websites and YouTube empires.
The initial learning curve when getting into sailing and boat ownership can be overwhelming for anyone, but more so for a generation without foundational skills in mechanics and building. Robin and I found our first forays into boat ownership intimidating to say the least. There were many weekends spent puzzling over the inner workings of pumps, engines, and electrical.
Fortunately for us, and anyone else who’s less mechanically inclined, there’s YouTube. We’re optimistic that as more young sailors find the means and inspiration to sail, they’ll be able to keep up their boats by relying on the wealth of resources available online.
No time to tinker
As new boat owners, we found ourselves spending a lot of time fixing and maintaining our sailboat. With many of our 20-40 something friends pulling 50-hour work weeks, there isn’t a lot of time left over for family, friends, and recreation. Most millennials we know wouldn’t be overly keen to spend their weekend alligator wrestling a diesel engine.
On the flip side, millennials are more focused on balancing life and work. Long gone is the mindset of working one job until the age of 60 and then retiring to cruise around the world. With the popularity of books like “The 4-hour work week” our generation is interested in exploring and working towards alternative incomes and lifestyles.
That being said, telecommuting from a sailboat in Fiji is still a pipe-dream for many. “As much as we tout the advantages of a nomadic, location-independent income stream,” says Sarah Rosenthal, “I still don’t see a lot of people for whom this is a reality. But there are lots and lots of “weekend warrior” cruisers/liveaboards out there right now.” Cruising holds a lot of appeal for adventurous millennials looking to escape their 500 sqft apartments and 9-5 employment, even if it’s just for the weekend.
The social sailor
Integrating sailing with your social life is a big plus, but not yet a reality for young sailors in land-lubbing circles. When we were both working in Vancouver and cruising on the weekend, we often missed out on other activities that our friends had planned (yoga, rock-climbing, checking out a new craft brewery). The more young sailors there are, the more social incentive there is to go out. As Sarah said, “We have lots of great older cruising sailing buddies, but it’s nice to have people your own age with shared experiences.”
Dipping a toe
Most people are introduced to new sports and hobbies by a friend. Young people are less likely to consider boat ownership or sailing as a possibility, if they don’t have ready examples of it in their peer group. One positive development in recent years has been the success of sailing vloggers like SV Delos and Sailing La Vagabonde, who have generated a lot of mainstream exposure. Whether this exposure to sailing will translate into newcomers to the sport is hard to say, but we’re convinced it’s a key element to sparking interest.
While it may seem that there aren’t as many sailors kicking about the local docks, we think that’s about to change. We’re seeing more and more young cruisers buying their first boats. While sailing will probably always have more uptake with the older generations, it’s safe to say that there’s plenty of opportunity to engage young sailors and build the sport for years to come.
In the spirit of building the young sailor community, we’ve created Young & Salty, an online resource for for 20-40 something sailors. We write about issues specific to younger generations, namely; how to buy, repair, maintain, sail, finance your first boat, and maybe even sail around the world! Our mission is to build community, encourage, inspire and support more young sailors to get out there. You can support us by giving us a like on Facebook. Also, feel free to reach out to [email protected] with your suggestions and ideas for building the young sailing community.
Fiona McGlynn is an award-winning boating writer who created Waterborne as a place to learn about living aboard and traveling the world by sailboat. She has written for boating magazines including BoatUS, SAIL, Cruising World, and Good Old Boat. She’s also a contributing editor at Good Old Boat and BoatUS Magazine. In 2017, Fiona and her husband completed a 3-year, 13,000-mile voyage from Vancouver to Mexico to Australia on their 35-foot sailboat.