It’s what we all have for sailing, right?

Well, not compared to walking, or dancing, or playing cricket, or even bushwalking. Yes, I said bushwalking. In fact, according to one of the most comprehensive research studies on recreational sailing ever conducted, sailing ranks 37th out of 46 sports tracked, with only 5% of the population calling themselves fanatics. Three and a half times as many bushwalkers (hikers, in Aussie) are fanatics about what they do .

Credit Yachting Australia (YA), the Australian version of US Sailing, for investing in the future of sailing by listening to sailors and aspiring sailors of all ages. The organization commissioned a massive study, talked to thousands of people, and are using what they’ve learned to develop new ideas to grow sailing and make it better in the down under.

The report is a treasure-trove of terrific insights and ideas. Since the Australian recreational sailing experience and Australia’s population and economic development essentially parallel the rest of the developed world, sailing advocates everywhere should thank the folks at YA for putting it out there and then grab all of YA’s good ideas for their own use.

As a researcher and bit of a data geek, I’ve read and digested every word and every number. Here are a few of the biggest surprises.

Sailing seems unable to elicit or inspire passion from the general public, much less the people who say they love it. Among thousands of people who have tried it, 83% are not interested and don’t do it anymore. But even self-described sailing fanatics (the aforementioned 5%) don’t sail much, with only 24% of them having “played at least once in the last 12 months.” It’s as if they say they love it in order to say it, but not enough to actually do it.

So that begs the question, why not? What does bushwalking have that sailing doesn’t?

The researchers don’t mince words. Their data show that “no other sport is seen as ‘exclusive’ as sailing, and the biggest difference to the top sports is that [sailing is the least] ‘accessible’ and ‘community involved.’” Most people reject exclusivity outright, and aspire to something that will be fun for all, and that matters to neighbors and friends. Beyond image, there are structural barriers to participation, so few get the chance to understand how sailing might do these things. The research shows that sailing can be too expensive for families, the focus on racing prevents new entrants, the time commitment is too severe, it’s hard to see where sailing can lead, first timers are much older than in other sports, and clubs often don’t help and sometimes hinder.

At the same time, the research finds high interest in sailing among children and young families, and the researchers offer solid recommendations to help parents and kids have substantial sailing experiences. Since YA is a club-supported organization, clubs are viewed as a key element of the solution, but at the same time, the authors are not afraid to take on entrenched club paradigms.

For example, in order to work better for young families, the report recommends that clubs should make great sailing experiences their primary mission and goal and should be designed to welcome and not intimidate. The duty of club member-volunteers and staffs should be to answer questions and allay concerns, help people find rides, friends and mentors, make social connections, coordinate schedules, lowers costs, and learn to be safe.

At the program level, there are few surprises. YA has built wide curricula for primary school and secondary school children and is using the research to strengthen their lesson plans. I’m especially excited that families with children under ten are seen as vital to the future of the sport.

This is how the researchers frame the needs of this new group:

  • Young families are particularly crucial since young parents are still making decisions for their young children.
  • Young parents don’t just bring themselves, they bring their kids (and they seek activities that can be done by the entire family.)
  • Fitness (the outdoor experience) is a key motivator, but competition and achievement are rather uninteresting to this group.
  • Young mothers are particularly interested in sailing as a family activity, even more interested than their husbands.
  • To address large time, cost, and fear barriers, new programs must be active and productive, must not be linked to a strict membership commitment, must be activities for the whole family, and must be experiential, that is, with the theory taught on the water, not on shore or in a classroom.
  • Families can’t afford boats, so boats should be provided. But families are willing to pay for the experience, so it’s not a hand-out.

I’ve been in close contact with Ross Kilborn, the Sport Development Director at YA, and he sees a place for everyone in sailing. For example, the report finds that families with older children also want to be in intergenerational programs, sometimes as team-mates, and optionally, as cordial competitors on a race course. They want to go fast and play games with and against each other. Programs should flex to accommodate such things. Ross adds that sometimes kids will just want to hang with kids, so he suggests that clubs should offer many choices.

I don’t much like the idea of “selling” sailing. Sailing is something you do and when done, it sometimes inspires more doing. Perhaps I’m slicing it a bit fine, but I don’t believe it needs to be sold, favoring sharing and direct relationships, as this report recommends. It is notable that there is no discussion about sailing on TV or by celebrities or as a spectator sport to attempt to popularize it. Why? It’s not what people want. They want to do, not to watch.

To be sure, when an advocacy organization asks marketing folks to collect data and devise strategies, there will be some “branding” and “positioning” jargon, and there is some here too. But these are clearly smart people, and they’ve done an amazing job of asking questions, listening, and putting ideas on the table that meet actual needs of people.

I was at a regional summit of sailing clubs in the southeast last month in Nashville. Another group of smart people, all volunteers at their respective clubs, took a long weekend off to talk about how to help others find sailing. It’s not a coincidence that the big themes at the summit were ‘accessibility’ and ‘community involvement.’ There was a strong desire to listen to young families and find ways to help them find sailing. So look for open gates, Facebook groups, shared fleets, on the water teaching, and family fun and games at clubs from Atlanta to New Orleans to Denver. Likewise, look for similar ideas unveiled in Perth and Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne.

Because no matter where you find sailors, you will find a passion for sailing. Despite the data.

By Nicholas Hayes, author of the book Saving Sailing, and the story Why the Mac Race Matters, in the upcoming book Sailing and Philosophy, due to hit shelves in May of 2012. He is currently working on a series of sailing children’s books and reporting progress at http://www.abikidsailor.com. Contact Yachting Australia for questions about their December 2011 report, Product Positioning & Brand Strategy by Gemba Group.