usa! usa! usa!

As I walk the docks at the Annapolis Boat Show I am struck by how different sailing in the US is from sailing in other parts of the world. Add to that the news that there will be an American challenge for the next America’s Cup through the New York Yacht Club and it all starts to make sense. Sailing, or shall is say Yaaahting, has always been viewed as an elitist sport and for good reason. Blue bloods in blue blazers have dominated the America’s Cup which is the most high profile sailing event recognized by Americans, sailors and non-sailors alike.
You can ask an average American if they have ever heard of the America’s Cup and they will say that they have and many even remember Dennis Connor. Ask them if they have every heard of the Vendee Globe or the Mini Transat and you will get a blank stare. There is simply no connection on any level between sailing and the general public in this country.
Let’s go to France and take a look at how things are viewed there. This past Sunday 81 sailors took off from the port city of La Rochelle to sail single-handed across the Atlantic to Martinique in the Caribbean some 2,700 miles away. They are sailing on boats shorter than a J-24; 6.5 meters in length to be exact. The Mini Transat is an event that attracts tens of thousands of average French citizens that visit La Rochelle to look at the boats and to marvel at what the sailors are undertaking. The French public understand on a very visceral level what drives those men and women to challenge themselves by sailing a tiny boat alone across the mighty Atlantic ocean. In other words, they get it.
Here is where the difference lies, or so I believe. Most Americans, and I don’t know the percentage but it’s high, have never seen the ocean. They have never smelled the salt or seen the sun dip gently over the horizon spluttering and sizzling as it hits the water. My future mother-in-law had never seen the ocean until she was in her 70’s. She gets the ocean now because she has seen it, tasted it and enjoyed its beauty. How then can we expect the American public to know and understand sailing? We can’t and we might as well forget trying because sailing – with the exception of the America’s Cup – is never going to resonate over here. At least events like the Mini Transat and Vendee Globe.
To illustrate my point one step further go to New Zealand. This tiny island nation is inhabited by less than five million people yet most of them live very close to the ocean and I’d be willing to bet that fewer than one percent of them have not seen it. It’s in their blood and it shows. It explains how a bunch of young Kiwi’s could go to Bermuda and challenge for the America’s Cup and totally demolish the competition. None of the competitors in Bermuda had a home field advantage but you better believe the Kiwi’s had something better. An entire nation watching, cheering and pulling for them to win. That’s something money can’t buy.
But don’t worry America you have your sports that every American can relate to and you make superstars out of the best players. Here is my best example of that. A couple of weeks ago I went to my first NASCAR race. My fiancee is a fan and in the spirit of trying I agreed to go to an event. It was horrifying. The heat, the noise, the people, the speed and the inevitable crashes were something that no single cell of my DNA could relate to. (Dude, you have to be kidding. As an auto racing fan for over 50 years, NASCAR is without a doubt, the best racing in the world. And I’ve seen everything live and on TV and it isn’t even close. – ed)
I enjoyed the start and I enjoyed the finish but the bit inbetween, the part where 40 cars drove around and around an oval track was mind numbing for me. I had no clue who was leading, no clue who was in last place. I didn’t get it and that must be how it feels for many Americans who love the idea of sailing but can’t find any level to relate with these unbelievably successful French races.
So back to the boat show. It’s perfect fall weather, the show is crowded, people are happy and the floating furniture tied up alongside seems to be selling well according to a few brokers that I spoke to. Yup this is yachting in America and since I live here I have grown to love it. But I do miss the days when a bunch of rag tag sailors jumped on ill prepared sailboats to race around the world without giving it much thought. I was one of those sailors but I have to admit that sitting in the cockpit of a well appointed Beneteau sipping a cold rose also holds its special kind of charm.
-Brian Hancock.