Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Behind the Club Gates


Sailing is a skill, and an art. Sailing is a wonderful escape, and a challenge that improves character. Heck, sailing can be almost anything we want it to be. How about sailing is a socially redeeming pastime? Well no, not usually.

Lets face it. As much as sailing has tried to change its image from a snob’s sport, from an exclusive playground for rich people, how much do we really do to make sailing relevant for more people? Is sailing an accessible sport, or does it persist as a barrier between us and the rest? How much do we do to make sailing accessible to people, who for whatever reason, are shut out of the sport? Usually, not much. Yes, occasionally regattas raise money for charitable purposes. That is an important endeavour, but it doesn’t change the reality of sailing. Usually sailing has a primary prerequisite: money.

Obviously, sailing has made some incremental steps. That is in keeping with larger social trends. I will even acknowledge that significant change has occurred. Sailing opportunities have improved. The pastime is not just for the upper crust anymore. Many clubs market themselves toward the upper middle class or the broader middle class. Very little exists for the larger population as a whole. Sometimes, it is simply the reality of the real costs that are the barrier. Some community-owned facilities are out there. Most waterfront is privatized. Worst of all, dinosaurs and intolerance persist. Some sailors are still looking for an exclusive, private social club with a country atmosphere. They are not trying to grow the sport, which is a different ambition (and not necessarily a progressive objective either). I have little patience for them.

At least we don't bar Jews anymore. Catholics go unoticed! I still don't see many women skippers. I still don't see many sailors of visible "minorities". Most importantly, I still don't recognize many people without a considerable amount of discretionary income. Yes, money, the final and most considerable barrier to social diversity and popular participation.
Organizationally, sailing is still caught in old ways. Culturally, many sailing venues have embraced the middle class in atmosphere, in acceptance of a more open environment, casual, and friendly. W.A.S.P.s are now bugs in the flower beds. Yes, we have moved from the dark ages. I suspect one persistent impediment is the political structure of the sport. Sailing is not really democratic. Clubs are ostensibly democratic, non-profit, private corporations, but they don't really operate democratically. Part of that is the reality of time available. Participation itself is a luxury. Part of it is that commitment is not the vaunted, socially engaging mechanism it used to be. As a result, those who commit, taking suffrage seriously, giving their time, they suffer. Too many want a free ride, or to pay plenty and be served. Some want to pay little and still be served! Beyond the club, sailing could use a transition similar to that of some political parties. Why is it that individual sailors don't have voting rights at provincial and national sailing organizations? We pay dues, but we don't have the franchise. Can sailing become a widely accessible sport without democratic structure? Do sailing organizations want to grow that broadly, or do they just want the money? In any case, our pastime gives evidence of class and exclusivity beyond organizational structures.

Perhaps sailing is a silly place to imagine blowing red trumpets. I think not though. Sailing like any pastime, is a cultural reflection of who we are, and makes for interesting observations of our behaviour, expectations and views. I see the persistence of class, even if now less obvious within the club gates.

Ralph Stocek, Montreal Sailing