It’s not every day that you sit down at a meeting of 600 sailors—and when you do, you don’t expect to mention monster trucks. Why not?
Last month, at the U.S. Sailing Leadership Forum in San Diego, CA, Jason Thompson, director of diversity and inclusion for the U.S. Olympic Committee, delivered an eye-opening talk about creating sailing opportunities and diversifying the sport. He started by discussing how underrepresented groups, such as Latinos, Asian Americans, and the LGBT community, have exceptional and/or increased buying power—which spoke to those in the room who sought to bring new people into their sailing programs or to sell them boats.
Before I get to the truck part, let’s address the idea of growing sailing. A white male in his 60s once said to me, “I don’t care if sailing grows. I think Annapolis Harbor is already too crowded.” He made a valid point. But it was short-sighted.
As sailors, we need the innovation that stems from the sport growing and thriving. If you don’t think you care about innovation, ask yourself if your new waterproof shell is more attractive and more effective than your 1972 windbreaker. Ask yourself how much you like your chartplotter, your hand-held GPS, or your Marine Traffic iPad app. How is your high-tech, lightweight, lock-in winch treating you? The professional marine service specialists, boat designers and dealers, sailmakers, riggers, and chandleries that we need to sail into the future only thrive when the sport thrives.
Back to Thompson’s talk. After targeting potential, more diverse, would-be sailors, he showed a picture of his daughter in front of a monster truck with a header that read “How do you get the job of driving this truck?” He asked how many in the audience had not been to a monster truck rally. Most hands went up. He asked, “Why not?” After some snickering and squirming in our seats, a woman in the front row said, “They’re redneck.” We laughed.
“That’s what I thought,” Thompson said. “Monster truck rallies are probably redneck. Rednecks don’t like black people like me. I’m not goin’ there.” We laughed again. He had our attention now. He noted that he had no idea if such truck rallies were indeed redneck, since he had not been to one. That was his perception. He forced us to ask ourselves how outsiders perceive sailing. With a background in finance, Thompson’s images of sailing came from financial ads for retirement programs: images of rich, white-haired, white couples on yachts. Such images did not feel welcoming to him.
Thompson pointed out that right there, at the U.S. Sailing Forum on stage, he had mostly seen grey-haired white guys as speakers—something as a female sailor, I had noted and even commented on in a suggestion box. (At this point, images we had run in SpinSheet over the years—pictures of white guys, black women, Asian kids—clicked across the screen of my mind. Were we publishing welcoming sailing pictures?)
To wrap up his thought-provoking presentation, Thompson addressed the question above the monster truck picture: “How do you get the job of driving this truck?” Most likely you don’t, he explained. But creating fans of a sport doesn’t mean that they have to drive the truck. The roomful of people nodded in agreement. I’ve been on daysailing charters and guess that most of those people may never drive “the truck,” but they carry the joy of sailing with them. Given the opportunity, they will sail again.
The monster truck spurred a flurry of ideas. We’re lucky here on the Chesapeake to have myriad organizations working hard every day to broaden the reach of our sport beyond the wealthy white guy stereotype. The organizations that come to mind—Annapolis Community Boating, Baltimore’s Downtown Sailing Center, Box of Rain, Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, DC Sail, National Sailing Hall of Fame, Planet Hope, Pride of Baltimore, Sail Nauticus (see page 23), and Sultana Projects—all reach out to the community and welcome a wider audience into sailing, creating fans that may or may not “drive the truck” but become sailing fans and sailors.
We encourage readers to reach out to SpinSheet. Share your stories of diversity within our sport and/or how to change outside perceptions to grow sailing. How does your Chesapeake Bay experience turn stereotypes upside down? Send pictures of happy sailors of all sizes, shapes, ages, genders, colors, and ability levels on sailboats. We want to see the sport through your eyes.