January 22, 2010

Is Sailing Going The Way Of The Dodo?


In my last post, I got a little silly.

As is my wont.

I was having a hard time getting my head around Mr. Tillerman's suggestion that the number of Google searches for 'sailing' had much to do with whether interest in sailing is declining.

But, how do we answer that question? Is sailing going the way of the dodo bird? In the future, will sailing blogs be replaced by blogs about Lady Gaga? Will we all be bowling?

I have no idea, but I strongly doubt it.

There's really no way to chart the decline (if there is one) without doing some serious research. And research costs money that probably no one is willing to spend today.

One problem that makes the question hard to answer is that 'sailing' is like that elephant that the five blind men were asked to describe. You know, one guy felt the elephant's ear and thought an elephant is shaped like a pizza. And another guy felt the trunk and thought an elephant is like the mast on a J24. Sailing is really a thousand different activities. It's different for every sailor.

There are junior sailing programs. There's dinghy racing at all different levels. There's Olympic competition. There's beercan racing, serious local series racing, professional racing. There are sailing clubs, cruising clubs, and cruising rallies. There's coastal cruising and bluewater cruising. There are serious circumnavigators. Some have given up life ashore altogether and live on their boats full-time.

It's likely that some of those activities are in decline, others are doing about the same as they always have, and others are actually growing.

I can speak only about the kind of sailing I do - casual recreational sailing in a mid-sized cruising boat that needs a new autopilot that I'm too lazy to install.

Looking around O Dock, I'd say that kind of sailing isn't doing so hot lately, but in a way that doesn't alarm me at all.


Because in the past 20 years, my kind of sailing has ridden up and down very predictably with the economy.

My personal barometer is the availability of marina slips. When the economy is doing well, finding a slip in San Francisco Bay is nearly impossible. There are waiting lists, there are political games, there are rumors of payoffs. People commit all manner of crimes and misdemeanors just to get a slip.

When times are crummy though, you can find a slip almost wherever you want. While I've never seen more open slips in the Berkeley marina than I see today, I know that things will eventually pick up. They always have before, and I see no reason why they won't this time.

And the bum economy may be affecting other types of sailing, too. The fortunes of junior sailing programs and dinghy racing may not be altogether disconnected from the kind of sailing I do. I think a lot of the kids in junior sailing programs come from families that have larger cruising or racing boats. In times when fewer families are sailing, the pool of prospective dinghy racers can only go down, too.

I wonder what other people think about this. Without trying to make sweeping generalizations about how things are in the 'world of sailing', how do things look over your transom? Is your type of sailing 'in decline' where you sail? If so, do you think it will come back?

Are marinas closing around you? Is your racing fleet shrinking? Is your club in danger of going belly up?

Are you giving up and going bowling?


January 18, 2010

The Numbers Don't Lie


Mr. Tillerman posted this curious graph yesterday, suggesting it indicates an alarming decline in interest in sailing.

While it may indicate that, I'm not sure that's the whole story. It's a graph of how much people are searching for the word 'sailing' on Google, so it might mean people are just Googling less about sailing, or Googling less about everything, or, as one of Tillerman's readers, Sam Chapin, suggested, maybe it means people are actually out sailing more and hunched over their computers less.

I was going to leave a comment, but my thoughts about this were running too long for the comments page, so I decided to just put up this post. And I've found some visual aids online that might help.

First off, Google Trends lets you compare various searches on the same graph, which I found very useful.

Here's a comparison of the search terms 'Sailing' and 'Jello'.

Jello is one of the most boring foods on the planet, so it makes a good baseline against which fluctuating interest in other search terms can be compared. Sure enough, Jello searching remains remarkably constant from year to year, although there are noticeable peaks that I think coincide with the holidays Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Still, I'm amazed that anyone would want to know anything about Jello.

A comparison of the search terms 'Sailing' and 'Popcorn' begins to reveal some of the power of Google Trends. You might think there is no connection whatsoever between sailing and popcorn, but, ah, look what the Google has to tell us. There is a definite symbiotic relationship between sailing and eating popcorn (actually, I think ecologists would call this a parasitic symbiosis). When sailing goes down, popcorn eating goes up, and vice versa.

This puzzled me at first as, on my boat, it's quite simple to sail and eat popcorn at the same time. But, aha, then it hit me. They sold only about 7000 Catalina 30's, but 6.2 bazillion Lasers. Compared to the contribution of Laser sailors to the data, Catalina 30 sailors count for nil. And do you realize how hard it is to eat popcorn while sailing a Laser? Google Trends clearly shows us that when Laser sailors are out there banging the corners, Orville Redenbacher (or his heirs) are crying in their beer.

I knew that I was on to something. Entering a comparison of the proper search terms in Google Trends would unlock the mystery of why sailing is in the pitiful state of decline it is and prove the value of this new diagnostic tool. After hours of painstaking analysis and research, finally I found the silver bullet, the smoking gun, the scourge that is ravaging our sport. And it is?


Bowling? Yes, I'm afraid so. Here is the incontrovertible evidence:

Was ever a correlation made more clear by graphic analysis? Look how closely a fading interest in sailing corresponds to a surge in bowling. Again, the vast numbers of Laser sailors are slanting the data. Each winter, the multitudes go out in their frostbite fleets and return more discouraged, retreating to the warmth of bowling alleys to revive the circulation in their painful limbs. Bowling may not be healthy, it may not require the abdominal strength or cardiovascular endurance of dinghy sailing, but at least it's warm all the way up to the foul line. The worst pain and suffering you might have to endure is the embarrassment of wearing rented shoes.

I never would have believed this, but the infallibility of modern web-based analytic tools cannot be refuted. What can we do about this? Well, as Mr. Tillerman suggests, we can vote for Clay Johnson as the US Male Athlete of the Month in this online poll.

One of his rivals is a bowler.


January 9, 2010



The fog may come on little cat feet in some places, but the other day, on San Francisco Bay, it was an 800-pound gorilla.

And it was my day to play with the gorilla. Nice, gorilla.

We were crossing back over to the East Bay after a few days in the city. Fog or no, this was our day to go. We'd had a great time, spent all our money, used up our time at the marina, and I was out of clean underwear.

At first, the gorilla was playing nice. From the marina, we could see the Bay Bridge, a half mile away, through just a thin veil of mist. Only a real wimp would have stayed in the slip because of that mist.

As we eased out onto the bay, though, the gorilla got sneaky. North of the bridge, he'd hung a gray shower curtain across the bay. The bridge normally connects the city to Treasure Island, but now it disappeared into a Monet painting of silver, gray, and slate-colored smudges. The gorilla had swiped the island.

But I had to find that island, or rather the end of it, in order to get back to Berkeley. And to do that I had to cross one of the heaviest travelled commercial channels in the bay - the one that funnels traffic to the Oakland estuary and the port of Oakland. Big, ugly traffic lives there that eats sailboats for lunch.

One foggy day about two years ago in this same channel, a professional bay pilot couldn't see the bridge well enough to avoid crashing his 600-foot long container ship into it. And for those of you who don't know the Bay Bridge, it's larger and easier to see than a Catalina 30. When you're sailing into fog, you think about things like that.

I needed a plan. And a wing. And a prayer.

I know, I'll stay along the city front, close enough to see the shore (a few hundred yards) until the chart says I can make the end of the Berkeley pier on a straight shot, clearing the north end of the island. Crossing the channel at right angles will minimize my time out of sight of land and my time in the kill zone. I tuned the VHF to the Vessel Traffic Service to monitor ship movements.

The wind had been hard out of the north for the past few days, so once we turned away from the city front it was a reach all the way to Berkeley. No pesky tacking out in the traffic.

Five hundred yards off the city front, we may as well have been ten miles out to sea. All of the familiar landmarks were gone and we were in a giant, transluscent snowdome. Suddenly, I remembered how hard it is to steer a course in these conditions. I use a small, handheld GPS, but find it easier to steer by the binnacle compass which has a larger card and responds faster to changes than the GPS.

Usually, steering a compass course, I'll set the course then pick a point on the horizon to steer for, but now there were no points on the horizon, just a big wad of cotton. On a beam reach, if your heading drifts up or down, the changes in trim are more subtle and harder to feel than sailing close-hauled. The sail is still full, the heel is unchanged, and your only clues are a luff or slight slowing as the sails stall. Every time I checked the compass, I was 20 degrees offcourse. This was work, and a reminder of how sloppy a helmsman I'd become. The last time I had to steer in zero visibility was last summer, coming out of Half Moon Bay.

The blob on the GPS that was Treasure Island kept inching closer, but we were keeping far enough off that we should clear it OK, and the VHF was quiet, except for a Sausalito-bound ferry that would clear behind us. Quiet was good. Ships report in to VTS when approaching the channel leading to the Bay Bridge.

After what seemed like two hours, the edge of the island poked out of the muck, just ahead of our beam where the GPS said it should be, and we were clear of the island and the worst of the traffic. But we were off into the muck again, looking for the Berkeley pier.

The pier is built on the east bay shallows and extends two miles out from the marina. It welcomes you home, but challenges you, too. You want to close with it on your south side. If you come in south of it, you've got to go back out and round the end - if you're a chicken like me, anyway. Some folks like to sail through the breaks in the abandoned parts of the pier, but I'd had enough adventure for one day.

Finally, there the pier was, nicely silhouetted against the puffy gray stuff behind it and it was to our south, thank god. We bore off, eased sheets, and followed it back to the best navigational mark on the Bay - a posh watering hole named Skates, home to the world's best crabcakes, and a bewildering variety of calming beverages, some of which are reported to contain alcohol.

The thing about fog is that it straightens you up right quick. There's none of that casual lazing about that's so easy to fall into when you're sailing on home turf. You suddenly realize that this is serious stuff we're about. We take risks every time we go out there. The fog strips away all of our illusions of security. It's just us and Mr. Neptune, eyeball to eyeball.

Slocum, Moitessier, and RKJ wouldn't have been too impressed by my day's adventure, but there's nothing like surviving a passage through the fog to make you feel like an ancient mariner - or at least a mariner who's more than a day older than he was yesterday.


January 4, 2010

San Francisco Frostbiting


Hmm, let's see what's going on in the sailblogs today.

Tillerman reports it's too frosty for even the frostbiters, so he will probably be having his frosties indoors.

Adam Turinas is likewise complaining it's too cold to even contemplate frostbiting, so he's posted frostbite photos from someone else's blog.

JP is getting cabin fever over the meager sailing offerings from the BBC.

I thought the English were made of sterner stuff.

So what did O Docker do today? Would frigid weather confine him to quarters, huddled around the fire like his east coast and English blogging cousins? Heck no! Today, I went frostbiting on San Francisco Bay. That's right, in this post, for the first time ever, there will be actual current, same day, first person, genuine here-and-now sailing content on O Dock.

For four months I've been noodling around the bush without a single such post. Well, no more! Today, my wife and I actually left the slip and transported our butts, under sail, across the Bay from Berkeley to San Francisco, in brutal, frostbite conditions.

Temperatures plummeted into the mid-50's and winds howled out of the north at nearly 10 knots, whipping up waves of almost 18 inches in some places. While I toughed it out in a wool sweater, my wife, who complains of the cold as soon as she leaves the BVI's, had to resort to a nylon windbreaker and gloves. Oh, the humanity!

With that buildup, I must admit I have no idea how to write a blog post about actual sailing, so please bear with me. This will be a little rough.

I think you're supposed to start with a description of the sailing conditions, but I'm not sure why. Would this be a more interesting post if the wind were out of the south? Does anyone really care what tack I was on leaving the marina? Or at what point I turned off the engine?

I will confess that this was a wimpy sail by any standards. We didn't even hoist the main. Like most Catalina 30's, ours has a 130 roller furling genoa, and the boat sails beautifully under it on any point of sail, even in pretty light air. I know, I know, all of the books and experts say if you attempt sailing under jib alone, you will have a horribly unbalanced sailplan, with awful lee helm, and that you will develop jaundice and lose all of your teeth.

But none of those experts have ever been on my boat. Sure, it's fun to tweak all of the strings to get the boat going at its max, to have the belly of the sail 46.2 per cent back from the luff, and all twelve jib telltales streaming back exactly horizontal. But my wife and I have discovered that it's also a lot of fun to forget about all of that, to slow the boat down, drink tea, eat bagels, watch the other anal retentive sailors, and generally take as long as we like sailing over to the city.

Especially when we're out in brutal frostbite conditions like we had today.

Okay, this post is getting entirely too long and I havent even started with the obligatory photos that prove the blog writer was out there sailing, having a grand old time, while you weren't. So, here are the obligatory photos:

Obligatory bow wave photo, showing monstrous waves and brutal January frostbite conditions.

Obligatory San Francisco skyline photo, showing famous pyramidal building artfully framed in rigging, with bonus ferry boat also artfully framed in rigging.

Obligatory photo of happy spouse waving, showing what a great time we were having, and, by implication, what a genuinely considerate and caring person I am not to be hogging the helm the whole time.

Obligatory backlit photo of bridge. Any post about sailing on San Francisco Bay must include at least one photo of a bridge and one backlit photo of sunlight glistening off the water. For economy's sake, I have combined both elements in one photo.


January 1, 2010

A Pacific New Year


A few more Monterey photos from this week to usher in the New Year.

It's not widely known that they let riff-raff like us walk the famous golf course at Pebble Beach, as long as you behave yourself. I have no interest in golf, but the views of the Pacific from here are legendary. There's even a wonderfully quiet anchorage you can sail into - Stillwater Cove - although it is open to the swells at this time of year and is best done in summer months.

A tranquil and pacific New Year to all, from O Dock.