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Sailing into the future

When it comes to sailing, not everyone is in the same boat, so the sport is changing to meet the demands and interests of a new generation.

The traditional image of sailing was of dinghies or yachts, coastal towns, regattas, and members-only clubhouses with crests on the wall outside and dusty trophy cabinets within.

These days, however, someone enjoying being on the water could just as easily be standing on a paddleboard, having hired it for 60 minutes, or even inflated it themselves from out of a backpack.

The developments of new technologies, the drive for wider accessibility, the desire for sustainability, and the altering of tastes around how to get involved in sport – all these waves present both opportunities and challenges.

For RYA (Royal Yachting Association) Cymru, staying afloat in these swirling currents means adaptability, innovation, and a healthy curiosity about which way the wind is blowing.

“There has been a lot of change in our sport and there is more change to come,” says RYA Cymru chief executive James Stuart.

“The question for us is how do we explore and understand these changes.”

Getting on board

Accessibility and opportunity in sailing has always been an issue, particularly in areas away from coastal regions, or inland watersports centres.

Then, there are barriers to entry around the costs of travel to those places of activity, along with the costs of buying or hiring a boat.

The recent 2022 School Sport survey across Wales showed that around 1,000 young people across Wales regularly take part in sailing.

But the survey also revealed that around 37,000 children expressed a desire to try sailing as a physical activity - a latent demand that RYA Cymru are very keen to try and meet.

James Stuart says: “There is a demand there at a pretty good scale. If we can find a way to convert that interest into activity then we would give those young people a chance to try something we know is amazing.”

Historically, schools have helped provide some opportunity through trips to outdoor adventure centres across Wales. But with budget cuts affecting that kind of access, sailing clubs are striving to keep membership costs as low as possible for youngsters.

“A small membership fee – in tens of pounds – can get a young person the keys to the whole building, in terms of free access to kit and equipment and maybe some training, too,” adds James.

“If you’re playing 5-a-side football every week, you could spend more on that than on sailing.”

As an example, Llandegfedd Sailing Club – situated eight miles north of Newport on Llandegfedd Lake – offers both U18 and student membership for £40 per year.

There are also reduced fee taster sessions run throughout Wales at different times of the year.

One man wingfoiling on water
Photo credit: Owen Canton

Pay and play

One of the trends identified in many sports is a move away from traditional club membership to meet the demand for pay-and-play options – and sailing is no exception.

Both models can co-exist, but all watersports are discovering a growing preference for walk-in, pay-and-go options instead of ownership of equipment or the paying of annual fees to a club.

The research also points towards the Millennial generation as young people who want to try different experiences and book them fairly instantly, rather than go through formal training.

By meeting this demand, sailing can become an activity that’s easier for people to fit into their busy lives.

New tech creating new activities

New technology has opened up watersports to a much broader age range – particularly the improvement in inflatable technology for newer activities such as paddle-boarding and the latest craze, winging.

Like paddle-boarding, winging involves standing on a board, but it offers the extra adventure of holding onto a sail called a wing (wingsurfing) or flying on a foil (wingfoiling).

Inflatable equipment is easier to transport and to store, can be launched from almost anywhere, and can often be hired as well as bought. 

This means that sessions can suit the needs of people who want something short and sharp, rather than a full day’s activity.

Watersports for all

Some of that technological innovation has been geared towards improving accessibility, so that everyone can get on the water.

The RYA’s Sailability programme is designed to help disabled people to sail, often using adapted boats, or with some additional training.

“There are some amazing innovations going on to make our kit more accessible,” says James.

“Sailing itself is a dynamic sport. It’s about responding to circumstances and adapting, so we should be very well suited to responding to the different needs of different people.

“And the rewards for people who try the sport are fantastic. Our sport offers access to 70 per cent of the planet that other people can’t get to.

“In Wales that means getting into all the amazing and incredible nooks and crannies of our incredible Welsh coastline.

“What could be better than that?”