Irish yacht clubs finding themselves holed below the waterline
As memberships fall, the industry needs new thinking to reel in the next generation
Sailing in Dún Laoghaire: “The the Mediterranean and Caribbean are thronged with super-yachts, the kind that have become a rarity in Irish waters.”
A debate is gathering wind in sailing circles: is the future of yacht clubs sustainable? The question centres on the continuing need for four established clubs in Dún Laoghaire, though the issue is also pertinent further afield for larger outlets offering “full-service” clubhouses.
Driving the debate, in addition to falling membership numbers , is the enduring image of elite and wealthy yachties flashing vulgar displays of wealth around our coasts.
Not only does this not hold true today, but the modern equivalent of Edwardian yachting has moved away to warmer climes and venues that offer more exclusive, better-serviced and more discreet outlets. The Mediterranean and Caribbean are thronged with super-yachts, the kind that have become a rarity in Irish waters.
Yet the largest Irish yacht clubs, originally established to service this market, have failed to notice this. They remain prepared, as if expecting a sudden return of spectacularly wealthy boat-owners to these shores.
It’s just not going to happen.
As a result, new participants are needed for what remains an attractive outdoor sport in an island nation.
Some of the suggested remedies for falling membership numbers include greater efficiencies through the use of shared services, such as back-office administration, joint marketing and a centralised rescue boat fleet.
Doubtless, all of these would have an impact. But there is a real risk of a false dawn if such ideas are the extent of the solution being considered.
The problem is that many excellent ideas and initiatives have been launched over years, not just in Dún Laoghaire but all around the coast – along with plenty of less successful plans that failed to make a difference or were simply a complete waste of time.
What often dominates is opinion-based planning, where an idea is put forward that sounds viable. And so a group or club or organisation endorses it without any proof of concept, or even evidence of demand.
What is undeniable is the immediate crisis facing clubs of all codes in Ireland: an ageing adult population followed by a smaller cohort of young people.
If generations X and Y didn’t find yacht club membership appealing, however they fared the financial crash of a decade ago, the latest crop of young people definitely aren’t going to be rushing to fork out for club membership. For what?
A new model is needed, one that respects the needs of the thousands of remaining older members, whether they have hung up their sea boots or not, but also secures the future of their clubs on a viable basis.
Such a model must achieve scale to deliver opportunities to those who want to participate in the sport, at an affordable cost, and with the social outlet that is such a popular component of sailing.
More than ever, the quaintly subdivided sport of sailing needs a central forum, one representative of an respected by all groupings, to bring this about. There simply is no alternative that avoids the piecemeal, hit-or-miss planning of the past, when strong opinions trumped reality.
Perhaps in such a forum, the question might be recast as: “Is there sufficient demand for four traditional yacht clubs in Dún Laoghaire?”