Thursday, March 31, 2005

Where's the color in sailing today?

Here’s an interview with the author of “Black Jacks - African American Seamen in the Age of Sail.” It’s an interesting topic and one that, admittedly, I've a lot to learn about. The author W. Jeffrey Bolster says that African American mariners are a lost history for many reasons. According to Bolster, pirate crews in the late 17th century (late 1600s and early 1700s) were African Americans or African men. Once the U.S. colonies were established in the new world and commerce there was thriving, black men were put into service roles aboard ship. They were primarily at first as cooks, cabin boys, stewards, drummers, fifers, etc. Around the era of the American Revolution more black men became involved in this commerce as able bodied seamen.

“And today, looking at sailing yachts, often the toys of the wealthy, people of color have felt estranged from a sailing heritage. It's important to point out that sailing yachts today are not necessarily the lineal descendants of sailing ships in a previous age.”

In this modern age where 98% of all sports are multicultural endeavors – many defined by black athletes (basketball, football, etc) – how has sailing remained so stubbornly whitebread? The easy answer is, of course, that it’s expensive, only the very wealthy can afford it, etc. To be fair, sailing is also arcane and outside the mainstream. More complex than money or sailing lingo – this has to do with our sailing culture. We all recognize that today's sailing culture is not as open and inclusive as it should be. Our modern age is diverse in most every aspect of society, politics and business, etc – so how will sailing survive if it doesn’t do a better job of reflecting the real world? Many sailors are committed to diversity or causes like enabling poor children to learn to sail (see this post). Many nautical organizations support worthy initiatives, check out Challenged America. But when was the last time you looked down the windward rail and saw a group of people that collectively look like the folks you see every day in supermarkets, libraries, ballgames, business meetings, beaches, ski slopes, golf courses, schools, parks, churches, Starbucks, the local deli…as a group we can do better.


Andy Burton said...

Very nice, but unrealistic. I like to think that sailing is the last resistance to the rampant political correctness so pervasive in our land society. If black people want to get into sailing, they will. And they have,occasionally, I was the boat honky for a black doctor way back in the day.

I agree that it is rare to see black faces on boats, though we are seeing lots more Asian faces. Are you suggesting some sort of affirmative action is necessary? I hope not, you can't force some things. Sailing is not expensive, it is simply perceived to be. How many people do you know who are dirt poor and spend every extra cent on their boats? If your answer is none, allow me to introduce myself...
Sailing is also difficult to learn compared to many other sports that compete for young people's time so they tend to go towards basketball and soccer.

I do agree that culture is why we don't see more black faces on sailboats, but it's the culture that glorifies steroid ridden ball players etc, not a culture of exclusiveness. I can't point to any of my friends and say they wouldn't do their best to welcome anyone who was passionate about our sport, black or white. I'll bet you can say the same.

hold fast said...

This is a very interesting issue, one which i've puzzled over alot. Here in the BVI, i find it astonishing how few local West Indians are actively involved in sailing. The vast majority of charter captains, instructors, deck crew, etc., here are caucasian.
Firstly, it seems to me that many locals want to disassociate themselves from what they perceive as a "rich white man's" activity. Secondly, whereas for many mainstream sailors this "sport" is a welcome mental and physical challenge -a relief, if you will, from professional, urban, or otherwise landlocked drudgery- the local youth are seeking a fast and easy thrill. i sail with a group of local kids, but their attention gets lost everytime a flashy speedboat goes by.
i'll agree that cruising culture is very open and inclusive, but can't agree that all sailing culture is. i know quite a few honest, non-discriminating, liberal, salty folks on the water... whose earliest exposure to sailing was through the "junior memberships" their wealthy white upper-middle-class parents got them at their local wealthy white upper-middle-class yacht club.
We all know that the wind and water have no bias, and that once you're out there, not much else matters. It's the avenues by which most folks approach the water that are exclusive, not the sailing itself.

Andy Burton said...

Wait a sec, holdfast. "Wealthy... parents" ? My dad was a high school teacher at a time when they got paid a lot less than now. He joined a nice club and got me in the jr program and I took to sailing. There are lots of nice clubs or community sailing programs that don't cost even an arm to join RBVIYC used to be and maybe still is one. I don't think that is the problem; even in the BVI, native parents there are exposed to sailing (look at the Moorings charter base) and certainly have the option of getting their kids into it but they don't. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say the kids' heads are turned by the loud, flashy powerboats. My kids', too. It's a cultural thing and will change when it's due. You can't force it and you certainly can't force integration.

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