There are not as many racing sailors out there as I thought there were. Much has been said about the decline in sailboat racing so that is no secret, but it dawned on me recently that it is worse than I had thought.
When I was sailing 36 foot racer-cruisers, we usually sailed with and against people we knew from year to year, even as we moved around. And those people normally stayed with the same crew, or maybe switched from one boat to another within the same fleet.
Now that I sail mostly on J/70s we travel a lot more and are exposed to a much larger pool of sailors, many of whom I did not previously know. So I pay a lot more attention to the other sailors in our fleet, who they are, where they sail, their backgrounds, etc. I want to meet new sailors, follow their accomplishments and hopefully learn from them.
What I have found is that many of these people sail in a variety of boat designs, not just in one class. They may have a favorite but they can be found in different boats in different events, sometimes driving, sometimes crewing.
Where I am going with this is that if you name four different fleets of say small keelboat one designs you don’t have four distinct sets of sailors. Many of the names sail in multiple fleets, so the total number of participants is less than you would first think. I figured this out by looking at the results of the J/70 class at first, then scouring the results of other classes….and the same familiar names cropped up on scoresheets all over the place.
Some of these people sail Melges 20s, Melges 24s, J/80s, Lightnings, J/22s, J/24s, etc. in addition to the J/70, often 3 or 4 different classes. This is not a bad thing at all; it means that sailors get to try and enjoy different boats (there is no perfect boat) and meet more people as they move around. But it can give the impression that there are a greater number of sailors than is actually the case.
Each class is thus in somewhat of a precarious position. With sailors hopping from class to class they might not have the long term commitment to any one, so any given class could find itself with a drop in attendance at any time.
The exception to this would be those classes that focus their energy on sustaining membership based on a collegial atmosphere, involvement at a social level, being inclusive of sailors of varying ages and abilities, etc.