Has sailing died?

Abandoned sailboats Læasø

Is sailing on its way to the graveyard?

Did the marine industry just commit suicide?

- "Thats It! For real, I am giving up sailing and I am selling the yacht! I have had enough of chasing down parts and mechanics. I am tired of paying too much for too little time on the water and the level of service is terrible" 

- Such are the words in more than several heated and emotional post I have read in social media this summer. The outbursts have popped up among pictures of bikini and shorts clad people with drinks in hand on sunny teak decks. With the hottest summer on record in much of Europe, it is no wonder the temperature between the leisure marine industry and its customers are record high.

It is clear that new generations of sailors have different needs and expectations from the leisure marine industry. This raises the question: is the industry meeting those expectations?

Scraping off layers of varnish is a lot of work. Is it worth it? Photo by: Daniel Novello

Scraping off layers of varnish is a lot of work. Is it worth it? Photo by: Daniel Novello

Is DIY over?

My old man could fix anything. My friends dads were also a talented bunch of odd gentlemen who would pull out the tool box if anything broke down. Our mothers were educated and often held full time employment while still carrying with them traditional skills like sewing together a pair of torn jeans. Some of my friends even had a full home made wardrobe and did not know the inside of a hairdressers before well into their twenties. 

Today, when facing a problem, my generations first response is to pull out the iPhone. Born in the seventies, we know a spanner from a hammer, but think internet is greatest invention since the printing press.

Younger generations seems less adapt to fixing stuff. They instead deliver the broken goods to a service station or buy new. Not because they are lazy, but society has changed and they have a different skill set than their parents. 

This is nothing new but technology has indeed progressed faster in the last 20 years than ever before in history.

On the other hand, it is inspiring to see so many young YouTubers getting older boats and documenting sometimes advanced refits with limited funds. Posting your problem in one of the many sailing groups on Facebook you usually get dozens of helpful advice. 

Few things are half so much worth doing as simply...Photo by: Daniel Novello

Few things are half so much worth doing as simply...Photo by: Daniel Novello

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Is something rotten in the marine leisure industry?

One sailor on Facebook was particularly angry because he could not get hold of a mechanic all summer. The holiday was ruined and he had been stuck in port for some time while the rest of the family had long since gone off on a land based holiday.

The comments offered interesting reading. Several sailors could share identical stories and marine mechanics were compared to an arrogant gang of hostage takers. While others, a clear minority, thought it was only fair that mechanics should also enjoy some time off in the sun.

"Mechanics are not doctors and the local shop is not the emergency room", one sailor wrote. There was also a stroke of nostalgia. An older gentleman reminded the others that things were much better in the old days of simple - non electronic diesel engines. Another old salt wrote in response to the original poster that he certainly didn't have any business being at sea because he relied on an engine in the first place when he bloody well had a mast and sail

Is it the marinas fault this happened? Photo by: Daniel Novello

Is it the marinas fault this happened? Photo by: Daniel Novello

Todays sailors have unrealistic expectations - or do they?

Owning a car today in the western world represents few problems. The service industry and infrastructure revolving around private car ownership is fantastic. The level of expertise is high and todays mechanics are highly educated and are tech savvy. Competition is high and prices are fair. 

When I book a service for my car, I usually do everything online. As do most these days. An appointment is made and you deliver your car at the workshop at an agreed time and date. A written contract is in place beforehand where scope, time and price is fixed. For a quick oil change or minor repairs I often sit in the lobby and enjoy free coffee and wifi while I wait for the car to be ready.

This type of service and level of organisation is seldom seen in the leisure marine industry. Why?

As long as one of the favourite quotes among sailors is "A boat is a hole in the water into which you throw money" we all have a problem.

Is it really fair towards the thousands of dealerships, workshops, yards and marinas to expect the same level of service that of the car industry? Many will say yes.

The objective notion of good customer service is when expectations are met.

Replacing rotten balsa core. Photo by: Daniel Novello

Replacing rotten balsa core. Photo by: Daniel Novello

Lawmakers and consumers have have accomplished laws of compensations towards airlines where you actually get something if your flight is delayed or cancelled? 

Imaging getting a 100 Euro refund if your sailmaker is a few hours late with delivering your new mainsail?

The quote above suggests that all the money spent returns no value. And if that is the case, how can sailors expect anything more than poor customer service?

Or are we just getting the service we deserve?

Disparity grows because of a very fragmented industry

It seems the demand for more comfortable, faster and more economical yachts has left us with a problem that needs immediate attention.

All yachts are made up of a series of compromises. Even custom builds by the worlds best naval architects and builders are full of them.

Yachts are often designed within three parameters: Speed, comfort and price. One can have a fast, comfortable yacht but it won't be cheap. One can have a cheap and fast boat but it won't be comfortable. Or you can have a comfortable and cheap boat but it won't be fast.

A modern car is a very complicated beast. The car manufacturer Toyota says their cars consists of 30 000 parts. Not knowing if they count the individual strands in the wires or not, but the number is impressive.

Modern 40 ft sailing yachts may have less than 30 000 parts, but the sea is a powerful destroyer of all things man made.

And of course there are more cars on the roads than yachts sailing. So, the sheer scale of the automotive industry represents a huge upside to aftermarket business.

As yachts are becoming more technologically advanced, the less one can expect from an owner to fix on his or her own. Therefore todays generation of service men and women already need a whole different set of skills to repair and maintain a yachts systems.

The problem today is that if you have an issue with your rig, a software bug in your chart plotter and need a new impeller, you need to make at least three phone calls/Google searches and make three seperate appointments. That is time consuming and unnecessary.

The impressive Hallberg Rassy 57 presented at the Open Yard Show in Sweden August 2018. Photo by: Daniel Novello

The impressive Hallberg Rassy 57 presented at the Open Yard Show in Sweden August 2018. Photo by: Daniel Novello

The marine leisure industry is more vulnerable to disruption than ever before 

The leisure marine industry have traditionally operated with narrow margins and are subjected to seasonal variations in many parts of the world. When the season is peaking in the consumer segment, the supply side is often understaffed. There might be a window of a few weeks in the spring and autumn where supply and demand are harmonised.

That is a not a sustainable business model and hurts the industry and the consumer.

The disparity between a new modern, well equipped yacht and the level of land based service stations represents a huge business potential. But the source of the problem might lie elsewhere than in between the two.

The first fax machine was worthless. What good would a fax machine do if there was no-one to send faxes to?

Tesla launched its electric car and changed the automobile industry forever. There were other electric cars on the market, but Tesla did something the others hadn't done.      

They provided the infrastructure the owners needed: Charging Stations everywhere!

With the infrasturcture in place they effectively removed the biggest barrier owners of electric cars had. Range Anxiety. 

So, why aren't more boatbuilders supplying the infrastructure to provide safe and predicable sailing?

In a previous article in the magazine,  The Digital Economy and Future of the Sailing Industry - Where is the Tesla of Yachting? we touch upon both what is preventing massive disruption in the yachting industry and why yards can be vulnerable for disruption. 

A customer of Adams Boat Care, a refit company in Sweden, complained over the high freeboard of her yacht. The company produced a simple and elegant solution. Photo by: Daniel Novello

A customer of Adams Boat Care, a refit company in Sweden, complained over the high freeboard of her yacht. The company produced a simple and elegant solution. Photo by: Daniel Novello

What makes them vulnerable for disruption is that most yards have core legacy business models which often generate the majority of their revenue. They are not diversified enough to meet emerging competitors with a more diverse business models. 

Diversification is about building new products, exploring new markets, and taking new risks. Of course diversification is not the answer to everything.

Taking financial risk in uncertain times and/or if you are already market leader in a narrow field are examples where it can be smart to focus on your core business.

At the same time, history is littered with companies that failed to adapt to a massive change in the market such as Kodak and Nokia.

Instead some companies should adapt a second strategy and create a new division focused solely on the growth opportunities that arise from the disruption.

Some research even suggest this new division should be organised outside of core structure creating an environment detached from the incumbents culture. 

The Sailing World is struggling with recruitment in the young adults and young families bracket. Sailing Clubs are usually quite good at children's sailing schools and sailing is becoming an old mans activity.

Can it be that the reportedly bad level of service in the industry must take part of the blame? Or does the fault lie somewhere else?

We think those who knows their customers best will survive.

Over the next weeks we will focus on companies that are now offering a 360 approach to meet the service needs of the modern sailing family. We will also carry out a survey to map the the apparent and true levels of service and present the findings in future articles.


Please share your experiences with dealing with the marina/yard/workshop. Both negative and positive experiences are welcome.