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Sailing Into The Future . . . RYA Cymru Plot New Voyage

All wales sports

By Graham Thomas

When it comes to sailing, not everyone is in the same boat.

The traditional image of the sport 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 sport is changing along with the demands and interests of a new generation.

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.

A turning tide from clubs to adventure centres

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

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

The data detailing these changing options – and their significance – were discussed at RYA Cymru’s recent “Big Weekend” held at Plas Menai which looked at future-proofing the sport.

In an effort to keep down costs to new sailors, windsurfers or paddle-boarders, the hope within the sport is for centres to be community hubs rather than purely commercial operations.

“We need work with various groups so that there is a wide community of support for the watersports centres,” adds James.

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.

These days, someone might sail on a weekend, paddle-board on a weekday afternoon, but also fit in the occasional Parkrun, openwater swim and Zwift bike ride in their garage, too.

Sailing may no longer be a lifelong commitment, or even all week.

New sports and new tech

Ever tried winging it? Winging is one of the exciting and dynamic new hybrid water sports to have recently emerged.

Like paddle-boarding, it involves standing on a board, but it offers the extra adventure of holding onto a wing or foil, rather like windsurfing.

There is wingsurfing and the more advanced wingfoiling. Both involve using an inflated leading edge – the hand-held wing – which powers you along on the board.

With wingsurfing, you stand on a plain board, while wingfoiling involves the use of an adapted board with a long hydrofoil underneath.

New tech has also opened up other watersports to a much broader age range – particularly the improvement in inflatable technology for activities like paddle-boarding.

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

Sessions can be short and sharp, rather than a full day’s activity.

Clear Green Water

Few sports offer such a privileged viewpoint to assess and respond to environmental concerns as being out on the water – whether coastal or inland.

It’s a regard for the future welfare of the environment that has often been voiced by Welsh double Olympic champion, Hannah Mills.

RYA Cymru have recently launched the Wales Impact Awards, aimed at recognizing the wider contribution made to the sport by both sailors and volunteers.

The association says: “We are inviting people to reflect on their experiences of getting on the water in Wales and to let us know about those who make a difference so we can recognise their contribution.”

The first recipients are due to be announced in January 2024.

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?”

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