Reborn to be Wild: Sailing through midlife

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Leah Gliniewicz

Going through middle-age is a rite of passage, and some midlifers make it a journey to distant shores — by taking up sailing. But you can’t challenge the deep blue sea without doing your homework on and off the water.

A sport once associated strictly with the blue-blood crowd, sailing carries a hefty price tag. The cost of lessons can range from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars depending on the level of training. Add the cost of a boat, maintenance and dock fees, and you’ve made a sizable investment.

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“People assume sailing is an elitist expert sport they can’t afford,” says Steve Card, director of the New York Sailing Center and Yacht Club in City Island, which offers a basic 30-hour course for $445. A one-day introductory sailing clinic costs $125.

But most people in the sport now do not fall into the society register crowd, explains Sam Boyle, co-founder of Marine Net Inc. in Mount Pleasant, S.C.”One of the interesting things we see is [the sport is] losing its blue blood,” he says.

Sailors might not be as interested in blue blazers as before, but the sport’s members still have plenty of green, as in the color of money. The median household income for day sailors is $107,000, and 39 percent of these sea dogs are between the age of 45 to 54, according to a 1999 study by the National Sailing Industry Association in Chicago. Cruisers, those who take actual voyages, are the oldest segment. Twenty-eight percent of them are aged 45 to 54, and they have a median household income of $117,000.

Fifty-six percent of sailors began sailing before they turned 20, according to the association study. But instructors say they have many first-time sailing students in their 40s and 50s.

One person who found it worth the wait is Linda Conti of Portsmouth, N.H. She learned to sail six years ago at age 42. She loved it so much she helped found the Island Sailing School on Martha’s Vineyard. Sailing was always something she had wanted to do, but she never had the opportunity to take lessons when she was younger. Now she offers classes for other adults getting a late start.

The sailing life

Yacht clubs that teach juniors have dominated the sailing industry for many years, but more recently there’s been a rise in the number of sailing schools geared toward adults, says Manhattan Sailing School director Michael Fortenbaugh.

The Manhattan Sailing School in New York City offers a 22-hour basic sailing course for $490. There is also a 27-hour advanced course available for $590 per person. The school is affiliated with the Manhattan Yacht Club, which charges at least $890 a year for membership but lets members sail on its boats at no cost.

Wesley Freeburg, a trader in New York City, loves the camaraderie he found when he became a member. The 42-year-old got his basic keelboat certification at the Manhattan Sailing School. He would like to become a skipper and get involved in teaching and transoceanic cruising.

Tom Danti, dean of instruction at the Chapman School in Stuart, Fla., says there’s no shortage of students in the school’s 12-week professional mariner training program, which costs $5,500. Danti explains that the healthy economy means there is money around to invest in boats, and folks can afford to drop out for a few years to fulfill a dream of sailing in the Bahamas.

Those who want to learn to sail “tend to want to wait until they have disposable income,” explains John Connolly, head instructor at the Modern Sailing Academy in Sausalito, Calif.

The academy has sold out its adventure sailing sessions in the Caribbean, South Pacific and Mediterranean, Connolly says. New sailors can take a comprehensive series of courses for $4,000 to $5,000 in which they start out with shore-side basic certifications and finish with a cruise to a faraway port for an advanced certification.

Look before you leap

Sailing on someone else’s boat can help a novice decide whether he wants to sink cash into a sloop of his own. For someone who wants to take up sailing as a hobby, Danti suggests chartering. Chartered boats are maintained and stored by a management group, which leases it out to those who meet the screening criteria for sailing trips.

So if you grew up a landlubber with dreams of sailing to far off places, now might be the time. After all, the association study reports 37 percent of sailors say their life wouldn’t be complete without sailing.