Kurt Hoehne, small boat enthusiast, accomplished writer and editor, yacht broker, and the person behind the excellent website sailish.com, shares his perspective about the news that Starting Line Sailing (parent company for Portland’s West Coast Sailing, among others) is the new manufacturer for Hobie and ILCA.

We’ve all seen the handwringing. We’ve all heard the pontificating. I’m one of those. We’ve all read the varying opinions as to why participation in sailing and racing is struggling.

“Big-boat” fleets are shrinking. Dinghy fleets are often on life support or only come together ­­­for Nationals, Worlds or Regionals. The US Sailing Championships do not have the prestige they used to. It’s great to see kids out there, but it seems they’re generally not carrying the love for racing into adulthood. Maybe they are, they just can’t afford the time or money.

What we haven’t heard or seen that much of are fully successful solutions. One might just have arrived with Starting Line Sailing (SLS) venturing into new ground as a builder of ILCA dinghies (yes, Lasers to many of us) and Hobie Cat. Two of the most successful boats at introducing sailing to the masses will now be produced by one of the most dynamic sailing groups around.

The solutions to a diminished sailing have been in the works for decades; community sailing programs scattered throughout the country, US Sailing endorsed education programs, editorialists in print and online proposing all kinds of solutions, one-design fleets such as Lightings making boats available to up-and-comers. All of these efforts have had some effect and should be applauded. None have had THE effect.

The key may be found in manufacturing and distribution. Enter Starting Line Sailing. SLS has a simple mission: “The goal is simple – grow sailing by keeping it accessible and fun.” The company isn’t exactly new. The driving force is George Yioulos, whose West Coast Sailing became a major force in small boat sailing over the last 18 years. In 2021 SLS was formed and acquired Zim Sailing and Dwyer Rigging and Masts.

George Yioulos

Yioulos is a whirlwind of energy. From the start, West Coast Sailing (WCS) was all about taking care of customers. Finding Lasers and parts for them when there were none. There was a WCS gear truck on site at big regattas so sailors could buy those last-minute fittings and clothing. Boat lines like Hobie and RS Sailing were added. WCS sponsored regattas and some of the more notable sailors.

An online storefront was very successful and expanded WCS’s reach internationally.

Then Yioulos “retired” and passed the reins to the team he built. But the Whirlwind couldn’t stay out of it long, especially when his deep convictions about making sailing accessible were calling.

The latest move is even bigger – taking on the manufacture and distribution of Hobie Cats and Lasers, the definitive “get people sailing” boats. This makes perfect sense. It’s no secret that there’s a bigger market, and profit, for Hobie products such as rotomolded kayaks and sunglasses. Why not bring in a sailing-focused supplier for the boats themselves? Things are happening fast. Hobie Wave and Getaway tools were moved to a new rotomolder in the US. Production to start in Februrary. Hobie 16 molds have arrived in Rhode Island at Zim Sailing. Production to start in late January.

Manufacturing sailboats is hardly a financial sure thing. In fact, the demise of sailboat manufacturers throughout North America is somewhat staggering. “It just might bankrupt the company, but I truly believe that it’s what sailing needs,” explains Yioulos.

Yioulos cites Vanguard Sailboats as an example of a successful small boat manufacturer. “This will be like creating Vanguard Sailboats 2.0,” he says.

Hobie 16

From my standpoint, the real potential of these new Hobie and ILCA arrangements (and any future ones Yioulos stirs up) stems from Yioulos’ experience as dealer. Yioulos knows firsthand what works in the Booties on the Ground world. Dealers need to be able to have a solid pipeline for parts, and if they’re in a small market, they can’t be expected to buy truckloads of product. There are many ways to get boats efficiently and cost-effectively into the hands of customers and Yioulos has the hands-on experience to draw on.

Dealers need high quality boats that don’t need to be fixed at the dealership before going to customers. Too often new boats have “issues” that are expensive distractions for the dealer and cause for a lot of customer distress.

Even more importantly, knowing Yioulos’ focus on supporting sailing on a very local level, it’s not hard to imagine sailing communities becoming excited about getting on the water. “The community aspect is vital,” Yioulos says, and he means it. We know that soon after two boats are on the water, it’s likely there will be a race, followed shortly by a regatta.

From my standpoint, it’s great to see this kind of energy coming into the manufacturing corner of the sailing world. It’s easy to get jaded and cynical about sailing and racing’s future. This is a breath of fresh air, and just maybe a whirlwind of fresh air.

A bland marine industry news press release this is not. Yioulos isn’t the kind of guy to wring his hands. He’s the roll up your sleeves type.

Note: This post originally appeared on Sailish.com and is republished here with permission.