Sailing on a collective keel

In Switzerland an average sailing boat is used 30 hours a year, while Sailcom boats are used 300 hours a year Keystone

It is not all plain sailing for Swiss skippers keen to improve their tacking skills or to simply enjoy cruising Switzerland's beautiful pristine lakes.

This content was published on August 24, 2008 - 14:15

The high cost of owning a boat and lack of mooring spaces can make sailing seem a prohibitive, elitist sport. But over the past ten years Sailcom, Switzerland's main boatsharing community, has been offering an attractive alternative.

Their boats may not have the same distinctive look as the red cars that belong to Switzerland's most successful car-sharing scheme, the Mobility cooperative, but Sailcom shares the same roots.

The not-for-profit boatsharing association was founded in 1998 after splitting from Sharecom, a collective that went on to form the professional car co-op Mobility.

Sailcom, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, is making waves and now boasts over 1,800 members who can use its 59 boats located on 13 Swiss lakes.

Boatsharing appeals to sailing fans who can't face the costs and hassle of owning or running their own boat, Sailcom's director, Peter Auf der Maur, told swissinfo.

"The idea is the same as Mobility, but the marketing is different," he explained. "People don't buy boats as there is a lack of boat spaces on Swiss lakes. Our aim is to ensure that the few existing spaces can be used by more sailors."

Why bother?

Despite popularity surges in 2003 and 2007 after Americas Cup wins by Swiss boat, Alinghi, sailing remains an expensive, niche sport in Switzerland with some 150,000 registered mariners and a steady number of new licence-holders every year – around 2,000.

At the same time, according to the Federal Statistics Office, the number of registered sailing boats has sunk over recent years, from 39,500 (1990) to 32,300 (2007), and rental prices have surged.

Experts say the main reasons for the stagnation are the desperate lack of moorings, together with high operational costs for boat owners. A medium-sized boat can easily cost SFr10,000 ($9,195) a year, which includes boat space (SFr1,000-6,000), replacement sails and other equipment, and general maintenance.

"People think about getting a sailing licence but then realise they can't afford a boat. And if you want a boat space you're on a waiting list for between ten to 20 years, so they wonder why bother getting a licence straight away," said Auf der Maur.


Sailcom's unique selling point is that the costs and complications of purchasing a boat, then maintaining, mooring and keeping it in the water are shared proportionally between numerous members, who pay SFr900 to join, which includes a SFr600 reimbursable shareholding and an annual SFr100 fee.

Boats can then be booked on the internet for periods of one hour up to several weeks (SFr21-54 per hour depending on the size of the vessel).

"The downside is that you have to reserve in advance and then pay when you don't quite know what the weather conditions will be like on the day," said Jonathon Dent, who joined Sailcom in 2004. "But even if we had our own boat we would still stay with Sailcom as they have lots of different boats all over Switzerland."

Unlike Mobility, before you reserve a Sailcom vessel, you have to do a two-hour training session on your chosen vessel to find out about handling, harbour rules and local wind conditions.

The most popular Sailcom boats are used 560 hours per year, compared with the national average for a Swiss boat owner of 30 hours.

Despite their intensive use – 500 people use some of the Sailcom boats on Lake Zurich – the fleet are well looked after and suffer little serious damage, said Auf der Maur.

After ten years' steady-as-she-goes word-of-mouth growth, the collective has the wind in its sails and is planning its next five-year strategy.

As well as targeting sailing schools, they also intend to focus on non-German-speaking Switzerland. But they realise that they will have a tough time.

"We are pushing for more members in French-speaking regions, but as in the Italian-speaking part, we found that people prefer to own rather than share and it's hard to convince them to join," said the director.

Limited moorings

And tight regulations means that there is little chance of more moorings being built in the near future.

"It's a hopeless situation and something we've been stuck with for years," he said. "In the olden days, boats were small and long but now they're long and wide, so if a port gets renovated often there are fewer spaces."

On Lake Zurich, where around 800 Sailcom members are based, sailing regulations are particularly tight and no organisation can have more than ten boat spaces.

But Auf der Maur admits that certain restrictions are needed on Switzerland's busiest lakes.

"Just look at Lake Zurich on a nice weekend. If you build more boat spaces it would be a disaster and you would almost be able to walk over the lake without getting wet there would be so many boats out on a sunny day," he said.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Key facts

There are approximately 150,000 licensed sailors in Switzerland (+2,000 new licences a year).
Sailcom, Switzerland's main boatsharing association, boasts some 1,800 members (+10% a year).
Sailcom has a total of 59 boats on 13 of Switzerland's lakes.
A medium-sized boat can easily cost SFr10,000 a year to run: (SFr1,000-6,000 for boat space, sails, equipment, etc).
In Switzerland an average sailing boat is used 30 hours a year, while Sailcom boats are used 300 hours a year.
Cost to join Sailcom SFr900, plus hourly rental fee.

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