Helen Fretter takes a look at the Young Cruisers Association a collective of 'young' cruisers that aims to bring together like-minded cruising sailors
The Young Cruisers Association is not your average yacht club. In fact, it might be the largest cruising association you’ve never heard of. Its ethos is very different to any other major yachting organisation, and its recent explosive growth reflects some of the biggest shifts in cruising trends.
Officially set up in 2018, the Young Cruisers Association (YCA) now boasts over 10,000 members worldwide. A quick scan of the YCA social media pages shows sailors from the US, Australia, Canada and Britain, along with Sweden, Argentina, Estonia, Ireland, and pretty much everywhere in between. But what defines a ‘young cruiser’ and what has seen the YCA grow so rapidly?
Logan Rowell, one of the founders, explains: “From the very beginning, the YCA was built because when my wife and I had started cruising, there were very few pre-retirement cruisers. We had one random season where we ran across three other boats of young cruisers and it was the best winter ever. It totally changed everything.
“The next winter, we were all excited but we didn’t run across any other young cruising boats, and we thought ‘This has to change, we know they’re out here.’
“You could miss each other by literally one day, if you pull into the anchorage in the afternoon and another boat pulls out that morning. You’ll never know they had kids the same age as your kids and it could have changed your entire cruising season trajectory.”
The YCA was formed. At its hub is a website (youngcruisers.org) which invites sailors to ‘Join the Stoke’ and ‘Live the Dream’ by signing up. Once a member, you can find other YCA members in the directory.
Entry is entirely open, and free. Whenever he’s pressed on what makes a ‘young’ cruiser, Rowell says he defines it as pre-retirement. But YCA members can be of any age, and although they submit a biography with their application, nobody gets rejected.
Being a ‘young’ cruiser is a state of mind; retirees and older cruisers are well represented by the existing traditional yacht clubs and associations so the YCA aims to represent younger sailors, or – and Rowell is wary of the cliché here – the young at heart. The majority of members are young couples, families with kids, and solo sailors.
The YCA has grown rapidly, in no small part thanks to social media. Unsurprisingly, many members are prolific social media users, and the YCA Instagram account features envy-inducing galleries of photogenic families and couples in beautiful locations on their yachts.
However, Rowell has always been very clear that the association is not just for cruising content makers. “We’re trying desperately to stay away from being an online community. The internet and Instagram is a great way to reach people, but the absolute goal is that people will host events. We’re a platform for everybody to create something as simple as a happy hour, or a beach clean.
“Obviously a lot of cruisers in general are soloists. They enjoy peace and quiet and getting out on their own. And a lot of young cruisers are not even on any social media platform. We’re truly there for those people that are out there for the love of sailing.”
The YCA burgees are an important part of the association’s identity – a tangible signal to other cruisers in the same anchorage or marina and part of what makes it a real-life rather than virtual community.
Having zero barrier to entry is important to Rowell and his team, as it helps reach sailors who wouldn’t get any value out of joining a traditional cruising association.
“We had seven YCA New Year’s Eve parties going on around the world. The one that I attended was really cool because there were people there that didn’t say a word. They’re solo sailors or they’re a couple where either the husband or wife is the quiet one, and they came and they were able to be around people. If we had a $100 a year dues, I don’t think that would have happened. They’d have never joined, they’d never have known about the event and they might have just spent that night on their boat.”
Touch of a button
The YCA does organise some events, including an annual ‘Floatchella’ raft-up party in the Exumas, and similar meet-ups around Europe. But its primary goal is to facilitate cruisers making their own connections, and the next stage is to launch a new app which, Rowell says, will hopefully make it significantly easier to find and connect with like-minded cruisers.
“The feedback we get from a terribly clunky and hard-to-use directory on our website is so positive: ‘Hey, you guys changed our cruising season. We had no idea there were this many people like us out here, and we all ended up getting together’. Or even people that met because of YCA and are now married.
“But I think the most exciting thing for the app is people will actually use it more.”
The app, which will be called Sea People, has attracted the attention of some serious talent from the technology and ecommerce spheres and, after a major round of fundraising, is currently being rebuilt to extend beyond YCA members. It is something of a crossover point for the association, from its current volunteer-led home-grown community towards becoming a serious piece of sailing infrastructure.
“This app is going to be for all boaters, but among other functions it will make something like YCA become this instantaneous, seamless directory where you can hit a quick filter, see where other YCA members are, or other cruising association members are, so you can find your niche, find your people, and build your own friends group.”
Internet Wild West
Another innovation coming to YCA members is a discount programme that will offer hefty savings on everything from clothing to hardware like watemakers and winches, to accessories like stand-up paddleboards. The discounts will be based on deliverables – a tag in an Instagram post for example, though Rowell is again keen to stress the discounts aren’t only available to sailors with popular social media accounts.
“The companies that are working with us are dedicated to supporting the entire community. So there’s no stipulation. You don’t get the discount only if you have a certain amount of followers.”
However, Rowell is aware that the relationship between the sailing industry and cruising content creators is currently “kind of the Wild West” and that they are well placed to help members and companies navigate this new commercial space (Elayna Carausu and Riley Whitelum of the huge YouTube channel Sailing La Vagabonde are investors in the YCA).
“Obviously we do have lots of content creating people and we do serve as a good central hub for connecting these creators with companies, and protecting our members in making sure that everything is equitable and also protecting our company partners and making sure what they’re getting out of this.
“It’s an incredible amount of work to put out a YouTube episode once a week, or to stay on top of an Instagram account or TikTok, all these ways people are putting content out which feed the industry. And I’m not sure the industry has truly caught on to how many boats are being sold, new or used, because of these people putting this content out.”
The association is also starting to use its size to advocate and negotiate for its members – it’s previously campaigned on anchoring bans in Florida and ocean conservation issues.
“The biggest ones we’re still trying to tackle for our community are insurance, health insurance and boat insurance,” explains Rowell. “That’s the biggest hurdle for a young cruiser. A pre-retirement cruiser is not necessarily having the boating history and background of sailing for 30 years to make insurance easier. I think we’re finally getting to the size where insurance companies are listening.”
As the membership has grown over the years, Rowell has seen changes in its pre-retirement demographic that reflect wider cruising trends.
“What’s changed, just in five years, is early on it was monohulls, typically under 40ft, and that started to shift into nicer boats, then people started getting catamarans. And now, especially because of Starlink and better communications, the number of very successful people working from their vessels is what’s really changed.
“I would say maybe less than 5% of YCA members are trying to or actually make a living on social media. That’s the first misconception, is that all these people are trying to be YouTubers, they’re trying to be Instagrammers, and that can’t be farther from the truth.”
“Over 80% of our members work remotely from their boats, or at least one person on the boat does. That doesn’t mean they’re self-employed. Post-Covid half the world got a hall pass to work from home. And now with Starlink, things have changed again. The Bahamas is a good example: you had a lot of people that were able to work remotely, they’d get to the Bahamas and post up somewhere with a good BTC signal from the local cell phone towers. They could get a hotspot, they could work from their boat, they could work from the bar with wifi, but they didn’t really want to go all the way to the Dominican Republic and then jump down to Panama, because there’s a lot of areas with no connectivity. Starlink has blown that out of the water.”
With success and popularity has come criticism. Rowell says he has received some extraordinary diatribes from older sailors. “We get hate emails from other people in the cruising community that despise young cruisers. People literally send four pages about how they worked their whole life, they saved for retirement, they had a full career and raised children in a school system and why being on a sailboat – and essentially being a bum – when you’re young is totally wrong!”
“What people don’t realise is that a lot of these younger cruisers are working from their boats. They’re not rich kids who don’t have a career.”
But above all, the YCA is all about attitude. An attitude that’s a bit sweary, likes a beer or two, non-curmudgeonly. “Age matters none. If you fit the typical cruiser profile then fine. If you don’t then there’s a good chance that you’ll find your people in the YCA.”
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