The Solent is known internationally as a location for sailing and other watersports. There are sheltered harbours for novices and children and safe open water for the more experienced. Large numbers of both local people and visitors take part in recreational boating throughout the year. Southampton and Portsmouth host many of the world's long distance sailing races, Cowes on the Isle of Wight welcomes the world's racing yachtsmen, and the Solent is filled with leisure boats all year around. There are many businesses both large and small that generate revenue and jobs around the Solent.
Leisure boating is the most popular and economically valuable part of the marine water sports industry. The greatest density of Royal Yachting Association (RYA) clubs and leisure marinas in the south, and the Solent and Isle of Wight are some of the most popular recreational boating areas in the UK.
The UK leisure, superyacht and small commercial marine industry is continuing to show resilience as it slowly recovers from the recession, according to the latest trends survey (May 2010 to Nov 2010) from the British Marine Federation (BMF). The bi-annual survey of BMF members shows no statistically significant change on responses to the majority of economic measures from the last survey in May 2010, when it was reported that turnover had a positive net balance for the first time in 18 months. The southeast generates 31.3 % of the UK marine industry revenue, some £928.5m (BMF, 2010). Employment in the southeast is just over 9,000 FTE jobs, approximately 27% of the national jobs in the industry (BMF, 2010).
The British Marine Federation water sports participation study, 2012 highlighted that, during the 12 months to September 2012, 5.8% (2.8 million) of the UK population participated in at least one of the core boating activities; this is a 3% decline compared to 2005 and follows the broad trend of decline since 2002 . Despite this decline, the British Marine Federation (BMF) reported the total revenue of the UK leisure, super yacht and small commercial marine industry in 2012 to be up 0.3% from 2010-11, totalling £2.855 billion.
The south coast represents approximately a third of the national coastal moorings total, with much of that being concentrated in the Solent itself where there are some 20,000 boat moorings. Data collated by the Solent Forum shows that the number of moorings for recreational craft in the Solent is declining from a peak in numbers identified in a study carried out in 1993. This trend is not unexpected as there have not been any new marina developments during this time and many of the harbours have been at capacity. The Cowes Outer Harbour Project will increase the number of moorings available on the Isle of Wight. The trend has been for larger craft which reduces the amount of vessels able to moor as you can fit one larger craft or two smaller ones into the same area.
The Watersports and Leisure Participation Survey, 2010 commissioned by BMF, MCA, RNLI, RYA and BCU shows that nationally:
Regional data from the study shows that for the southeast, which includes the Solent, 7.32% of those resident in the area participate in some form of boating activity, the southeast ranks third after Northern Ireland and the southwest for participation rates (national average 6.34%). The most popular form of boating activity in the southeast is canoeing followed by the use of sailboats.