This article first appeared on Sailing Scuttlebutt.
Back when I started sailing in the late 90s, Junior Sailing to me was all about getting out on the water as much as possible with my friends. Regattas were merely a means to go sailing with more friends from other clubs. The competition was important, but definitely secondary to the camaraderie and fun of sailing.
Through the years of high school and college sailing, my teammates were my closest friends and we still sail together today. We look back on memories of Junior Sailing fondly. We don’t remember who got what place at the Bemis qualifiers or the Women’s Championship. We remember the fun sailing days, silly van rides, or great/ miserable weather because we were all there experiencing it together.
Therefore, it saddens me when I look at many of the junior programs now and see less fun and socializing and more racing-focused conveyor belts: get in the pram, work your way up through the colored fleets, graduate to 420s to get ready for high school sailing, and then get ready for college sailing.
When I graduated from college, I actually took a break from sailing for two years because I just wasn’t having fun anymore. The competition had zapped it from me. Now as a high school coach, I see this at an even younger age.
Each year the local Newport, Rhode Island high school team is getting smaller and smaller. We have even combined with other local public schools just to form a team. Doesn’t it seem crazy that one of the foremost sailing communities in the world, cannot even field a high school sailing team?
Parents and students tell me they want to take a break from sailing and do lacrosse or tennis instead. Basically, some of our best sailors just don’t want to sail all the time, which to me seems crazy. You couldn’t keep me out of boat at that age.
In my opinion, many are just not in love with the sport because of the constant push towards racing at a young age. With only a few spots available at the top of the podium, we are setting up many young sailors for failure and therefore not motivating them to pursue a lifelong passion. I believe we need to have young sailors fall in love with the sport first, before the competition, and keep it fun first.
To put this into practice, this summer I led the Newport Yacht Club Junior Program (whose numbers had been dwindling over the past few summer) to transform it into a Marine Adventure Camp and introduced sailing to a new generation of young people.
There were no regattas, no starting drills, or practice races. Instead there was a combination of learning to sail around the harbor in Optis, 420s, O’pen BICs, a 19-foot Ensign, and even on NYC member’s yachts. Marine education was folded into the day with learning to chart, look at weather, plot a course, or even just go find crabs.
As one parent said to me, “I should have read the title closer, you really do take the kids on Adventures every day! My child loves it.”
The best part about the program was opening it up to a new people. Through outreach with local schools and community groups combined with fundraising, about 30% of the young sailors were able to attend the camp on a scholarship thus expanding our sailing community just a little bit more.
In June, I had barely a dozen kids registered as I struggled to get the word out. By the end of the summer we had 80 kids in the program, which was up from about 18 kids total the year before. Already I have parents asking me when registration will be open for next summer, if they can also learn to sail, and members asking when they can sign up to take kids out on their boats.
Rarely in the past did we have members begging to sign up to be the Mark Boat in the next junior regatta or parent’s asking when the racing schedule would be posted. This enthusiasm shows me experiencing sailing, not just competition, is how we can cultivate the love of sailing in our communities.
This is by no means bashing successful junior race programs or teams. I personally have been a member of some and am still an avid racer. This is a call to find a balance and provide opportunities to support all types of young sailors on and off the race course in order to share our passion and grow the sport.