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Kids and sailing
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The Publisher

Feb 14, 2012, 10:01 AM

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Kids and sailing Log-In to Post/Reply

By Jabbo Gordon, Southwinds
Some months ago, Scuttlebutt posed the question of why kids don't want to sail. The topic discussed, written by Bill Sandberg, originally appeared in WindCheck magazine (a free monthly magazine devoted to sailors and boaters in the Northeast,, and he offered various reasons why.

Why, indeed?

Basically, Sandberg says sailing isn't fun for kids anymore. He stepped back in time to his own youth activities, such as baseball and sailing, and discussed "the way we were." He recalled his early sailing days when he and his friends went from harbor to harbor and did overnights on the shores of Long Island Sound.

Yes, he was part of a junior sailing program, and yes, members of the group raced. But Sandberg hastened to add: They did not become burned out because sailing was more fun.

Ed Baird of St. Petersburg - and winning helmsman in the 2008 America's Cup - once bragged to a US SAILING audience that he could sail all over Tampa Bay long before the state of Florida said that he could drive on its highways.

When I was young and sailing in the Tampa Bay area, my buddies and I would sail from Dunedin over to the flats on the east side of Caladesi Island at low tide to round up some scallops. It was not unusual to sail clear to Clearwater - all of three miles - or to Clearwater Beach to compete in the Pram races there - before Dunedin's Optimist fleet was launched. And frankly, we didn't wear life jackets or sun block, let alone gloves. Many sailors wore old hats that would cover a person's nose and ears - favorite targets for the sun's rays.

Has Intense Competition Taken the Fun Out of Sailing?

Sandberg suggests that intense competition has taken the fun out of sailing. He has a point when you realize that there is a lot of parental and peer pressure to win at any cost. Coaches teach youngsters various tricks and ways to bend the regulations, and, unfortunately, some kids who don't think the rules apply to them are happy to push the envelope. But they are the first to complain when they are caught being over the starting line at the start of a race. What happened to sportsmanship?

On an interscholastic level, high schools have tried to use ineligible sailors. That sort of sportsmanship would result in the school's football team forfeiting an entire season. Is this what we want to teach kids?

Some kids start too young. They are not as ready as their parents may think. They don't have the mental maturity, the hand-eye coordination or the weight to hold a boat down when there are whitecaps on a bay or a lake. They become frustrated, and even if they stick with it for a year or two, they often burn out. Rare is the youngster who starts at age 7, for example, and continues sailing even through college.

Some summer learn-to-sail camps and small grass roots programs have become training grounds for year-round race teams. Instead of simply teaching a youngster how to sail with an eye toward how much fun it is, some summer instructors become race team recruiters.

L.K. Bradley of Palm Harbor, who has taught sailing in the Tampa Bay area for years, used to joke about scoping out the summer camp parking lot for SUVs with trailer hitches. Some sailing teachers become coaches during the school year, and they are looking for parents who can pull the race team's boats. -- Read on:

NOTE: Southwinds Magazine is a free, printed sailing publication serving the Southeast U.S.:

The Publisher

Feb 14, 2012, 10:02 AM

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From Mark Lammens:
Commenting on your lead story in Scuttlebutt 3525, the youth participation issue has been identified in Canada for all sports, including sailing. The new push is the Long Term Athlete Development Model (LTAD), which is sensitive to the physical and cognitive stage of the athlete. The question asked is "why do kids play sport?" Here is what the research found.

1. To have fun
2. To improve skills
3. To make new friends
4. To be good at something
5. For excitement
6. To get exercise
7. To play as part of a team
8. For the challenge
9. To learn new skills
10. To win

There are sailing specific barriers such as expenses; club and equipment, demystifying sailing, sport marketing, etc., but sailing should easily be one of the best activities and sport for kids, on the water in control of your own boat.

I think we do a good job in keeping small kids in small boats, but need to make sure when they get a little older, bigger, stronger and smarter that there is a good "next boat". If we are in the business of providing a good junior program we need to hire good instructors and coaches and be sensitive to the list.

From Cindy Lewis:
I've often said that part of the problem with getting kids interested in boating is the simple fact that there is not a lot of open access to water. Kids can't be 'water rats" any more. Everything is now developed and fenced, locked, gated, or private. It has become more like "no dogs allowed".

I was blessed to grow up about 2 blocks from the water on Lake Minnetonka. There were little local beach and swimming areas, we could hang out and poke around, everybody had a friend with a canoe or some kind of vessel to get on the water. I even remember one summer all the kids in my neighborhood constructed a Huck Finn type of raft - our parents were certainly amused and of course supplied the materials and even lent a hand.

My dad had a small aluminum fishing boat and got a bigger one we could water ski behind and when I was 14 that boat was like my car. I went all over the lake and my friends contributed to the gas and we had wonderful summers. Eventually I learned how to sail, but had I not had the ability to have random and free access to the water I am not sure I would have found a lifelong passion for sailing and boating.

This is sadly not anything that will likely change any time soon. Waterfront access is going to be limited. Insurance and zoning will continue to be an issue as well. I don't think it is as much of a kids not liking sailing as it is that they can't discover the water and the fun of being on it and around it on their own terms any more.

The Publisher

Feb 14, 2012, 10:03 AM

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From Tony Strickland, Royal Perth YC:
In response to Mark Lammens' and Cindy Lewis' comments about junior sailing in 'butt 3526, I had one of those "flashes of inspiration" just this last weekend. Tacking up towards our finish line in my S80, we dipped the stern of an Opti and saw a little boat being sailed by a little kid with a big grin on her face. There can't be much wrong with our world!

The Publisher

Feb 14, 2012, 10:04 AM

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By Robert Wilkes, Southwinds magazine
I have read with great interest Jabbo Gordon's thoughts in the December issue (of Southwinds) on "Why Kids Don't Want to Sail" (also in Scuttlebutt 3525) and the comments of others, and would like to add my own perspective.

Designing a Recreational Sailing Program...
Some of the comments make sense. No one can argue with the proposal to "make it fun. Make it educational. Make it social." Sailing games, trips to other waters, even fishing have their place. But I do wonder if such programs alone can retain the interest of today's young people beyond their first year.

I see reports of programs which proudly claim to have taught hundreds of kids a year to sail. I just wonder what those kids do then. Nowhere in my travels have I seen or heard of thousands of teenagers playing sailing games, "gunkholing" or otherwise engaged in "recreational" sailing. What I have seen everywhere - and found on the Internet - is tens of thousands of teenagers racing at all levels in many different types of boats.

Junior Sailing Is Not Shrinking...
Jabbo's comment that sailing could be compared with a church with "not many folks coming through the front door" is far from reality. Gary Jobson, president of US SAILING, commented recently: "I think that youth sailing in America is incredibly vibrant. There's over 500 high schools now with sailing teams around the country and over 200 colleges with teams, so I think we're doing pretty well. Last year I spoke at 118 clubs, and everywhere I go, the junior part of this is doing pretty darn well."

The main drop-off in sailing seems to occur mostly at postgraduate age for socio-economic reasons. -- Read on:

AUTHOR: Robert Wilkes from Howth in Ireland has been involved with Optimist sailing for over 35 years, most prominently as secretary of the International Optimist Class (1996-2008). He remains responsible for class development in new countries.

The Publisher

Feb 14, 2012, 10:04 AM

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Near as I can tell, the issue isn't how we can get more kids sailing. There are plenty of kids sailing. The issue seems to be how we can keep kids sailing.

Interestingly, the Olympic sailing program in the U.S. is finding that the sooner young sailors are ready to take the step from youth boats to Olympic type boats, the faster they can accelerate toward their goals. I am wondering if this also applies to retaining young sailors in general.

Since youth boats are primarily used in youth sailing programs, could it be that the sooner young sailors take the step away from youth boats toward something more lasting (OD class, keelboat, etc.), the more likely they will remain connected to the sport. Comments welcome.

- Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt


Feb 14, 2012, 2:25 PM

Post #6 of 9 (16383 views)
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I'm based in Europe/UK. Those who sail beyond junior and continue up to college age here tend to have families who've been involved in sailing and like the social and fun side.

There are a good number of college sailing teams here, these aren't well funded organisations. Rather students putting funds together every so often to go out racing for a weekend and piling the full 8 berths of a 37ft yacht..

To keep kids sailing from junior through to college the social aspect is possibly the most important. If you can remember back (i'm not too old) the only thing that is important at school/college is social. It makes sense to line up sailing in the same way?
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The Publisher

Feb 15, 2012, 6:59 AM

Post #7 of 9 (16361 views)
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From Jonathan McKee
The idea that juniors should be encouraged/ pushed away from junior boats toward other opportunities makes a lot of sense to me, and is consistent with my own experience.

I never really did much "junior sailing" and almost all my racing as a kid was with and against adults or mixed fleets. This allowed me to experience high performance boats sooner than many of my peers, and forced me to interact positively with adults from the very beginning. Thus I had some excellent adult role models who really helped me get a good perspective on sailing (and life), as well as learning how to sail fast boats. This experience also forced me to get more organized and take control of my own destiny at a much younger age.

Maybe this is part of the reason I still love sailing so much and have never burned out!

From Tom Price:
As noted a sailor and author as Dr. Stuart Walker is, he is equally respected as a head of Pediatrics at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore. According to Stuart, children have a good sense of play at a young age but do not have the capacity to properly handle competition until later years. Junior sailing forces them into fairly serious competition where they face failure, resentment, greed, success, and other more adult pressures that turn play into something else more serious and intimidating.

They can often manage but the joy that should properly develop competitive urges is displaced. Ultimately they don't "love" racing and even sailing because it becomes something other than joyful play. Start them racing, but don't score and don't award trophies! Keep them from serious competition until 13 or so and you might have them for life.

The Publisher

Feb 15, 2012, 2:54 PM

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From Chris Boome, San Francisco:
I think we tend to get too caught up in promoting sailing to kids, and should instead promote fun and have the sailing be conduit that provides it.

You need to make sailing the thing the kids want to do, not to learn "sailing" because they want to become a great Opti racer, but because they want to have a good time with their friends. The ones that get hooked by the racing bug and are good at it, will progress on their own (with lot$ of help from their parents).

I was lucky enough to grow up at the south end of San Francisco Bay and to be part of a little club that:

- Had a great location for sailing small boats

- Had the club and parent volunteers that made it all work for the kids, which worked for the families because the parents and kids were doing stuff together.

- Was lucky that many of the kids who were there when I was growing up became lifelong friends. We wanted to go to the YC to race, play sailing games like sponge tag and go "cruising" in our El Toros. We would load up some food and sleeping bags in our little 8 foot "yachts" and sail across the bay to camp out for the night, it was a pretty cool thing to do as a 13-14 year old kid, although I must admit, I have no idea why our parents let us do those kinds of things, but we always stayed together to make sure the one kid who flipped a lot was never left on his own. (Ironically, he owns a swim school now.)

Some of our group became world class sailors, but more importantly, MOST of them are still sailing 50 years later.

From David F. Risch, Marion, MA:
I can only relate my early experiences 40 years ago to what my kids experienced at a like age about 10 years ago.

I may be treading on sacred ground here ...but in my opinion it comes down to the universal boat of choice of yacht clubs around the country for beginning sailors...The Opti.

I banged around in a Laser as a kid. My kids were put into an Opti.

We could capsize and right a Laser fact we would capsize it on purpose just for fun. With Optis you need a floating pit crew to follow you around.

We sailed the Laser nose down, bow up, on the verge of capsizing, heeling to windward, etc and we learned the critical lessons of balance in the process. Such options are severely limited in an Opti.

We could get that Laser up on a plane and whoop it up. Optis, by design, shovel water.

You could get 2 or even 3 of your buddies into a Laser and have a blast. Try that in an Opti. I know few kids, who given a choice, would sail alone.

You can grow into a Laser and continue to expand your sailing skills and move onto new fleets as you got older and better. My sons physically grew out of the Opti almost from the day they stepped in. The Opti window for kids is a short-lived one.

Despite the Opti experience, my kids still sail because we actively cruised and raced the family boat while they were growing up. But that option, obviously, is not available to all kids.

I understand the critical mass and momentum of an established fleet. But with a plethora of FUN, fast, FUN, indestructible and FUN boats available...tell me again why we continue to put kids into Optis?

The Publisher

Feb 21, 2012, 7:09 PM

Post #9 of 9 (16132 views)
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From Bruce Thompson:
At the risk of boring some who have heard this before, there are a few things to keep in mind, particularly where girls are involved. First, you need to remember that girls are very social beings. Second, they tend to be smaller and lighter than boys on average. Third, one day they will control 60% of family disposable income, once they have embarked on a life journey that they want to have include husbands and, more critically, kids of their own.

So the long, long term goal is to promote mothers who race competitively. Among my friends in the Lightning Class here in the Midwest, we have a whole bunch of great sailors, who often can be found in wife/husband pairs. And those wives also tend to be mothers of the next generation of racing sailors.

Now parents have a vested interest in their children, so the kids tend to get a chance to play with Mom & Dad's Lightning! What we in Fleet 5 have discovered is that the teenage years are awkward for girls because they tend to be "smaller and lighter than boys". And as fate would have it, virtually every single one of the children of Fleet 5's skippers is a girl, so we have been trying to fill the gap.

The current leading edge of our girls are sailing with adults in either Rhodes-19s or on offshore boats (i.e. keel boats). The Lightnings will have to wait just a little bit longer! Yes, the Dad of two future Lightning sailors, Skip Dieball, and I have been discussing the best way to create the lightweight Lightning equivalent to the Laser Radial.

Nominally, we'd probably revert to the very flat sail plan of the original Olin Stephens design. If so, then your 50 year old woodie would be a competitive and competitively priced girls' racer! Take that Club 420 sailors! Three girls in one boat for less than half the cost of a new 420. Now such a hot racing boat is way too much to handle for novice sailors, someone who isn't blessed with a Lightning SuperMom will always be at a disadvantage to those who do. So she needs to start in something more appropriate to her age, weight and experience. She must crew first, and learn to "Follow directions first, ask questions second!" Then you can let her taste the future. Note that the same basic plan also works with Thistles, Rhodes 19s and of course the Laser Radial.

What one of my Junior Fleet girls said while we let her steer the J-105 on the way to the race course and she passed the Elliott 6Ms was priceless, "That's an Olympic boat? Looks kind of piggy to me!"

And she doesn't know the half of it, does she Mrs. Moriarty, Probst, Wake et al?

From Bill Burtis:
It is true that kids today have more access to learning to sail with formal programs in yacht clubs and high schools. What is missing is the adults racing in accessible venues on Saturdays and Sundays where the kids can crew on small One Designs that they could see themselves racing in a year or two.

When I was a teenager racing in Long Island Sound, I raced Blue Jays and then Lasers in our Junior Sailing Program during the week. On weekends, we had a 21 boat Star fleet, a 23 boat Ensign fleet, a 18 boat Snipe fleet, and a couple of E22ís and IODís that raced mid sound. For the kids that were interested in furthering their exposure in the adult sailing it was usually possible to get to crew on a Snipe or Ensign. To get a steady crewing job on a Star or E22 was super cool. We probably had only a dozen boats racing in the Cruising Division. On a typical Weekend our harbor racing could have 50 or more boats show up to start in 4 divisions.

The problem today is that it is rare to see that type of racing in Yacht Clubs. The Fleet aspect of One Designs has dwindled to only a handful of boats if any at all, and it has become more of a road warrior thing where you travel to regattas to get your sailing in. That is pretty much invisible and exclusionary to juniors unless they are lucky enough to be a crew. The number of people that learn to sail on cruising boats has created a large PHRF fleet that is much less attractive to kids because the boats are basically boring. A 14 year old kid could aspire to get his own Snipe and race it, but the idea of them aspiring to get their own soggy J30 and racing in the PHRF fleet holds no attraction.

I think the adults that have been the hardcore small one design sailors that have managed to keep active fleets racing on the weekends are the sports unsung hero's. They are to ones that still provide the conduit for juniors to crew on more interesting boats in an adult venue that they can aspire to one day do themselves. It seems that the Yacht Clubs that have not tried to start up a new fleet of flavor of the month fleets, and have stuck with Stars, Lightnings, Thistles, Flying Scots and Snipes are the ones that continue to thrive and get Junior participation. Getting adults back in one designs will get the kids back in too.

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