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Thoughts on Youth Sailing Programs

Should we be rethinking Youth Sailing Programs?

We’ve been hearing that we need to get more people into sailing because the numbers are declining.  We've also been hearing from friends and associates, and through various print sources like US Sailing publications, that children are dropping out of the Opti programs for a variety of reasons;  two reasons we hear with some frequency is that kids don’t like to sail alone and they don’t all like the stress of racing.  In fact, we often hear that the racing program drives young sailors away from sailing altogether. Now that seems to be a real shame. 

An Opti-mum sort of day! Two lone sailors have fun in company without racing on a lovely May Day.

I recently visited Ireland and got to see the All-Ireland finals of the Mirror Championships on Clew Bay .  I saw these kids out there having a blast, sailing in some challenging conditions, and supporting each other with encouragement and know-how.  The Mirror is raced as a two-person boat with main, jib, and spinnaker.  It’s a social vessel, where the kids learn together, get scared together, share their joy, learn to play nice, and share responsibilities. One team sailed all the way back to port on their own (a fair distance) while taking on water. As the helmswoman sailed, her crew bailed and worked on fixing the problem. I bet they learned alot that day!

We don’t have children, and we are primarily cruisers and not racers, though Alex raced 470s on the European circuit as a young man.  To us, it seems logical that:

1.      if young sailors are dropping out of the racing programs because they don’t like to sail alone, we ought to offer them a choice of sailing with crew

2.      if young sailors are dropping out of the sailing programs because they don’t like racing, then we ought to offer them a choice of explorational sailing instead of racing…you know sailing for the joy of it: daysailing, gunkholing, cruising, messing around in boats, etc. 

I don’t buy the argument that if kids don’t sail on their own they won’t learn to sail properly.  “Rubbish”, as Alex would say!  They can always take turns at the helm and at sail trim.  I’d guess they learn far more when there is more sail to trim and someone to help out if they forget something. 

I also don't buy that children won't learn how to sail without racing. There are plenty of sailors who have sailed around the world without ever racing. Wouldn’t it be nice to offer sailing as an option rather than racing?  I don’t know; it’s just a thought. 

In correspondence with Bruce Kirby about the new PiXel...

Dear Bruce,

We've been vocal about the need for a boat (and program) that allows kids to sail with other kids. We applaud the JSA for selecting the Pixel and you for designing a boat that might keep more kids sailing.  

Please see the short editorial we have on our website <>  titled "Should we be rethinking children's sailing programs."  I guess we'll need a new cause!  Although I think we have a long way to go before clubs agree that recreational sailing can be as important as racing.

Best regards,
Daria Blackwell

Thanks again Daria.  I’ve just read the piece and believe you’re right on.  I have granddaughters just getting into the game and the older one, who is entering Opti 3 is not crazy about racing, and as you suggest, likes sailing with a friend.   I think a lot of clubs are examining these options, and I suppose there are problems with instructors and scheduling.  It will be interesting to see how it shakes out over the next few years.

Thanks for the nice comments.  We are hoping (or at least I am) that the PIXEL will fill more than the junior void in sailing.  The boat will take a couple of adults and is very comfortable.  We’re expecting it to be used in frostbite programs, so the guy who wrote the check will have his time in the boat. Keep up the good work  -  bk

Learn more about the PiXel by clicking here.

All Ireland Mirror Champs in the lee of Croagh Patrick on Clew Bay. The Mirror is one of the largest one design classes in the world. It is raced by two but is designed to take the family out cruising as well.
From the UK Mirror Association website:

“The Mirror is a small, light, easy to sail, easy to transport, pram dinghy. Basically a stable family boat for all ages and abilities, ideal for just "messing about", it is also raced widely and actively both in the UK and abroad. Its ease of handling makes it a very good single-hander. For racing the crew is two but when pottering three can be carried. The boat can be rowed or fitted with a small outboard motor - it can then accommodate four or five people. Ideal for training young people, it is an RYA-adopted Junior Class. Many of the UK 's top sailors started in a Mirror! A strict one-design, the Mirror became an International Class in 1989.”

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