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Feel The Force

Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper

When one thinks of a “teacher” one thinks, if one considers it at all, of a one-way flow of information, a “download” in today’s parlance. As anyone who has taught anything for more than ten seconds knows, that is not true. It is even less true when teaching something as integrated as sailing to kids as young as five. Sailing requires that the brain process multiple inputs received from the feel receptors around the body, and a sense of the outcomes of time and distance calculations. 

Halfway through my tenure as the program manager for Portsmouth Youth Sailing, I realized my choice of language, words and to a lesser degree, accent, had a huge affect on how the kids “heard” what I was saying. Take for instance a “simple” command like, “Hop in.” (Kids are holding the boat, poised to board.) Nothing happens. “Hop in.” Again, nada. Cooper thinks: “Hop” is what bunnies do. Try, “Climb into the boat”… Kids start to take action. Action is a relative word. The smaller kids – 5- and 6-year-olds – have not yet come to grips with climbing into things that are moving in three axes at once.

Two 5-year-olds are trying to scramble in. They are in water just deep enough to ship the rudder in an Opti, say 18 inches… maybe half their height. They cannot swing their legs up the way we (I) do. I decide to lower the freeboard by tipping the boat towards one of them. They retreat, thinking the boat is capsizing. I think again and say, “I’ll roll the boat over to you.” No movement. Think again. “If I make it easier, can you climb in?” I see nods of understanding and action, but no words. Kids are now aboard.

Later, with 9- to 12-year-olds, boarding is OK but instructions from the coach boat need rethinking. Kids making a huge sweep of the tiller in response to small puffs, with resultant huge movements of the boat. I say, shout really, above the noise of the idling outboard, “Don’t push the tiller so hard!” No response. I try, “Don’t move the tiller so far.” A questioning look. I ponder for a moment. A reference to “Only move it six inches either side of center.” No go. I come alongside. The kids have slightly fearful looks. I tell them that not understanding is perfectly normal, and that I need to explain what I want more clearly. I ask if they understand the words I am using: “tiller.” One points to the boom. I ask if they can hear me. “Yes.” Do they understand what I’m saying? “Yes.” Can they understand through my accent, mate? (doing a poor Crocodile Dundee imitation for light relief). Laughs all around, but obviously they cannot. I ask them what I just said. Finally, they admit they cannot hear me. I think for a few seconds. I move us away from a moored boat, stop the engine, and drift. I review the relationship between tiller (and rudder) and the direction the bow goes. This leads into the discussion of windward and leeward, and how fast the boat moves is related to the speed of movement of the tiller. Push them off, and it gets a little bit better.

It occurs to me that humans, for the most part, consciously process information in a linear way. The next day, I take the three most promising older kids down to our Hunter 146 with a white board and markers. I tell them I want to explain something that may be more difficult to understand but will help them become better sailors. It will be difficult because it involves dividing their brain up into different bits so each part of the brain can process one piece of information at a time, and in sailing there are lots of bits all happening at the same time. “Are you game?” Nods all around. I do a sketch – bullet-points – on the white board, with narrative of linear. I say, “When you get up in the morning, you do things one after the other: get out of bed, go to bathroom, brush teeth, get into clothes, get school bag etc. This is 'linear.'” This seems to ring a bell.

I draw another line, a horizontal baseline this time, with several lines perpendicular to it. I label them “Pull" (force) on the tiller, Wind direction, Boat’s direction, Sail trim, Other boats, Wind speed, “Tippiness” (angle of heel does not register) and so on. I explain how sailing is difficult because we have to “process.” I have already explained the latter as “all these things at once,” and that even adults have difficulty “processing” information this way. Some glimmers of understanding. I try using Yoda’s “disturbance in The Force” line from Star Wars, explaining that sailing is all about balancing forces, and the force is felt through the tiller. 

We board the Hunter and I have one of them sit in front of me and steer. I speak to her quietly, in my best Alec Guinness imitation: “Feel The Force” (Pull on tiller) and tippiness of boat, wind on face, and the movement of land back and forth across the bow. I confirm her knowledge of windward and leeward. Check. I shut up for almost 90 seconds. She is steering pretty damn well, actually.

I consider the outcome. She has learned to sail, a bit. The rest is practice. I have learned how to better communicate the multitude of skills that sailing uses. The rest is practice. We both have a long way to go, but it is a start.


Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.


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