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Junior Sailing, Yacht Clubs and the VOR

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Anyone reading this ought to join me in giving Charlie Enright a big round of applause. Who? Unless you follow the vagaries of the high-test ocean racing world, or live in Newport or Bristol, RI, you are probably wondering if this Enright guy is Red Sox or Yankees? By proximity he is Red Sox, but that is irrelevant. So then, why am I applauding? Two reasons: a) He has managed to pull off a lifetime dream in seven years, and; b) That dream is sailing in the Volvo Ocean Race as skipper of the only real live U.S.-crewed boat in the VOR in a long time. (The boat is sponsored by Alvimedica, a medical technology company based in Turkey.) Did I mention he is 29?

In my very first WindCheck column 18 months ago, I wrote about the dearth of U.S. sailors in the VOR in general, so Enright’s breakthrough is particularly heartening to see. It’s another example of well-prepared people making their own luck. Enright, from Bristol (sheesh – where else?), came out of the junior sailing program at Bristol Yacht Club, sailed at Brown University, and was a collegiate All-American sailor four times. He has gone on to sail a lot of ocean racing miles since graduating. What really interests me about this bloke is his interest in introducing American kids to the genus of sailing many of them are not exposed to: bigger boats, maybe offshore racing or maybe not, but another way to sail not limited to dinghies.

There is an increasing amount of discussion, emailing, coffee & beer drinking, and general bubbling to the surface of ways to get young sailors (use high school as the definition for now) exposed to the idea that there is more to sailing than reaching across the bay in a 420 (or 4-Niner for that matter) getting wet and sunburnt. There are other ways to become a great, a successful, a well known, or maybe even a professional sailor besides the Olympics.

Anecdotally, the stories of burnout in the yacht club standard Opti-420 cohort are legion and the consensus is that there is a 90% dropout rate among college sailors after graduating. Whatever the number or reason, if there is to be a future for sailing in all its colors—clubs, members, fun, manufacturers, builders, sail makers, riggers, and so on—there needs to be a supply of young people getting interested in sailing, outside of dinghies.

Are you thinking, “Why should I care about kids and big boats?” Well, if you are a member of a yacht club and you are not caring about getting young sailors out on big boats, go and speak with the club’s treasurer or bookkeeper. On the one hand, many yacht clubs find themselves with an aging membership. At the supply end of this process, there are fewer members coming in than going out, as it were. The fixed costs for clubs continue to go up and the remaining membership is willing to pay only so much. The clubs are the rock and the two ends of the membership channel are the hard place. Oh, and have you tried to find crew lately?

I coach a high school team with 29 members. At least half a dozen of them are interested in anything that introduces them to sailing outside of the dinghies. Sailing does not have to be all drills and racing. If it is fun first, so kids want to remain doing it, then the ones who want to can push themselves and the rest can have a lifestyle, a sport, a family activity they can do until at least 82—the age of a mate of mine still cruising in the South Pacific.

My challenge to you all? Get a few like-minded souls together and figure out your own way to have kids sail with you. If you want some ideas, I have lots to share if you contact me. If you do it right, there will be incoming members to join your club, you will have a supply of young, keen, fit, and fairly skilled sailors to draw from for crew, the club dues will not increase as fast, and frankly you will have a hoot seeing those teenagers you trained, mentored and nurtured grow up to be all sorts of sailors. Some of ‘em might even end up like Charlie Enright.


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  • commented 2014-06-23 13:08:26 -0400
    Sarah J.
    Thanks for the note. If you go to www.stormtrysailfoundation.org and click on safety at sea seminars, you will find a list of the areas where we hold Junior Safety at Sea seminars. These one day seminars are aimed at exposing young sailors, basically high school age to the arts and sciences of sailing on boats, not 420’s. They are a long day-0800-1700 and encompass such topics as what to look for and at the first time you get on a “big boat”, how to handle lines on a winch, reefing, MOB theory and others concept. In the afternoon we go sailing so you have tome to practice the tasks learnt in the morning.
  • commented 2014-06-11 18:06:16 -0400
    I was very interested to read this. I personally am a high school sailor, sailing 420s and want to sail lasers. My goal is to continue racing for the rest of my life, I recently have become very interested in the Volvo Ocean Race which is with bigger boats. I belong to a yacht club but have never had the chance to go on a bigger sail boat even though they interest me. So reading really brought out trust to me at least in the yes sailing on a bigger boat is an interest.
  • commented 2014-04-24 12:44:31 -0400
    Luke, Thanks for the comment. I also have a note from an old mate, Phil Yeomans of Middle Harbour identifying a similar situation in the MHYC Jr. program with 200 Opti/Sabot/MJ kids. There is a huge investment in Jr. Sailing aiming at being a great/successful (Olympic?) racing sailor. If one reviews the (very small) number of high test sailors that are say AC,VOR and Olympics, mob and trying to ignore the reality that today they are, in large degree, all the same guys but compared to the numbers of people who own a boat and go “cruising,” the high test cohort is such a microscopic percentage of the universe of sailing as to be functionally insignificant. But this tiny group get most of the press because of the profile of the sailing and especially of the nationalism related to the Olympics. I think it is a tragedy that we (the collective sailing community) lose so many kids who like sailing but are not interested in sailing to race/win. Are you familiar with the Storm Trysail Foundation Jr. Safety at Sea seminars? http://www.stormtrysailfoundation.org/safety-at-sea/2014_Jr_SaS_Programs_Save_the_Date-4-18.pdf These have been successful in exposing kids to sailing outside “racing” dinghies. This series has been around foreclose to 20 years and has expanded dramatically in the past 5. So one assumes there is a demand by kids for something other than high performance dinghies and the Olympics. Cheers
    Coop
  • commented 2014-04-23 22:04:16 -0400
    I think you have part of the solution. The problem I see is that we keep telling kids, “this is what you need to do to be a great sailor”, but what happens if you are not on this pathway. Yachting Australia has a ‘pathway’ which has a much broader scope than previously noting that big boat sailing is part of sailing etc: http://www.yachting.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/youth-development-and-high-performance-pathway-booklet.pdf Note the Australian Sailing Team is basically a Olympic Games squad.

    The way to the top is varied in sailing, a great America’s cup skipper might never have competed at the Olympics, a crew on a VOR boat may have never done a dinghy learn to sail course. We have great instructors who only started sailing in their 30’s. Sailing is a sport with many different ways to participate, and many different ways to get there.

    As a sport we need to look at offering more choices not less, to people who are making the realisation that they are not on the pathway to Olympic success.

    People at this age don’t have the time & income to be able to get out on the water every weekend, preparing boats etc. We need to think about how we can make our sport (whether Dinghy’s, Big Boats, Kites, Officiating) available to people who aren’t going to make it to the Olympics but can be fun and enjoyable.

    We have been getting some good traction in having University & Graduates being involved in Umpiring & Officiating for our High School Team Racing program. While it might not be high level sailing, they are still at least enjoying and participating in the sport. Hopefully we can keep the spark alive and they will get back into sailing when the time suits.

    This is not the solution for everyone but needs to be offered to young people in our sport alongside big boat sailing, sport boats, kiting, team racing, match racing, fleet racing (both sprint and long form), as well as officiating. The next life long member might have given up if he hadn’t been able to spend a couple of years driving rescue boats at the club.
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