Last month, I exalted the WindCheck Community to celebrate the efforts of our kids and their supporters and pointed out some great successes. Well, now that junior sailing is over, and program heads take a well deserved breath before diving back into evaluating the pros and cons of their efforts, I’m going to jump right down onto the tracks and touch that third rail!
I think the Optimist stinks as an early trainer. Here is why. Like all sports, we are introducing our kids to sailing at a younger and younger age. It used to be 9 years old, and now programs start as young as 6. What does a typical 9 year old like? They tend to like other kids and want to be in close proximity to them. They don’t like to be scared. They don’t really have a handle on “seamanship” nor, unless they are gifted, the physics of sailing. And finally, sad to say, they may be a bit more spoiled than prior generations and like quick satisfaction (digital!) so menial chores, like bailing, turn them off more quickly.
Let me relate a conversation with my ten year old from last week, right before a very relaxed, local, season end regatta. “Daddy, would you rather (we play a lot of “Would you rather”) win a race, and not get to talk to your friends, or finish last, but get to talk to your friends the whole time?” “Ummmmm.......” “Well I’ll tell you, I’d rather finish last and be able to talk to my friends.” And it got better (or worse). I said, “Hold on. When you are in the field playing baseball, you don’t get to talk to your friends!” “OH, yes I do...and besides, baseball is FUN!” Ouch.
The Optimist has evolved from the simple pram into a full-on, fragile, racing dinghy. This is due to the trickle down effect of parents and coaches applying the same best practices of racing seamanship that are generally viewed as necessary for “success” to what was supposed to be a trainer. And yes, in the last 40 years, the Optimist has broken all records of popularity worldwide for racing participation by young kids. Sailing centers, yacht clubs, associations, manufacturers and boat shops, many of whom advertise with WindCheck, quite rightly have supported this and provided all kinds of effort to make this happen. Credit goes to one of the advertisers in WindCheck, McLaughlin Boat Works, that produces the SailCube, a roto-molded polyethylene boat specifically focused on being a simpler, more durable Optimist for training.
But what about the continuation rates of participation in sailing? I know that I personally did not start to really enjoy sailing (beyond the friends part, sponge tag, and general horsing around) until about age 13. That was when I got hold of a Laser. No, it is not that a light bulb went off and all of a sudden I started training like mad, possessed with making Bruce Kirby’s great design go fast. It was because me and my buddies treated it like a jungle gym. I’m not sure how the mast step held up, but we must have flipped that boat over 20 times a day and performed countless other seamanship indignities on it, just for fun. And as age 14 rolled around, and the beast was somewhat tamed, I still was terrified, at 140 lbs., if it blew over 10 knots (a feature of growing up on LIS). But that too fell away, because the satisfaction of going fast, the responsiveness, and the knowledge that the worst that could happen was that I would get wet and have to right the boat, ultimately won the day, and I began to love to race.
I think we need a better tool for the job. The Laser is too big for the ages I am concerned with. The O’pen BIC has promise, and I’ll dig into that next month. In fact, we plan to publish an article next month to explore the rest of this iceberg!
When I first started with WindCheck last spring, some of my friends were hoping I would be controversial. Well, here you go. I am hoping that I get a ton of vigorous oppositional commentary, which we will print next month.
Until then, fire up those keyboards and see you on the water…hopefully with your kids!