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What will be the next Junior Trainer?

This winter has afforded many of us an abundance of time to daydream about sailing. I admit having been jogged back to reality by a horn honk at a stoplight, or a Matchbox car to the head while shirking my fatherly duties during playtime. It’s hard to keep the mind from wandering during the fifteenth re-run of Curious George. It’s easy – almost therapeutic – when surrounded by snow and bitter cold to transport oneself to a boat bobbing in warm water and summer breeze. Most often, I think back to my junior sailing days; my most relaxed days.

My junior trainer was a Blue Jay and for my first years in the program, I used a club-owned boat. Back in the day they were in pretty rough shape. These were vintage vessels (even then!) and because we were a member-run, volunteer club, each winter a family would take a boat home for maintenance. Since folks possessed varying degrees of repair aptitude when it came to fiberglass, paint and varnish, it was always interesting to see what 'came out of the shed' come spring.

Because of the aesthetic variances of those members, hull colors (likely chosen by what was on special at the paint store) were particularly special and boats acquired names such as Blueberry and Fern. We kids didn't care because all we wanted to do was get out on the water and have some fun. We had our favorites when it came to racing, but nobody using a club-owned boat had much of a chance against those shiny, white, unmolested private ‘yachts.’

This was a special time for me because it was when I got my first boat and garnered an appreciation for keeping a boat shipshape. I often think about those days and how fragile the boats were, frequently sinking beneath us (often on purpose during those especially stifling summer days). And now, as an adult, I think about what a burden those boats had become because of their shortcomings. I think the current crop of junior trainers is suffering the same fate.

Much has been written recently about retaining sailors as they age out of junior sailing, or are attracted to alternative sports. Certainly great strides have been made with regard to big boat training, and many manufacturers have been producing boats designed to appeal to the late-teen, early-twenties crowd. But creating and retaining great memories (and skills) is essential to keeping kids hot on sailing, not just sticking it out until the end of their junior program.

I recently saw a picture of an Optimist team trailer loaded for the highway. There were about a dozen hulls and a coach boat lashed down to the thirty or so foot rig. I got to thinking how neat and tidy a pram is for transport. I also remembered how annoying the Optimist was/is in so many ways. But, as successful as the Opti has been, I got to thinking that even this venerable entry-level staple can’t live on forever. I suspect parents and program directors are longing for a more durable, easy-to-launch boat with a competitive price point. And perhaps more importantly, it seems kids are looking to rig (more) quickly and go faster earlier in their training.

Boats like the O’Pen BIC, RS Tera and Feva, and LaserPerformance Bug meet many of the criteria to emerge as the entry- to mid-level trainer of choice, and perhaps one could, with widespread acceptance, could replace the Optimist. Clubs, however, seem to still be searching for a roughly 14-foot, ‘do-it-all’ boat that can be banged around while providing a safe, easy-to-handle and exciting platform. But, let’s face it, no matter how conscientious little Sally is or how many shipshape awards little Johnny wins, any boat in a junior program is going to get beat up. The bow bumpers, fire hose dock wrap and RIB coach boats can only do so much.

With no intermediate trainer clearly ruling the waves, I wonder what’s on the horizon, or currently being developed to fill the gap between (or replace all together) the Opti, Laser/420, and so on. A scalable platform that can, like the Laser, accept different rigs to provide more horsepower as the sailor’s skills increase seems, to me, to be the best way to go. But that’s not enough. The boat must also be stable, have a self-bailing cockpit, easily storable rig and spars, and a hull that’s both light for easy shoreside handling and tough enough to withstand years of use and abuse. A tall order for sure.

I am sure that plenty of Opti moms and pops have done their share of daydreaming this winter too, thinking about running a successful junior program with happy parents and smiling kids. And the debate about providing the best all-around boat undoubtedly incites frequent and lively discussion. I am attending the Junior Sailing Association of Long Island Sound’s Annual Meeting this month to see what’s being planned for junior programs (new boats, different development tracks, etc.), and I am interested to hear what program chairs, boat dealers, designers and importers think fits the bill. I look forward to seeing (and sailing) that boat!

See you on the water.

Chris Gill


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