As I think back on sailing as a youth, it occurs to me that many of my most memorable experiences were not had in the heat of close fleet racing or heavy weather offshore battles, but rather during much more gentle times while cruising – and even at anchor. Much of why I still love boats and being on the water is because I developed a deep appreciation for the beauty of it all at an early age. I love the lines of boats, the way a boat moves, the sights and sounds provided when one is well away from the grip of land or in the solitude of a great anchorage. OK, I also love all that close fleet racing and those heavy weather offshore battles, too! I appreciate all of it. And nearly everyone I know that shares a similar passion for sailing feels the same way.
I’ve read (and even written) numerous articles about junior sailor retention – keeping kids interested in the sport once they age out of junior programs – and what may be the answer to doing so. When discussing why kids leave, I mostly hear people complain that there are too many other distractions these days and too many other sports for kids to choose from to be able to stick with sailing, but I call B.S. on that. You needn’t campaign a dinghy at the Olympic level to ‘stick with the sport.’ One needs only a passion and appreciation for all that boats and being on the water can offer.
Although it’s been many years, I still remember the stories about the life-changing time my friend Jason had on an Outward Bound sailing trip on a boat in the Caribbean. We were about to begin high school. I recall the confidence he exuded upon his return, his newfound ease in engaging with people, and the descriptions of the awesome, yet meaningful time he had. And he was only gone two weeks. What a life enhancer.
I’ve noticed in recent years that all the articles written, opportunities developed and the ‘marketing’ in use to keep sailors interested seems to be working. For example, in this issue you’ll read about the first high school regatta (The Great Oaks Qualifier) hosted by SAIL BLACK ROCK (a relatively new foundation created to provide training and racing opportunities for schools that otherwise wouldn’t have programs), Midshipmen competing in the Newport Bermuda Race, junior teams participating in numerous regattas and even raising money for and competing in charity events, and most notably, an article written by high school student Emily Bullard about her experience aboard Mystic Seaport’s schooner Brilliant.
There is much going on for and among the ‘at-risk’ age bracket, and that makes me think maybe our sport isn’t necessarily doomed once the baby boomer generation leaves sailing for power. Emily, with an appreciation for every aspect of her voyage, uses words like “style,” “dignity” and “respect” in describing her experience on Brilliant. Moreover, she is not of the racing sect, nor is she being brought along (willingly or otherwise) aboard mom and dad’s boat.
I was moved by Emily’s description of her Brilliant Teen Program experience, and I think she has the makings of a lifelong sailor. Kids don’t need to have gone through a yacht club junior program or grown up on a boat to appreciate sailing, and the thrill of racing needn’t be your bag either.
I think Emily’s experience was similar to Jason’s, and perhaps that’s why it resonated with me. Emily talks about the opportunity to connect with her peers in the absence of the ever-present glowing screen, and in fact, her interaction took place under a canopy of stars and with little sound other than that of wind and waves. Whether young people favor opportunities to race, or sail train aboard a tall ship ultimately doesn’t really matter, but providing the appropriate channel for them to connect with the sport in their own way and discover their own passion is perhaps what matters most.
Meeting people, connecting and making new friends…Brilliant indeed.