I remember my time as a junior sailing instructor with great fondness. I still maintain there are few better ways for a college student to earn money during the summer break. As instructors we had fun – lots of fun – and we did a good job. Our kids learned how to sail, how to race, how to care for a small sailboat, and also how to have fun doing it. I am proud of the fact that a large number of the junior sailors that I instructed during those four years are still sailing…and to date myself, even have kids that are now taking lessons!

At the base of all the enjoyment and excitement was always safety, and much thought and preparation would go into that subject before our season would even start. The first thing you try to instill in a young sailor is that life jackets must be worn at all times…and the list of safety measures taken by clubs and schools, as well as instructors and the students, goes on from there.

We developed an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) at the club where I worked. This was an outline of procedures to follow in the event of any number of different emergency scenarios, including numbers to call, appropriate landing areas to discharge a victim for a waiting ambulance, and so on. We all know however that regardless of the amount of preparation and training that takes place, the water is an inherently dangerous environment and accidents will happen. Fortunately, most of these incidents involve a boom bump to the head, a skinned knee or mild dehydration; easily treated aboard the coach boat or ashore in the junior clubhouse. Each summer, however, word of a tragedy on the water would circle through the programs, during regattas or on the news, providing not only an additional reminder to remain vigilant, but also as impetus for immediate positive as well as precautionary change for the season to come.

With ongoing advances in instruction practices, more versatile personal flotation devices, multiple forms of communication and improvements in the design of small boats (sail and power) and related equipment, we should be seeing fewer incidents on the water. But we know that situations will arise, accidents will happen, and hopefully lessons will be learned. Unfortunately, this year was no exception.

In July, during a capsize drill in a Long Island Sound junior program, a 12-year old boy died when he fell off the instructor’s boat and was struck by its propeller, Later that month, three Boy Scouts were killed when the mast of the catamaran they were sailing came into contact with overhead power lines on a lake in Texas. Many have opined that these tragedies were both avoidable (and we all know that shore-side safety experts and hindsight produce crystal clear scenarios), but those of us involved with junior sailing, including parents whose kids are taking lessons and competing in regattas, know that we need to continually look for, and implement methods of keeping kids safer on the water.

The popular movement toward using inflatable coach boats is a good one in terms of keeping boats and limbs safe from damage (and they have other pros and cons as well) but perhaps reducing the potential danger of underwater appendages needs to be the next movement toward increased powerboat safety for our young ones. Prop guard- or jet drive-equipped coach boats seem a natural step in that development.

While I would never place blame on anyone in particular for either of this summer’s tragedies, it is disheartening to know that such incidents happen all too frequently.  Now is the time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each of our junior programs and work to make changes to facilities and equipment, and revise or fortify best practices. We all must strive to find ways to help ensure kids are safe out there, so they can focus on learning, camaraderie, competition and fun.

I am hopeful that the coming 2018 season will be the safest and most successful ever.

See you on the water.

Chris Gill

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