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Sailing can foster self-reliance without the Mommy boat

2011 April 1

I had agreed to join a friend on a chase boat for an Optimist regatta, adding another set of eyes for the starts of the 100-boat fleet that were, well, really pushy. After the mark setting, we were idling around the start area and, off to one side, there was a huge flotilla of rigid-bottomed inflatables of all sizes.
"What's going on over there?" I asked, with all innocence.

"Ah," he said with scorn, "those are the Mommy boats."

Well, let's cut to the chase here. More than one out of every four of these little kids sailing 8-foot prams had a support team with a coach, parents, spare parts, cold drinks, lunch, a change of clothing, and probably a tissue to wipe away tears if anything awful happened during the race.

I was embarrassed.

I'm not going down the in-my-day-we-walked-to-school-in-the-snow route, but what happened to the joy of sailing with and against your friends? About independence? About self-reliance?

Gone, apparently. I learned to sail in a pram similar to an Optimist, but I would have slit my wrists if my parents had followed me onto the race course. It was bad enough being dropped at the yacht club in the morning by your parent, and as soon as I figured out how to carry mast and sails on my bike, that ended too. Any kid who had a Mommy boat on the water would have been a wuss.

It's one thing for all these Mommy boats churning up the waters, but I started seeing some of the parents' antics that would put a third base coach to shame. They weren't actually pointing to the side of the course where there was more wind, but it was almost funny to see everyone on a Mommy boat with the bills on their caps turned to the right. Or to see Dad always scratching that itch on his right elbow. Or for the whole Mommy boat to be pointing right and then going up that side of the course after the start.

I mean, really! The rules are very clear about outside assistance after the starting sequence. It's bad enough that the Mommy boats, which have gone out on the course early to check the weather, give the kiddies a full briefing on conditions and tactics before the start, but trying to sneak in some late tips during the race is just cheating. 

These helicopter parents (so-named because they're always hovering) are the ones who drive their kids three blocks to school, who "help" them with their homework, and who are ruining everything for kids from Little League (which earned them the scornful title of Little League Parents) to soccer. 
Later, I was talking to one of the parents who gave me a well-polished spiel about how Mommy boats add confidence and mental support at regattas. This parent had so many justifications for not just letting kids go off and be kids that I genuinely felt sorry for his child. Out in the real world, Mommy's boat isn't always there for you. 

The Optimist is an interesting anomaly in itself. First designed to be built from two sheets of plywood by a parent and child team and promoted by the Optimist International service club as an inexpensive and accessible way to get kids on the water while teaching them some skills useful in life, such as, wait for it: independence and self-reliance. 

The idea spread worldwide, and today there are more than 300,000 Optimist prams and at a recent Optimist Worlds more than 60 nations competed. A new and competitive Optimist is no longer the cost of two sheets of plywood and a sail: it's about $5,000 for all the bells and whistles.

Don't forget to include the cost of the Mommy boat along with the trailer and sport ute to pull it, the coach's salary, and living costs to race on the "circuit." Don't forget having to buy hats of different colors to signal your kids, either.

Makes those two sheets of plywood seem like a steal, doesn't it? Of course, those were all about having fun on the water, splashing around and making friends. 

Those weren't the win-or-cry days where your coach videotapes your race and then critiques it in the evening, where 8-year-olds are doing weight and stamina training so they can hike longer and harder, or summer weekends dedicated to tacking and jibing drills.
But the problem isn't just with Optimists. I'm told that the last Laser World Championships had more than 100 Mommy boats on the water, although most were coaches and not parents. The Star Class has reportedly voted no competitor may receive outside assistance after leaving the dock until the finish of the last race during class-run gold and silver events. Good for the Stars, but how sad it has to be a rule.

We had a Little League parent at my yacht club a few years back who was blatant about following his kid in a Whaler, patting a shoulder or wiping his brow to tell him when to tack and then, back at the dock, loudly berating every mistake the kid made on the course. It finally became so dreadful that the board of directors gave him a choice: resign his membership or agree to stay on the dock when his kid was racing. He took the latter, but I still feel badly for the kid.
A Fortune 500 executive recruiter recently wrote that the problem in finding suitable executive talent is that college grads, even those from prestigious MBA programs, are weak when it came to independent decision-making. They are simply incapable of relying on their own experience and instincts.       

I know why, and so do you.