Let junior sailors have fun and they just might learn to love sailing
I don’t need fancy statistics to tell me that, using my group of friends from the 1960s as an example, kids who have fun sailing stay in sailing. We learned self-reliance, decision making and skills that have served us for a lifetime. It was fun.
As a kid, I had a conversation with my mother almost every weekend after I departed in the morning, not to return until dinner time.
"Where did you go?"
"What did you do?"
All of my friends had exactly that same interview. And the answer, "nothing," was completely accurate. We did nothing. And everything. There were empty lots and playgrounds where I would find my friends, and we would amuse ourselves riding our bikes or playing war or simply doing º nothing.
It is what I've come to understand as "The Joy of Unstructured Fun."
Sure, there were streets and cars and dangers, but I rode my bike to school, enjoyed pals without parental meddling, and savored deciding how to spend my day. In the process, I learned about many things: friendship, fun, being responsible, thinking for myself, being safe and growing my independence.
Today, I see lines of parents driving their children to school and later, sitting in their cars on their cellphones, waiting for the sullen and bored kids to get out of school. On weekends, there aren't conversations like the one with my mother, because kids' lives are filled with soccer or judo, baseball or cheerleading. A local YMCA says they take pride in "filling kids' discretionary hours with caring adult attention."
Kids don't need their discretionary hours to be filled with adult attention. They need those hours to be just that: discretionary for their own fun and growth.
Oh, wait, this is a sailing magazine. Sadly, the same thing applies to sailing. Sailing is one of the few truly unstructured sports left, and yet too many organizers of junior programs and the national association seem dead set on imposing structure on it.
At a yacht club for brunch, I watched as the junior sailors, of an age when I was taking off in my dinghy and sailing nowhere, were herded by their helicopter parents through a rigorous calisthenics program led by the sailing coach to strengthen young leg muscles for hiking out longer and to build the little arm muscles so these kiddies could pump their sails endlessly in a mindless goal of winning.
After the workout, the parents (not the kids) rigged their kids' prams with the most exotic sails and masts. There was an hour of tacking practice followed by jibing practice, all with the coach shouting instructions from a chase boat.
Eventually the kids had a few races, which were excruciatingly boring windward- leewards with few tactics and even fewer challenges. Then back to the dock where the parents put the prams away and everyone climbed into their SUVs to head home. A totally structured day with no chance for individual thinking and certainly no fun. The kids couldn't wait to start playing their video games. Every discretionary hour had been filled with adult attention.
I'll tell you this: I would have quit the junior program after two weeks of that pressure and monotony. At their age, I was having fun on the water. My junior sailing club had races three days a week in the summer that were always a challenge, with marks scattered over a long bay with an infinite number of possible courses. During those races, I learned to read the wind, figure out tactics that changed with every course, and learned by doing without having a coach or video reruns to critique my mistakes. It was about fun, not winning.
On the nonracing days, we sailed together or separately, sometimes winding up on the same sandbar or at a beachside hamburger stand. We had waterfights, we had pursuit races where we learned to handle our boats with pride and precision, and we–wait for it–learned to think for ourselves. It was unstructured.
With no coach or parent boats chasing us, we made decisions based on our best judgments and, if we were wrong, it tempered our future decisions. If something broke, we figured out how to fix it, often calling in the best minds of our pals. It was years before we knew the phrase jury-rig and we solved our problems without parental hovering.
There is a general wailing that kids drop out of sailing when they're too old for junior programs. The director of U.S. Olympic sailing has lamented that the pool of young sailors is dwindling and perhaps that's why the United States won not a single sailing medal in the 2012 Olympics.
A light went on when I received one of those dreadful high school reunion emails that updates what everyone has been doing for the past decade. As I went through the names, I discovered something very telling.
Every one of the kids that I sailed with from about the age of 12 to high school graduation is still sailing. They are casual sailors and weekend racers, some of us won championships, but all are still on the water.
I don't need fancy statistics to tell me that, using my group of friends from the 1960s as an example, kids who have fun sailing stay in sailing. We learned self-reliance, decision making and skills that have served us for a lifetime. It was fun.
Not every yacht club is locked into those winning-is-everything∫ junior programs, and I applaud the clubs that encourage kids to have fun. Clubs that think boring drills are the answer need to step back and reexamine their programs. Perhaps they should ask how many of their kids actually go sailing by themselves just for the fun of it.
Because, after all is said, it is the joy of unstructured sailing that lasts a lifetime.