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A little disorganization goes a long way toward fun sailing

2010 April 5
I can remember it as clearly as yesterday, but it was actually in the early 1960s.

"Caswell," he said, "you may think that sailboat racing is all there is in the world. But they don't." His bushy eyebrows eased from the frown as he added, "Yet."

I was a young college student who, instead of taking my usual summer job rigging sailboats and giving sailing lessons for a local boat dealer, had been hired as the instructor for my yacht club junior sailing program.

At the time, I was consumed with racing in both one-designs and ocean racers. I ate it, breathed it, lived it. And I brought that passion to the junior program.

This was long before the sophisticated teaching programs now available, and so it was a blackboard and chalk. The beginners were separated until they had mastered the basics of sailing, but then everyone learned racing tactics and rules. And that was exactly why I was standing before the bushy-browed commodore and his board of directors.

He was gently suggesting that my program step back from being purely racing-oriented and cut a little slack for kids who might just want to go sailing.

I thought of this recently as I was sitting on the patio of another yacht club, watching some kids put away their Optimist prams after an afternoon on the water in the junior program.

Two older boys were carrying their gear up the dock, while a younger one scuffed along in his little Topsiders, lugging a rudder that was nearly his height. The older ones asked the younger, "How did you finish in the last race?"

"Who cares?" he replied, still scuffing along.

Who cares, indeed. Have we become in this soccer-mom, Little League, uber-aggressive world so focused on competition that we've forgotten how to have fun?

After nearly half a century of sailing, I can look back and pick out some of my great memories, and most of them aren't about racing. They might have occurred aboard a racing sailboat, but they were moments of beauty or comradeship or laugh-until-you-cry fun.

After that gentle advice from my commodore, I restructured my junior program, taking a page from how I had learned to sail in a city-sponsored sailing program run by a wise woman named Fran. Fran was a former teacher but, more important, she really understood what kids were all about.

I realized that mixed in with her regime of chalk talks and twice-a-week races was a liberal dose of what you can only call "fun." There was time for kids to just mess around on the water, doing what kids do best. There were water fights between boats using hand-powered bilge pumps, there was sailing to a faraway beach to squish around looking for clams, there was time sitting on the dock trying to think of something to say to that pretty girl.

After a day in Fran's program, I can remember coming home sunburnt, salty and happy. There was no "Who cares?" because it was all about fun. Even the racing wasn't the cut-throat win-at-all-costs that it has become today.

If you walk through a marina, the vast majority of sailboats are not serious racers. They are cruising boats, mess around boats, fun-on-the-water boats. Sure, they can sail in the club series or the beer cans, but hard-core racing yachts are far and few between. That's because, by and large, most sailors just want to enjoy their time on the water.

They want to take family and friends, feel the breeze and the sun and the spray, and enjoy the freedom of sailing. But too many junior programs don't seem to "get" that point.

And, in the process of being so racing oriented, they turn off the kids. Would that "who-cares" kid trudging along the dock stay in the junior program if his parents didn't insist?

Not a chance.

He'd be in front of the television or playing video games or just being a couch potato. All because a steady diet of racing turned him off to sailing. How sad.

Something is being lost in this overly organized world of kids today. I had a baseball glove as a youngster, of course, and I enjoyed playing catch in the backyard with my dad in the evening after he came home from work. That didn't mean I wanted to be a major league player when I grew up, or that I needed hours of batting drills. It was bonding. It was good exercise. And it was fun.

As I grew older, there were occasional games of pick-up basketball or flag football between friends, but no one really cared who won unless they were buying the beers. It was just about fun.

I played competitive tennis in high school and college, but the real pleasure of tennis was playing with friends. We didn't have to smash each serve or ace every return and, in fact, a good rally was a lot of fun.

It's true that racing is a useful tool for teaching kids how to sail. They quickly learn what works and what doesn't, which you don't get when you're just playing on the water. But does it really matter if the jib isn't trimmed quite right, or the main needs a bit more vang?

Kids don't need organized sports. They need disorganized sports where they can learn independence and self-reliance and the ability to amuse themselves. Where they learn to think and be responsible. They don't need to spend hours practicing roll tacks or air-rowing.
And they shouldn't ever answer, "Who cares?"