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Sailing prepares kids for adulthood if you take away the snowplow

2019 June 1

The college admissions scandal, aside from being distasteful and embarrassing, has taught me a new term. To all of you from nasty northern climates with very short sailing seasons, a snowplow is something quite commonplace. To a former Californian and now Floridian, a snowplow is as alien as a spinning wheel, but now it is being used in a new way.

I’ve taken more than a few shots at helicopter parents, who hover anxiously around their children in sailing junior programs, but the cheating scandal upped the ante by calling them “snowplow parents,” who simply bulldoze everything out of their child’s way by whatever means available. That might mean throwing money at a college admissions officer, or it might be by hiring a private coach with chase boat for their little snowflake. 

I shake my head when I’m at one of the local yacht clubs, watching the kids get ready for their junior sailing program, and there are a bunch of parents rigging the boats. As a kid, we would have been incredibly humiliated if our parents had rigged our boats for us. It was something we did together, helping each other when necessary but taking responsibility for getting the job done by ourselves. My mother’s total involvement was to hand me my favorite floppy hat and a tube of Sea & Ski and tell me to have fun. 

I had no one to protect me from doing something stupid, like getting fingers in the way when attaching a boom or lowering a centerboard. And because no one shielded me from difficulties or disappointments, I learned to stand on my own. Trust me, I only held a fully loaded spinnaker halyard once as I released it when dousing the chute. Smoked my hand, learned a lesson. 

If I forgot to pack a sandwich or, more likely, forgot to stow it someplace dry, I was the one with a soggy sandwich at lunch. There was no mommy-boat to fix things, and I learned to carefully waterproof anything I wanted to eat later, and it wasn’t a plastic bag back then, it was multiple layers of wax paper with a rubber band.

One of the special qualities of sailing is that it really does train kids to become functioning adults. Sure, soccer and football and other sports help instill teamwork, but that’s about it. Not much use in your adult life for bunt or place kick.

Sailing teaches you stuff you’ll use forever. I used knots I learned on the water to tie some lumber securely to the roof rack of my car recently, and I have a lifetime of familiarity with tools, paints, adhesives and the other stuff that kept my boats together and afloat. Sailing prepares kids for life.

The former dean of freshmen at Stanford saw students flounder because they were completely unprepared for the real world after a lifetime of parental interventions. The root cause, said Julie Lythcott-Haims in her book, “How To Raise An Adult,” is parents who never let their children make mistakes or face challenges. “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Yes, sailing is equipment intensive, but it doesn’t have to be. I knew one mother who scrimped to get an 8-foot pram for her son, who then went on to become one of the hottest sailors in the country. Or look at Dennis Conner, whose father was a fisherman, and we know where he ended up. When my college crew stood on the trophy podium for the Kennedy and Douglas Cups, we were a rag-tag bunch who didn’t have the embroidered team shirts and matching outfits of Ivy League schools, yet we were right there with them.

Sailing is a training ground that turns kids into adults, as long as adults leave them alone. Let them win or lose on their own merits, not with someone snowplowing their life. As a kid, I was expected by my parents to exercise good judgment and good judgment often comes by making mistakes. 

Mistakes are a part of the growing process and I have to admit, I’m still a little skittish around spinnaker halyards.