Not just a youth program, but a life program

Published on February 4th, 2014

Just to the west of Columbia, South Carolina is Lake Murray, where there’s a youth program enjoying success in building lifelong sailors. Allan D. Gowans, Executive Director and Sailing Coach of Lake Murray Sailing Association explains…

I have been sailing for over 60 years and only sail dinghies, so I am somewhat prejudiced against the “rush” to big boats. Dinghy sailing in many of the established classes is inexpensive (relatively) and may present a low barrier of entry for many young people starting their families and careers. It seems every week there is a new sport boat design introduced, and sailing has in essence turned into an “arms race”.

We have a program, now in its 6th year, which seems to have some promise. We established a community sailing organization and became “affiliated” with a local sailing club. Our youth program is as much a leadership program as a sailing program. We use boating as the tool to not only teach sailing, but also life/leadership skills. Our goal is NOT Olympic Gold, but to produce championship people first, and if we produce a championship sailor, all the better!

We have a fleet (12) of old Flying Juniors, a fleet (10) of competitive MC Scows, and a fleet (5) of competitive Flying Scots. It so happens, the sailing club we associate with also has fleets of MC Scows and Flying Scots. New students come to summer camp, some for fun, some wanting to go on and learn to sail. The summer students who seem to want to continue are invited to our summer ending Top Gun Sailing School®.

Students who still want to continue can join the Association for $200.00/ year, after which the training begins. We have a 10 point sailing qualification book that is difficult; expectations are high! After they are competent in FJ’s and are qualified, they have access to the other boats.

Many youngsters are picked up by club members and offered full time crewing positions on dinghies for club and fleet events. Other students choose to sail the MC Scows and/or Flying Scots. They compete against other youth and ADULTS. They are cut no slack and have to earn their finishes. No “participation” awards. We do not separate our youth program from “adult” events or have separate facilities.

If a student wants to participate in a “youth” regatta, his/her parents can sponsor them; we do not encourage or discourage such participation, but focus our efforts on development of sailors and character education. We take both the association and club fleets to 2 to 3 away regattas each year. This gives the youth the flavor of traveling and reinforces the “culture” of what competitive sailing is about. Our youth are expected to take part in training exercises both on and off the water, expected to make presentations and help in general.

While our senior students are skippering boats in events, sometimes older sailors think they can take advantage of the youngsters. Big mistake! Our senior youngsters know the rules and how to convey them to a competitor in a manner befitting what the spirit of sailing demands. It is not unusual that after an event to see a 16 year old skipper sitting down with a 70 year old skipper and discussing tactics and the day’s events over a hamburger. The language is the same and we bridge a huge generation gap. Good stuff!

These “kids” now have a place to come home to when they start their adult lives. They can go to any Sailing Club and understand the rules and have the skills to be contributing sailors and citizens. This is in contrast to many of today’s young sailors that attended separate youth events at a separate part of the club, sail in High School and/or College, and when finished have no “home” to go to and no experience in the culture or boats of a typical sailing club.

We currently have 24 students in our program and will pick up another 12 to 16 this year. When they first start to compete, they usually, as expected, get trashed. They come in off the water for a de-briefing and are given two options which they now know well: “You can quit and go home OR you can work hard and improve your skill set”. We have never in 6 years had a student “quit”. Our youngsters flourish; they win races, win fleet championships, do well in local and regional events, and most importantly are quality individuals who will make responsible and accountable adults.

While we do not think that our approach is THE blueprint for growth of our sport, it is certainly a possible blueprint for success. Many people give up time and modify their own desires to sail to aid and assist our youth program. This all comes back in tenfold terms when on the water one of our student sailors clean our clocks, we grumble on the surface for effect, but cannot keep from smiling broadly underneath!

Click here for the LMSA Values Statement

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