Change boats key to US Olympic success

Published on January 15th, 2018

Bob Johnstone was the founding chairman of the United States Youth Championship in 1973, an event intended to prepare young sailors for international success. Much has changed since the event’s beginning, and he fears the failures of USA at the Olympic level are a result. Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck checks in with Bob for his observations.


Bob Johnstone

What do you consider to be the main problem?

Conducting the premier event for 17-19 year olds (the US Youth Championship) in 420s, Nacra 15s and 29ers instead of the equipment used at the Olympics – 470s, Nacra 17s and 49ers – arrests Olympic development of our top youth sailors.

These detuned youth versions of Olympic classes have a competitive crew weight of about 145 lbs., the average weight of a 14 year old, not 18-19 year olds, e.g. adult Olympic athletes.

The US Youth Championships had been, and can once again become, the most universal, motivating, effective and low cost development program for the US Olympic Team imaginable. Seems a “no-brainer”… and the key is the boats.

Just switch the Youth Champs to all Olympic boats: 470, Nacra 17 and 49er and be amazed.

1) More youth talent will hone skills in non-Olympic years;
2) Parents and Yacht Clubs will buy 100’s of Olympic boats to support their Youths’ dreams;
3) Dependency on coaches for success is reduced as Youth will be competing against the best adults;
4) A “Mini Olympics” every year will put 100 more fired-up youth athletes on the Olympic path in each of those years while further motivating Laser, Radial and RS:X sailors.

A step was taken at the 2015 US Youth Championships to match the boats with what is used at the Youth Sailing World Championships, and the US event became the qualifier. Was this not enough to prepare US sailors for the next level?

Good in theory, but not in practice. US youth sailors are not any better prepared for the Youth Worlds, and certainly not for an Olympic path, by sailing 420s. It’s much more effective to sail a 470 and move down into a 420 for a regatta than the reverse. Because, the higher performance boat teaches you the moves you should be doing to go faster, which a dumbed down 420 doesn’t. It doesn’t work in reverse.

The original Olympic development goals of the US Youth Championship got shunted aside. Check out the history of how the Youths came about (click here). Deja vu all over again! Put our Youth in 470’s so they compete against the best adults… and when they get into a 420 against other youth, they are unbeatable. Kiddie boats are not the solution. Case closed.

There was a time when the USA had established fleets for all the Olympic classes, but now just the Finn and Laser/Radial can claim that. Isn’t this part of the problem for the USA?

Putting the US Youth Champs in Olympic boats will solve the problem of not enough Olympic class boats. Not surprising that they languish in mediocrity now. But, go 470, Nacra 17 and 49er for the US Youths… and every club in the country who cares about their youth program will be buying them and organizing regional regattas.

There will be twice as many parents involved because we’ve opened up the Olympic path to kids weighing more than 145 lbs. Otherwise, why should they make the effort to support a class of boat which will only end up disappointing a still-growing youth sailor?

Go with boats the parents may want to sail as well… like my wife Mary and I did. We sailed one 470, our sons Stuart and Drake sailed another, and son Peter and daughter Helen were the support crew with a Zodiac tender. The whole family syndicate travelled the pre-Olympic circuit across the USA with a large Ford station wagon… both family 470s qualified for the Worlds and two of the boys became Collegiate All-Americans.

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