Reduce pressure to grow participation

Published on March 20th, 2018

by Jay Eveleth
In 1996, we had one youngster left in our youth sailing program in Mountain Lakes, NJ. Previously, in 1982, we had lots of juniors, and our kids had taken three of the top five places in the North American Junior Sunfish Championship.

To revive youth sailing in 1997, the Mountain Lakes Sailing Association started a sailing camp. In the first few years, we had a few kids show up each day, but 16 years later on most days there were 30-40 youngsters in camp, and 92 kids were on the roster with 10 more on the waiting list.

We attribute our success to the set of sailing games we invented. The games are highly competitive, but very low pressure… most kids love competition, but don’t like too much pressure.

The games have three attributes which reduce pressure:

1. In team games, the team members change each day.
2. Individual games often contain non-racing skills, such as throwing a frisbee, capsizing, or changing crews on the water.
3. Other individual games include an element of chance.

Most games enhance racing skills which cover a full range of sailing experiences for kids. We call our set of games discovery sailing. They are meant to augment a racing program and/or an adventure sailing program.

There is no guarantee that games will bring kids back to sailing, but activities which combine intense competition with low pressure clearly have been shown to improve participation in some localities. Hopefully any youth program which adds these games to their offering will find more kids wanting to sail.

We developed more than fifty games or variations on games. Some are described below (also see videos). New games are invented each year – some by coaches and some by kids. A youth sailing program could use some of our games and/or invent their own depending on local wind, and water conditions and the children’s ages.


Pirates: This game is the most popular, appealing to all youngsters of all ages, skill levels and competitiveness. Normally we did not use the game until the middle of the summer, when every child has at least basic skills. In the beginning of the season, the kids looked forward to when they can start to play Pirates.

The game employs teams of three boats and five kids – a merchant captain, two pirates and two coastguardsmen. The merchant ship carrying the gold (a tennis ball) goes up wind to a buoy, whereupon the pirates launch, capture the merchant captain, seize the gold and capsize the merchant ship. Then the coastguard comes to the rescue. The first team home with all its boats and sailors, wins.

Frisbee: This game is designed primarily for teenagers. It is too difficult for younger kids, but teenagers beg to play it.

A standard racecourse is used. Teams consist of two or more boats. Racing rules apply. The Frisbee must traverse the entire course, but not necessarily all the boats. A boat may not tack while in possession of her Frisbee. This is a complex and sophisticated game which exercises many racing skills and requires good tactics, strategies and play calling.

Three boat-length circle relay: This game is focused on enhancing buoy rounding skills and tactics. Racing rules apply. Teams consist of at least four boats. The course uses at least three buoys. At the start of the relay, each team has a boat at each buoy. The home base boat starts out with the baton and passes it to the teammate at the first buoy, who then goes to the second buoy and so on. One team traverses the course clockwise and the other counterclockwise.

Sailball: Sailball is a field and goal team sport for sailors. The field is any body of water, and there are two goals and two balls. Play is continuous until a predetermined number of goals is reached. The goalies count the scores for their opposing team. Boats inside the three boat-length circle around the buoys have the right of way. Outside this, racing rules apply.

Sailball is the most complex and sophisticated game in our repertoire. Play calling can be enhanced by using walkie-talkies. It is rare that kids achieve the skills to play the game well in only one summer.

Balloon popping with capsize: This game uses a normal racecourse, and racing rules apply. The balloons are tied to the top of the mast and must be popped before the finish. The game is a hit with younger children.

Tennis ball pickup with discards: Lots of tennis balls are scattered on the water, and each boat picks up as many as possible. However if a boat is tagged with a tennis ball, she must dump all her balls in the water. Racing rules apply. The game ends when a whistle blows. Some children find it upsetting when they get tagged just before the whistle blows, the element of chance insures that the best sailors do not dominate.

Pass the passenger race: The name of this game reveals its rules. There are many variations of this game.

Cheaters’ race: Ooching, rocking, skulling, etc., are allowed. This is a great game for a windless day.

Follow the leader: At each tack, the lead boat much go to the end of the line. The game ends when all boats have had a chance to be in first place. This is a great game for beginners.

Add a hand relay: There are 3 to 5 kids on each team. Each team is assigned buoy. The boats go around buoy and pick up next team member at home base on return. This game is popular with all ages and fortifies go fast skills.

Beach at target: Each boat goes around her buoy and beaches as close to target (tennis ball) as possible.

Experienced and novice race: Each team consists of an experienced sailor and a newbie each in their own boats. The first team with both team members finished, wins. Racing rules apply.

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