Are We Asking Too Much From Junior Programs?

Published on January 28th, 2014

by John Arndt, founder, Summer Sailstice
In the recent Scuttlebutt newsletter #4005 (Jan. 22), Geoffrey Emanuel wrote some excellent suggestions for changes needed in many junior sailing programs. However, I think the problem may be deeper and can’t completely be addressed within programs. Go to any junior sailing dock and it’s hard to see anything wrong. Enthusiastic instructors do a fabulous job teaching eager, wide-eyed kids many of the skills needed to sail. But programs can only make a contribution to a life-long love of sailing.

The new movie ‘Her’ has a man falling in love with the ‘program’ operating his device. The story is laughable because it seems so improbable for humans to fall in love with a program. Yet we often have people falling in love with sailing programs rather than sailing itself.

The shift may be may be more societal along the lines Nick Hayes pointed out in his valuable book, ‘Saving Sailing’. Camping, fishing, hunting and other, once popular, outdoor family activities, have faced similar declines.

Sailing programs are simply responding to market demand. Today’s two-income families have less time for family sailing and need to drop kids off at a ‘program’. Perceived competitive pressures inspire them to enroll in programs that produce winners. Naturally programs producing winners are in higher demand and a vicious cycle begins.

The word program is most often associated with computers which, with specific inputs, you’ll get specific outputs. Gone are the days when kids can simply ‘mess about in boats.’ There are goals, trophies and life-skills needing to be acquired to succeed in today’s competitive world. Sailing is not a way to relax, have fun and explore but another way to prepare to compete with the 7 billion people on the planet.

My lifelong love of sailing didn’t come from a program. I was fortunate to come from a sailing family and, as Nick Hayes again suggests, it was the multigenerational experiences of my early youth that got me hooked. However, it was a simple start. Our first boat was a used, white, styrofoam Snark and, when I was able to sail on my grandfather’s ‘big’ sailboat, it was a Rhodes 19. He let me take the tiller too!

Surveys of experienced sailors asking why they love sailing get answers like freedom, adventure and escape. Most of us experienced those feelings when we learned to sail. Can programs provide any sense of freedom and escape? It’s exceptionally difficult. Programs are in charge of someone else’s child and live in dread of the legal system. Waivers, chase boats, expected outcomes, parental pressures, rigid schedules give programs very little latitude to provide the kind of environment in which most of today’s older sailors developed a love of sailing. Maybe we need to ask for less from programs and more from parents and the rest of the sailing community.

To move beyond what a program can teach you probably need to own your own boat (or ‘unrestricted’ access). Then, if the breeze is up and the air warm, you can carry on sailing well after sunset, after the program has packed up its chase boats and the instructors have gone home.

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