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Raising the next generation to be lifetime sailors

Published on September 22nd, 2014

JODY STARCKJody Starck, 2013 U.S. Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, has deep roots in the Lightning class. To ensure the health of the class, and of the sport, Jody shares the work being done to get young people involved in sailing at Buffalo Canoe Club in Ridgeway, Ontario…

A few people at our club figured out and have driven the point home that with so many of the junior boats, the adults can’t get in and sail against the kids. The boats are just too small. So we decided to bring the kids into the Lightning class with us. The boat is small enough to where they can be out on their own, but big enough to where we can be competing against them. And the target crew weight for the boat allows for a mix of genders and weights.

During the summer we have Tuesday night races, which are a big deal, and we encourage the kids to skipper their own boat. Now, with our club, we have three Lightning class world champions, so on the start line, these kids are pitted against the best sailors, who are determined not to lose to the kids. But when racing is over, the adults and kids meet up and chat about the races, and point out what the kids could have done better.

As a result of this inter-generational mingling, the learning curve for the kids is going up so fast. They are benefiting from our mistakes; we are able to mentor them – both on the race course and on land. We talk about everything: tuning and tactics, crew work and team chemistry. And now these kids are competing in Lightning events away from the club. Simply put, the class has proven to be a great platform for everyone to be playing together.

We recognize that by encouraging the kids to sail in the Lightning, we are not promoting some of the youth-centric classes in the USA. Instead of focusing on the Lightning, some of these kids might otherwise be training on, for example, the Club 420. We certainly are not discouraging the kids if they desire to go to the Club 420 Nationals, but they will have to forge that path more so on their own.

Years ago, when Larry MacDonald took his 10 year old daughter to the North Americans, we thought he was crazy. But Larry had the long view, knowing that the health of the class relied on its current members connecting with the youth sailors. By one of the top sailors in the class taking this position, it resonated with the rest of us.

Larry also figured that if we get the girls involved in the Lightning fleet, the boys will come. And they have, but what’s great is that we still probably have more young girls sailing than boys. But our motivation is to fill the boats with people. I might go racing with a boat full of kids. Who cares… no kid left behind. That’s the mentality.

What folds into this youth movement within the class is the Boat Grant Program. Its target candidate is the young person now coming out of college, who isn’t in the position to buy a boat. This program has succeeded in engaging them, making the connection, and giving them a sailing future (click here for details).

Another benefit of the class has been the boat’s durability and cost. We have to thank our builders for this. The boats are near indestructible, they are reasonably priced, and don’t greatly devalue. Older used boats that might not look too fast are still plenty competitive, and are priced within reach.

I was chatting with an old friend, who was a really good sailor in college, about buying a Lightning. His oldest kid was 10 years old, and I was telling him how he needed a Lightning. He was concerned about the cost, but for $10000 he can have a really good boat. He can have a boat to sail with his kids, and to race competitively at the highest level.

Thankfully, the class has kept a handle on changes. The boats are really similar in performance, so it is easy for people to take whatever vintage boat they have, and feel like a player. That’s what makes classes endure and remain strong. And by bringing the kids into the class, while they are still kids, we can help ensure that they remain strong too.

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