How a Nation Rediscovered Sailing

Published on July 16th, 2015

The first ever international sailing participation by the Central American country of Belize is the latest step in a five-year Optimist programme. It is great progress for a tiny country with historic connections to the ocean.

“Belize once had a strong commercial sailing tradition, when lighters full of sand or fish, (or probably contraband) were sailed up and down the coast in the usually steady winds and shallow waters inside the barrier reef,” reported John Oliver to Scuttlebutt in March 2006. “Now with outboard motors replacing sails for those who must make a living at sea, and finances and time for recreational sailing severely limited, and in spite of strenuous efforts by regatta committees and sea scout instructors, this tradition is rapidly failing.”

Oliver, eager to have an impact, provided this update in June 2009 to Scuttlebutt: “The former sailing traditions are losing support among the aging, now less active, sailors, and I as sailing teacher for a group of sea scouts, have been asked to find out if a junior programme for the schools would be feasible.”

Eighteen months later successful planning had created a new Belize Sailing Association which joined ISAF. It found local sponsors, secured government tax exemption and led to the purchase of 26 Optimists, subsidized and sourced by the International Optimist Dinghy Association (IODA).

Initially the boats were distributed between the Sea Scouts and three bases in Belize City, Corozal in the north of the country and the island of Ambergris Caye. IODA provided an instructor training course given by a bilingual coach from Puerto Rico. Expansion was rapid over the next three years with further annual orders totalling 40 more boats, in each case sponsored by IODA under its ‘6 for 5’ boat purchase scheme. Additional centres were established at Placencia in the south of the country and Caye Caulker Island.

A circuit of regattas was organised in the different clubs and a trailer built to transport the Optimist around. As this circuit grew it was felt that the time had come to provide a further incentive for the best sailors.

Qualifying trials were held for two sailors to represent Belize at the 2015 North American Optimist Championship in Antigua on July 7-12. At the event the third placed sailor was a girl so IODA extended its ‘automatic’ sponsorship of the top two and in the end four sailors, two boys and two girls, participated.

Grassroots have not been forgotten and in the same month IODA sponsored a further course for basic-level instructors.

The Belize programme bears an uncanny resemblance to the earliest Optimist development in Florida over sixty years ago. Almost all the boats are communally owned and many are sponsored by local companies, carrying their advertising just as they did then.

Competition is encouraged and inter-club regattas provide an incentive for increasing skills. Of course these days the Optimists are GRP but with IODA-sponsored buying these hulls cost under $500.

Already the revival of sailing in Belize has extended beyond Optimists. In January 2015 the Belize Sailing Center acquired ten new Lasers, and three sailors from its first clinic are scheduled to take part in the ISAF Emerging Nations Youth Worlds Clinic, also in Antigua in July.

The Belize Sailing Association is eager to build on a long tradition of sailing in Belize, re-energizing the community by making sailing affordable to sailing enthusiasts and accessible to young aspiring sailors. With their pleasant sailing conditions and gorgeous turquoise waters found within the Belize Barrier Reef, they just needed a plan and people like John Oliver to promote it.

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