Will Today’s Kids Be Tomorrow’s Sailors?

Published on July 30th, 2015

With kids out of school in the summer, a visit to most sailing hubs finds harbors filled with organized youth sailing programs. Led by highly trained instructors, the investment in developing the next generation of sailing is palpable.

But as US Sailing Training Committee Chair Rich Jepsen points out, if this summer’s flock of young sailors will truly continue in the sport, the focus of these sailing programs needs to be geared toward that goal. Here Rich explains…

If our goal is to create more lifelong sailors, then we need to serve each segment of interest, rather than fit all kids into a single experience. There are a number of kids who will LOVE competing in Optis, followed by CFJs, C420s, etc., and we need to keep those programs for them. However, there is a large number of kids that only race because that’s the only way they get to sail.

This group of kids may not be super talented, or interested in competition, but continue as long as they can stomach the narrow focus of dinghy competition. This group is a MUCH larger percentage than is commonly believed, possibly as much as 85% of kids. And yes, these are the kids dropping out of sailing in their mid-teens.

So, here’s my basic formula, informed by decades of working in the sail training industry and leading US Sailing’s Training Committee for the better part of 18 years:

1. Cultivate the talented and eager competitors with the boats that provide the best competition – there will always be a good contingent of them.

2. Provide all kids the opportunity to adventure sail/open sail – instill a love of pure sailing and some of them will eventually race anyway.

3. Get kids on bigger, more social, powerful, complex, exciting boats as crew or even super cargo, especially in their early teen years. US Sailing has their Junior Big Boat Sailing Program Guide which makes it easy for clubs to implement, but just getting kids from the junior program out on larger boats, day sailing or racing will pay huge dividends in keeping kids in the sport/lifestyle. Here’s where the opportunity for kids to learn yachting etiquette, from rafting to crossing a rafted boat to decibel levels in a quiet anchorage and leaving boats properly secured after use.

4. Consider Kiteboarding. I have witnessed how St Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco has turned a bunch of dinghy juniors into kiteboarding fanatics through their late teens and into/through their twenties! Notable too is how many of these young adults are also sailing lead mines and dinghies because of their continuing connection to the sea.

5. Get kids and their parents or parents’ friend sailing on the same boat together, regardless of which is the more experienced. Let kids see that sailing is an ‘adult’ thing that they can aspire to do for the rest of their lives. I’ve talked to over a hundred lifelong sailors and well over half of them were sailing on the family boat with parents at an early age.

Note: Rich is recently retired as CEO of OCSC Sailing, a sailing school and club operating on San Francisco Bay.

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