Sailing Your Own Race: Lessons from Junior Sailing

Published on July 17th, 2017

Robert N. Rossier shares in WindCheck magazine some of the benefits he has observed in junior sailing, and some of the lessons he has learned along the way.

All of us who are parents want to do a good job at it, but parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Sometimes we make bad choices; other times we do better. Along the way we’re bound to worry which is which, and we ask ourselves, “Am I being a good parent?”

Getting my son into junior sailing seemed like a good idea – an opportunity for him to learn responsibility, gain independence, make a network of friends and have real fun. We had recently moved to Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, and it would be a great way for him to integrate into the local community. Okay, so maybe I was projecting my own interests, but really, what was the down side?

The Vallarta Yacht Club just down the street offered what seemed to be a stellar junior sailing program. The group sailed Optimists – probably the most popular youth racing boat – and about the size of a bathtub. But before getting started, the kids had to pass a swim test, practice rigging the boats, and learn some sailing fundamentals.

Before venturing out for their first real lesson on open water, they had to demonstrate their ability to right an overturned boat and get back onboard. Obviously, safety was a primary concern, and the instructor kept a sharp lookout on her charges. By the second day of lessons, they were heading out into open water to practice and learn.

It didn’t take long for me to start questioning my own judgment. The basic issue revolved around my responsibility as a parent. After all, there was my son, barely 10 years old, sailing solo in the ocean. How responsible was that? But more than being out on the water by himself, he was negotiating the harbor, where I had personally seen crocodiles. It didn’t take a particularly active imagination to see how things might go wrong. Self-doubt began to register as I wondered, “Am I a responsible parent?”

Fast forward about a year. It was my son’s second year of sailing, and the famous WestMex competition was being hosted by the Vallarta Yacht Club. As a member of the host club’s team, my son was eager to participate. Hundreds of sailors with their families and friends had shown up from across Mexico, the U.S. and Europe. Boats and trailers were lined up in the parking lots, kids running around, gathering their gear together, meeting old friends, eating mangoes and drinking Coca Cola. Even the Mexican Navy was there to support the event. The excitement was palpable.

The first day of Optimist racing got off to a smooth start, with a calm sunny morning leading up to a brisk afternoon breeze. The committee boat and support boats were all out, the racing marks were in place, and the kids were soon parading out the channel to the course where they warmed up – practicing tacks and plotting their strategies. But the afternoon had some surprises in store. The winds kicked up well beyond its normal range, and soon the seas were building to unexpected proportions. Before long, the Navy was out there with the support boats, plucking kids out of the water left and right as the wind toppled them and crushing waves swamped their boats.

Rounding the last mark, a small clot of racers from Vallarta was struggling. They too were knocked down by the wind, but each one in turn righted their craft, bailed furiously, and continued beating against the growing seas. What was amazing to see is that when they foundered, they weren’t left behind. The team stayed together, coaching one another and providing encouragement. Only a handful of racers finished that race, and my son and several of his Vallarta teammates were among them. That particular race was ultimately discarded – a bitter pill to swallow for them since they had done so well – but they learned some valuable lessons about defeat, persistence, and sportsmanship.

A similar story played itself out a couple years later while racing in the South Atlantic Yacht Racing Association series regional competition. We had recently moved back to the States, settling in Mooresville, North Carolina, just outside Charlotte, and had joined the Lake Norman Yacht Club. It was a typical summer Lake Norman day: hazy sunshine and barely a wisp of wind. But that would change. Some 50 kids from all over the southeastern U.S. had gathered for the regatta, and were out on the water for some racing action. Even if the wind wasn’t stiff, the competition still was.

By early afternoon, trouble was brewing on the horizon in the form of a rapidly approaching thunderstorm, and the call was made to bring the kids back in and wait for the storm to pass. But before the support boats could round them all up, the maelstrom blew onto the lake, kicking up the water, diminishing visibility, and hammering us with pelting rain. It was ugly, but the support boats were out on the course towing their charges to safety. As a safety team member, I was busy checking in the kids – verifying sail numbers as the boats were towed in to safety. Minutes later, lightning bolts split the gray sky, and thunder boomed a warning of just how close the cell was. I checked and rechecked my list, realizing my own son had not yet returned. I was getting worried, and once again I found myself asking that question, “Am I a responsible parent?”

As it turned out, my son had refused an offer from his team’s support boat for a tow in. He was worried about another friend of his who was further behind, and without a support boat would be left to sail in alone. He wasn’t about to leave him out there by himself. He had learned from day one that competition or not, leaving someone behind was just not the right thing to do. My anxiety evaporated when the two finally sailed by – the last two sailors had made it in safely.

Moving to southeastern Connecticut a few years ago, we found an active junior sailing scene, and the adventures – and the learning – continued. Beyond the obvious boat handling skills, racing tactics, and in some cases crocodile avoidance, kids learn a lot from junior sailing – lessons that will serve them well in life, both on the water and off. And learning those kinds of lessons is really what it’s all about.

The first lesson is perseverance. They learn to not give up when things get difficult or conditions get rough. They learn to enjoy getting there as much as getting there first. They learn about teamwork. Although the kids are each sailing their own boats solo, they practice, learn and train as a team. They work with one another to develop the knowledge and racing skills that will make them more competitive. They coach one another, help each other rig their boats, and get them in and out of the water. They look out for one another.

Junior sailing also teaches the importance of details, and when competition is tough, it’s the little details that make the difference: the trim of the sail, the balance of the boat, reading the wind on the water, timing one’s course to the start line.

Maybe the most important lesson kids learn in junior sailing is to run his or her own race – not just to follow the pack. They learn that sailing your own race means reading the wind and the water and making your own choices of where and how to sail. Sometimes you’re right, and other times not so much. They learn that if they just follow the boat in front of them, they’ll never be in the lead. They learn to figure out when it’s time to change course, and time to make a tough decision.

For those of us who parent junior sailors, there are lessons as well. For me, the biggest one was learning to let go – just a little – and let my son run his own race. And as much as we worry whether or not we’re being a good parent, and acting responsibly, we know we have done a good job when we see our kids choose to do the right thing.

Bob Rossier started sailing in college, and he has cruised up and down the New England coast. He has been a member of the Vallarta Yacht Club in Mexico, the Lake Norman Yacht Club in North Carolina, and the Thames Yacht Club in Connecticut, volunteering in youth sailing programs. His experience includes sail, powerboats, and hovercraft. He currently resides in New London, CT where he is searching for his next boat, and next adventure.

WindCheck is a monthly magazine devoted to sailors and boaters in the Northeast. Every issue features those who race, cruise and learn to boat in the region.

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