Russell Coutts: Getting back to the basics

Published on January 29th, 2018

The principle aim of the Russell Coutts Sailing Foundation is to introduce children to the joys of sailing and to help each participant to grow in character and personal confidence. Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck caught up with Russell Coutts for an update.

You have gotten quite involved in youth sailing. What are seeing?

There are several things that are inhibiting young kids getting into the sport. One of the main drivers is cost. It’s a huge ask for parents to fork out thousands of dollars for a junior sailing boat for something that their kid maybe might like. Compare that to buying a soccer ball and cleats. What are parents more likely to support, particularly if $50 matters a lot to them each week?

So whether it’s fixing up older boats that are destined for the trash heap, or getting the marine industry to help support new boats, the solution is to set up a leasing program where we can give kids access to quality boats so they can try it. This gets them to see if they like it. If they don’t, there’s nothing lost. If they do, that’s great, as this approach allows their financial commitment to grow at the same pace as their interest level.

Another obstacle is time. I think gone are the days where parents have got all weekend to bring their kids down to the junior sailing– in fact all day is out of the question. I think lifestyles have changed now. Golf’s suffering the same issue. We’re not the only ones, but it explains why the evening beer cans races are so appealing, rather than committing all day on the weekend.

Then there’s been this move in the sport that more is better. Let’s have more racing in one day, but that takes from the social time for these kids on shore to have a bit of fun with each other. I thought that was a big part of what junior sailing was. It certainly was the enjoyment when I was growing up. I had several strong friendships that were a big part of my junior sailing. That was an incentive for me.

Lastly is how the complexity of the sport is hindering growth. It’s so over the top. The kids get sent out miles from shore, with nearly as many chase boats following them. That’s not how it was when I was a kid, and that’s a lot to take on now for parents. Rather than racing a few miles out to sea, bring it in close where the parents can see it, the kids will probably have more fun. Sure you’re racing around a few obstacles, but I thought that was part of what was great about sailing.

I love sailing in some of these random places. I remember the Admiral’s Cup, sailing in the Solent. That used to be my most favorite place to race, where you’re having to navigate your way around obstacles. We don’t need to be somewhere far offshore where absolutely nothing influences the wind and everyone has this notion of what’s fair.

A good sailor can get out on any course, inland or offshore, and master it. Of course, you could argue that the venue is so random that you can’t see what’s going on, but for the most part, with the wind blowing off the land, you can see the puffs and shifts and you can manage your way around that racecourse, depending on your level of sailing, quite skillfully.

So I don’t think there’s any reason not to bring these courses closer to shore which then shortens the time on the water. Make it a morning or an afternoon, but not an all-day situation.

As for scheduling loads of races during the day, it’s fine for the kids that are at the front of the fleet, but the program shouldn’t be tailored towards the kids at the front of fleet. What about the kids at the back of the fleet that raced those five races and finished near the back in every one? Do you really think they’re going want to come back? If you had fewer races, these tail-enders can come ashore, get a break from the sailing and enjoy the social aspect. They can get some sailing advice and come back next week with more enthusiasm for it.

I’d say the problems you are describing are not limited to junior sailing.

I agree. I agree. The inclination now is to maximize all the sailing, which is connected to how the sport has become so competitive. But again, that’s serving just the people at the front of the fleet, and we have to serve the whole fleet. We have to balance the sailing with social time.

When you came off the water after three, four races in the day, and if it was windy, you’re spent. You pack the boat and you’re ready for a shower and sleep. It’s so different to how it used to be, and I think that was a strength of the past where you did have time to spend time with your mates after racing at the yacht club. To me, that’s a big part of most of sailing and it’s one of the significant lifestyle values of it.


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