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Building interest again in Savannah

Published on April 22nd, 2018

Every sailor knows the wait for the freshening breeze, that wind that will turn their bathtub back into a boat. But in Savannah, the gale in interest that followed the 1996 Olympic sailing regatta contested off the shores of Georgia suddenly blew itself out some years ago.

The wind shifted on surging youth programs, and two local yachting stars, Eric Oetgen and John Porter, moved on to other interests after coming up short in the 2004 Olympic Trials. Savannah sailing’s biggest advocate, the great John “Mr. Mac” McIntosh, stepped back from coaching and championing as his health declined.

But the breeze might be building again as Oetgen is back having recently claimed the Sunfish Master World Championship, defeating 34 other sailors in Panama City Beach, Florida. His success just might provide the initial puff that refills the sail.

“You have to have a lot of mentors, leaders with experience on the water that will come out and provide teaching,” Oetgen said. “Savannah’s a tough town logistically – there just aren’t many places to put in and sail if you have limited experience. But we’ve had that momentum there before, and the potential is there to do it again.”

Oetgen is taking a more active role in the program where he learned to sail, the Savannah Yacht Club. Many of the youth he mentored during his professional sailing days are now 20- and 30-somethings who have expressed interest in taking up small boat racing again. Most have children nearing sailing age.

And the Savannah Sailing Center, established and nurtured by Mr. Mac, continues to teach basic sailing skills to any and all aspiring yachtsmen and yachtswomen. The SSC operates programs and camps for elementary school and middle school children and offers weekend clinics, lessons and open sails for boaters of all ages.

However, those resources alone aren’t enough to send Savannah rapidly sailing toward the windward mark again. Yachting leaders must solve the riddle that is keeping tweens interested in the activity.

Kids love to learn to sail. Just like with a bicycle, scooter or a go-kart, the notion that an adult will let them drive a boat, all by themselves, enchants a child. But by age 12 or 13, most are competent sailors and the improvement curve flattens — at exactly the time that school, social pressures and hormones exert a greater influence on them.

“If you don’t absolutely love it and have a passion for it, you lose interest, and it’s the same story across the nation and around the world,” Oetgen said. “We have to make it fun. We have to make it social. And we need far more people to know about it.”

Sailing in Savannah happens largely in isolation, as dinghies don’t zip past Tybee’s shore or along the Savannah riverfront. There’s no tangible remnant from the Olympics, which operated out of a temporary floating marina in Wassaw Sound. As a result, sailing is literally out of sight and therefore out of mind.

Marketing and promotion, or a lack there of, drags on yachting like an anchor waiting for retrieval. Yet like a breeze, which can come up at any moment, sailing could build strength again. Savannah has a sailing tradition. Locals just need to embrace the wind.

Source: Savannah Morning News

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