Helping kids find their passion for sailing

Published on October 17th, 2018

Nevin Sayre, a five-time U.S. National Windsurfing Champion and four time college sailing All-American, has become acutely aware of what’s hampering youth sailing in the USA. Sayre is now hyper-active in creating awareness of the issues, sharing his thoughts in this interview with Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck:

You were an early voice in making youth sailing more fun and diverse. What was the tipping point for you?

The first wakeup call was about 15 years ago when one of the best pram sailors in our Junior Program finished in the top three at one of our biggest regional regattas and didn’t show up at class or race ever again. He was the son of a close friend so I had the opportunity to ask what happened. It turns out that there was no dramatic event or specific reason he dropped out, just that at age 12, he didn’t think racing a pram was that fun compared to alternatives.

It was difficult for adult avid sailors/racers to understand, but if this was a “podium kid” dropping out, it wasn’t hard to understand the attrition lower in the rankings. Back then my home program had one narrow track from Optis to 420s. There were basically full beginner classes, but only 10 kids would last to the 420 Race Team. If you weren’t seriously into racing, or the prams, you were gone by age 13. We needed to offer alternatives.

So now you promote the O’pen BIC as an alternative, but beyond the boat is the format you encourage called the ‘Un-Regatta’. Explain.

I guess I am credited with the name, and coming up with some different formats that kids find challenging and fun. The name ‘Un-Regatta’ comes because we are ‘Un-Conventional’ and ‘Un-Like’ other regattas, with the focus more on fun, improvement, sportsmanship, and the whole fleet having a blast, rather than just race results.

With that said, there have been many successful fun events going on for years that have been following unconventional formats – usually these are on the program level.

In a sense, ‘Un-Regattas’ have just been incorporating ideas from the original windsurfing regattas in the 70s and 80s when windsurfing was hugely popular with freestyle contests and slalom courses. The idea was to just make it fun, and while there were windsurfing results taken seriously, the formats were challenging and everyone was having a blast on cool equipment.

What is the typical reaction to this concept from those who are not familiar with it?

Initial skepticism. But if it was up to the kids, most events would be an ‘Un-Regatta’.

You got a lot of resistance when initially promoting the O’pen BIC. What changed?

Mostly time. It took a while before there were enough programs offering O’pen BICs together with programming geared to the kids that weren’t just about race results. Plus, the junior program has to give it enough dedication and the right instructors. It can’t be just where you stick the “drop out” kids on the side.

When programs started offering attractive alternatives and saw their dropout rates decline, word began to spread. At first there was a lot of resistance and fear from the adults that more attractive modern boats and programming would erode from their full-on race program…. but that just hasn’t happened.

We are just offering fun alternatives to kids who aren’t otherwise into conventional racing or older boats at that critical 9 to 14 age, and the whole pie is getting bigger. It’s cool to see the 420 Race Team at my home club now bigger than ever, with 40% of the kids recently coming out of our ‘alternative'” sailing program. Other programs are seeing the same success.

The O’pen BIC is huge in Europe, and now regattas in the USA are growing too.

It’s gratifying to see all these kids finding their passion for sailing, particularly as these are kids, I suspect, who may otherwise have dropped out of sailing when only the traditional path was offered. And I’m very confident that many of these kids have become “lifers”.

It’s cool to see more than 150 junior programs now with O’pen BICs. It’s cool to see the BIC and the ‘Un-Regatta’ format chosen to show case new age junior sailing at the America’s Cup and now at Extreme Sailing Series San Diego (Oct 20-21). I love seeing the growth again.

For Part Two of the interview… click here.

MORE: Nearly 50 O’pen BICs will display modern youth sailing in front of the Grand Stands before the Extreme Sailing Series™ GC32 racing on October 20 and 21 in San Diego, CA. From 12:00 to 13:15, spectators will witness an Extreme O’pen BIC “Un-Regatta” within boat lengths of the Harbor Island shoreline and the free Race Village.


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