Hosting fun High School regattas

Published on September 8th, 2021

by Kevin Gunn
Ten years ago I started a high school sailing team for the school where I teach, Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, LA. The vast majority of the team never sailed until they joined our team, their parents are not sailors, and they never belonged to a yacht club.

Why join a sailing team when you have no sailing experience? Why stick with it throughout high school? Because sailboat racing is fun. Remember, the goal for the majority of regattas for high school age kids is to make sure the kids have fun. It is not actually to determine who the best sailor on the course is that day.

This is not the Olympics, or a national championship regatta; it is junior regatta with the goal of having fun so kids stick with sailing as a life-long passion. Based on my experience, here are a few suggestions to make regattas a little less stressful and more fun for the kids.

Keep the races short
The procedural rules for the Inter-Scholastic Sailing Association (ICSA) recommends for the first boat to finish between 12-20 minutes (7.8.b). When I host high school regattas for New Orleans Yacht Club, I try to stay closer to the 12-minute mark in a typical fleet of between 8-12 boats. More boats on the line will require slightly longer courses to keep the boats from getting too congested at the marks.

There are a couple of advantages to short races.

First, in fleets that range from beginning racers to advanced racers, shorter races allow for the less experienced sailors to stay within range of catching a more experienced sailor should that more experienced racer make a mistake. Once most high school age sailors realize they are going to finish in the back of the fleet they tend to give up and just sail the remainder of the course.

Second, shorter races mean you can get more races in during a given time frame. More races mean you are giving more sailors a chance to get good results in individual races. For a lot of kids, just finishing in the top three of a single race is all they need to consider the regatta a success.

Keep the fleet to a manageable size
When keeping regattas fun, bigger is not always better. When determining how many boats you want in your regatta, ask yourself a few questions:

How long will it take to get all of the boats launched?
How long will it take to get all of the boats out of the water?
How much space does the host site have when the sailors are not on the water?
Will some of the beginning racers be intimidated by a crowded starting line?

Or perhaps a better question to ask is why do I want to host a large regatta? Is it because it is what is best for the kids? Or is it to show off to your club members how many kids you got to the club?

In my experience coaching a beginning to intermediate level sailing team, my sailors tend to enjoy the small to mid-size regattas. Large events take too long to get going, require more logistical challenges which just leads to frustration, and they get intimidated by having so many boats on the course. None of that is fun.

Allow for breaks during the day
Regattas are not just about the racing, especially for kids; rather, they are an opportunity for kids to hang out and socialize.

Many high school and college format regattas have two divisions, and some of those have ‘A’ division sailing while ‘B’ division is out. ‘B’ division then rotates into the boats while ‘A’ division sits out. So, if you are in ‘A’ division while ‘B’ division is racing, you have an opportunity to use the restroom, relax and socialize, enjoy your lunch, and receive coaching.

Even if you do not have a two-division regatta, you should consider giving the sailors breaks throughout the day. At New Orleans Yacht Club, my home club, our docks are on the opposite side of the harbor from the outlet to the lake; therefore, we anchor the club’s large race committee boat for the off-division sailors to have their break.

Sometimes I think some of the kids actually have more fun on the anchored boat swimming and listening to music than the kids that are actually racing.

Keep the event to one day if hosting during the school year
A two-day weekend regatta during the school year is a big commitment. As a teacher and a coach, I can see how stressed the kids get during two-day regattas.

Saturday usually goes pretty well, then Sunday comes and they are more concerned about how they are going to get all their homework and studying done before school starts on Monday then actually enjoying themselves at the regatta.

Out of the high school sports offered at Ursuline Academy, sailing is the only one that ever competes on Sundays. I generally now only schedule my team to attend two-day regattas that fall during a long weekend and the district championships. The parents and student-sailors have appreciated that commitment.

Host an all-girls regatta
I will often ask my team of all girls what their favorite regatta is. They almost all answer the New Orleans Yacht Club Girls Regatta. When I ask why, the answer is always because it is just girls. Rather than attempt to mansplain why that is, I’ll just leave this one as a simple observation.

Sailors watch their teammates race in the 2019 New Orleans Yacht Club Girls Regatta. (The 2020 event was cancelled due to COVID and 2021 was cancelled due to the aftermath of Hurricane Ida).

Ursuline sailors enjoy a lunch break during an intra team scrimmage regatta in the fall of 2020 at New Orleans Yacht Club.

Participants in the 2019 New Orleans Yacht Club Girls Regatta.

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