Youth Sailing: That was then, this is now

Published on August 2nd, 2022

Antony Barran reflects on the changes since his youth years in the 1970s and 80s in Marina Del Rey, CA.

My early years were a very different time in sailing. There were no RIBs or professional coaches. The thought of sailing at college wasn’t a way into a great school, it was what you did once accepted to that school; thus, a solid high school academic career was the path taken to university.

Sailing was an avocation. Today, it’s very different.

My wife and I now split our time evenly between the west and east coasts, and we are slowly re-engaging in sailing, at the behest of our mid to late 20s children, after a more than 10 year sabbatical from it.

I have the luxury, on occasion of wandering down to the Coconut Grove Sailing Club (Miami, FL) on a random Thursday afternoon to have a drink and relax as work permits. I never cease to be amazed at the accuracy of the AYSO/Club Soccer analogy shared in Scuttlebutt.

There sitting at the club are a cabal of mothers and nannies. Their kids are out sailing with a professional coach and they sit in a folding chair, facing the water, book/work/laptop in hand; oblivious to the surroundings.

I have asked them if they are from sailing families: “No” they reply. This should be great news. But alas, probing deeper you realize that the simple reality is they see this as a way to better complete a college application to a Tier 1 school.

This isn’t anything more than a pathway into a good college. The family does not, nor will it ever be a “sailing family”. Once the high school student graduates the family will leave sailing as if it was an inconvenience no different from a bit of gum on the bottom of their shoe.

My peers grew up in sailing families that raced actively. We were part of a community that was built around sailing. In the summer, we did three nights a week of racing – Tuesday and Thursday racing in Sabots and Lasers and Wednesdays racing big boats. We sailed 5-7 days a week.

There were no coaches. We would coach each other. Our parents watched our races with interest. The few juniors that were really good were given opportunities to sail on the top keel boats in the area.

I was always a fairly average sailor compared to my peer group. However, that set me up to be a solid, reliable sailor on almost any boat. More importantly, being average amongst the juniors around me in Marina Del Rey meant I was a much better sailor than the average adult.

So I got to sail on keel boats in good positions interacting with the adults on a level playing field. That, more than anything, was the most important classroom I’ve had. Interacting at 12 with corporate executives, learning to speak their language, understand how they thought and realizing they are “just people” gave me a significant leg up on my professional peers in later years.

Today’s junior sailing is focused on the same things that soccer and baseball prioritize: find the players that have a rare combination of natural talent and physical attributes and nurture them to the expense of all others. Idolize the top 5% and discard the remaining 95%.

Sailing has become the same thing. Get good in an Optimist, qualify for big regattas and maybe some internationals. Sail doublehanded dinghies in college. Then leave the sport. Why are we wasting the other 95% of the kids that could become life-long sailors?

Please don’t misconstrue my thoughts as a desire to unwind the current status quo. I do not. It’s not a zero sum game. Rather, I would like to add to it. I believe that sailing needs to broaden its thinking. It needs to stop trying to fit the sport into a single narrative.

For most National Authorities, the focus is on the Olympics. I have always found it interesting that US Sailing is the only federation in the Northern Hemisphere that sees a dual purpose of making money off big boat certificates and Olympic success. I think their results speak for themselves…not so glowingly.

I believe there are two areas of sailing that could be leveraged to drive significant returns in the form of life-long participation and benefit for both the kids and the community:
1. College Offshore Sailing: I have recently spent quite a bit of time interacting with the College of Charleston and their Offshore Sailing Program. We keep our boat in Charleston and have opened it up for the offshore team to sail with us. Our first regatta was Charleston Race Week. The College had three boats racing with team members and alumni; ours was one of them. Notice I said that former team members were still coming back to sail on their keel boats. Busy with nascent careers, it allows them to stay connected. Offshore racing, less obvious than the dinghy teams, is a place for people that don’t have the correct physical attributes for a college dinghy racing.

2. Community Sailing Programs: When on the West Coast, I live in a county of Washington State that is very small, has an amazing and overlooked sailing heritage, and a 20% high school dropout rate. My family is committed to building a local community sailing program with small keel boats (something like a J/22, Merit 25, Sonar, or similar) that are available for rent to the community, but primarily focused on an afterschool program for sailing. I believe sailing is a fabulous platform to get kids excited about STEM. As many know, the STEM side of education is often seen by students as the most repugnant and least relevant part of education and a significant contributor to the dropout rate.
We, as a community, need to embrace and welcome new families to our sport. But to truly succeed, we need to create new channels and entry points. Ones that are not focused solely on Collegiate and Olympic sailing, but rather, winning at life.

Comment: I was a couple years older than Antony and also enjoyed that early lifestyle in Marina del Rey, yet his story of that era is not unique as I have heard it from all corners of the country. While there is little doubt the ability level in youth sailing has risen with time, is this progress without retention? – Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt

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