Grooming sailing’s next generation?

Published on May 25th, 2023

Tucker Thompson, whose roots in sailing extend from racing Sunfish to campaigning for the America’s Cup, parlayed those experiences into a career as a TV host, commentator, and public speaker for sailing. But he’s also a father who shares his personal observations on the grooming of sailing’s next generation:

Tucker Thompson

A lot of memories returned for me when I read Chris Caswell’s column titled “Kids need to splash more water”, and while it was written in 2018, I find it to be as relevant today.

The success of the very well managed junior sailing programs at clubs across the country may have reached a point of diminishing returns, and the result of being too serious and too focused on racing and winning may likely be turning away future sailors from our sport rather than contributing to sailing’s growth. My own son is sadly a victim of this trend.

As a lifelong sailor, I dreamed one day that my son would take to sailing the way I did and that as a parent I would be able enjoy traveling to regattas to support his love for the sport. In the beginning, he did love to sail and from a very young age he was naturally quite good at it. As a result, he quickly advanced from a beginner to a racing sailor in a few short years.

By the time he was 9, he and his friends were doing college style drills in Optis and racing around the buoys in practice. But over time I could see stress, anxiety, and frustration build up where there should have been laughter, fun, and enjoyment for a sailor of his age.

I knew things were bad when one of his coaches proudly told me they were going to start filming their practices and conducting video debriefs afterwards. My immediate thought was, what happened to the water balloon fights and scavenger hunts? Where was the FUN in video debriefs for a 9-year-old?

Not surprisingly, and much to my dismay, my son was completely burnt out of sailing a year later, and today he hates it and never wants to do it again! To the junior program’s credit, they do offer an “Adventure” boating class that is extremely popular for kids that don’t want to race, but after he tried that, my son eventually dropped the sport altogether.

I am not one of those parents who would push their kids to pursue something they don’t have the innate passion and drive to pursue themselves, so I honored his decision which was a big pill to swallow as a “sailing” father, and I wonder how many other kids have had the same experience and how many other future sailors we may be losing as a result.

A few years ago, I spoke about the America’s Cup at the Opti National Championship and was asked by a parent in the audience how to keep kids engaged in sailing. Rather than offer my own thoughts, I responded by asking the hundreds of kids in the audience what they loved about sailing.

Their answers were simple and obvious and had nothing to do with racing or winning. They said they wanted to go “Fast,” have “Fun,” and be with their “Friends” which I call the “3 Fs”, and this is exactly what Chris Caswell was referring to in his column.

Has our sport become so serious, so over managed, and so focused on racing that we’ve lost touch with the very parts of it that attracted us all to sailing in the first place? Because I’m sure that everyone reading Scuttlebutt did not initially fall in love with sailing simply because they wanted to spend all their time being coached to race around buoys.

There’s nothing wrong with racing, but I think kids should gravitate to competitive sailing if and when it appeals to them so that the desire to become racing sailors develops from their own innate personal desire to compete. Plenty of competitive sailors will evolve from those who have first developed a fundamental love for sailing itself.

To grow sailing and to attract new people to the sport, and to keep them engaged enough to stay with sailing in the long run, we need to highlight all the things that make sailing “Fun” and focus on these qualities from the very beginning and not loose touch with them as kids (and adults) evolve into lifelong sailors.

I wish my son had been given that opportunity, and I’m sure he’s not the only one!

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