Slowing down the talent drain

Published on December 6th, 2023

The unintended consequences of age-based boats and scholastic sailing in the USA is how it has disconnected generations of great young sailors from pathways that can carry them beyond their youth years.

But the youth conundrum stretches beyond the states as Seahorse editor Andrew Hurst provides his view on the UK landscape in the December 2023 edition of the magazine:

Since we gave Jack Holt’s brilliant little Cadet dinghy some attention a few months back we have been fascinated by the correspondence we have subsequently received on the subject.

And not just focusing on what a great junior trainer the boat is, enabling sailors as young as five or six years old to learn to sail and race a two-person boat with all the features of a much larger boat, including a pocket-sized but perfectly effective spinnaker.

What also flowed through much of the correspondence is the lost connection that dinghies like the Cadet and their larger cousins once provided between sailing, boat preparation, and the social benefits of sailing two-handed when you are young.

To quote a famous Kiwi boatbuilder, one not unfamiliar with Olympic class racing, “Most of today’s young sailors don’t know which end of a screwdriver to hold.” To which I would add, as a fossil, “No, but no doubt either Dad or the coach does.” Okay, worth a meow.

But does that matter anymore? Well, young sailors are leaving the sport in droves when they hit the mid-teens – earlier if they have not been able to climb out the top of one of the more intense ‘youth pathway’ programs. Or their parents have called it a day, faced with the five-figure (or more) annual cost of helping their kids up that fragile Olympic ladder.

Having decided to stop or been knocked off that mythical Olympic ascent, far too many of these great kids then become convinced that if you cannot race a 29er or 49er at international level, you are done with the sport… “there’s no point”. That’s the killer.

Can’t afford a world-level youth program, can’t beat the full-timers, can’t get out from the back of the fleet in an ‘old-fashioned’ junior singlehanded class (which frankly can be a bloody miserable experience… especially if it’s raining!)

For the greater good of the greatest number, I believe much more effort should be coming from the top to convince these kids that life is really not over at this point. That there is plenty of good sailing and possibly even fun to be had (sic) beyond the Olympic feeder classes. Convincing the most aspirational parents may prove harder, but this was never going to be quick or easy!

World Sailing should push its Member National Authorities very hard to promote performance sailing on the cheap as a perfectly respectable thing to do. If they do so, then that probably offers the best chance I can think of to slow down the talent drain.

And, make no mistake, the young racers in those tough squad programs, who lack the resources or, whisper it, maybe that last inch of drive and talent to pop out the top… the majority of them are already extremely good sailors.

So, we are not losing the dregs as those mid-teens drift away, we are losing what Dennis Conner calls B+ or even A-minus talent; they will still thrash all but the best of their adult peers. Watch one of these youth events – the ability pool runs deep.

So… Mum, Dad, Granny even, is your talented and lovable offspring hanging in there near the top of a crack junior fleet, but maybe – and this is really tough – he, she, or you and all your resources are not quite going to make it all the way?

Well, instead of laying out another few thousand on new rigs and foils for next year, or hiring that even ‘better’ coach, organize your kids a few breeze-on races with a decent 505, Fireball, or International 14 sailor, or if they are still on the small side, then how about a modern Cherub?

These non-Olympic classes and others like them are hungry for new blood; especially talented new blood that quickly rises to the top… only to then discover that they are actually really very good at this. Class associations will bite your arm off if you ask for a demo (ps: it’s better if your kid makes the call).

And if said kid has hopefully had a bit of fun, with no one yelling at them to hike harder, scan the used boat ads. For the cost of next season’s new rig, instead buy a fully-loaded 505, Fireball, or Cherub and let them go for it. New friends, big fun, and ‘huge’ new stories.

Feeling better about themselves again and maybe, just maybe, finding out that sailing fast is really pretty good after all. Even without all that pressure and BS.

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