Are We Asking Too Much From Junior Programs?

January 25, 2014 by John A

In the recent Scuttlebutt Sailing newsletter #4005, January 22, Geoffrey Emanuel wrote some excellent suggestions for changes needed in many junior sailing programs. However, I think the problem may be deeper and can’t completely be addressed within programs. Go to any junior sailing dock and it’s hard to see anything wrong. Enthusiastic instructors do a fabulous job teaching eager, wide-eyed kids many of the skills needed to sail. But programs can only make a contribution to a life-long love of sailing.

The new movie ‘Her’ has a man falling in love with the ‘program’ operating his device. The story is laughable because it seems so improbable for humans to fall in love with a program. Yet we often have people falling in love with sailing programs rather than sailing itself.

The shift may be may be more societal along the lines Nick Hayes pointed out in his valuable book, ‘Saving Sailing’. Camping, fishing, hunting and other, once popular, outdoor family activities, have faced similar declines.

Sailing programs are simply responding to market demand. Today’s two-income families have less time for family sailing and need to drop kids off at a ‘program’. Perceived competitive pressures inspire them to enroll in programs that produce winners. Naturally programs producing winners are in higher demand and a vicious cycle begins. 

The word program is most often associated with computers which, with specific inputs, you’ll get specific outputs. Gone are the days when kids can simply ‘mess about in boats.’ There are goals, trophies and life-skills needing to be acquired to succeed in today’s competitive world. Sailing is not a way to relax, have fun and explore but another way to prepare to compete with the 7 billion people on the planet.

My lifelong love of sailing didn’t come from a program. I was fortunate to come from a sailing family and, as Nick Hayes again suggests, it was the multigenerational experiences of my early youth that got me hooked. However, it was a simple start. Our first boat was a used, white, styrofoam Snark and, when I was able to sail on my grandfather’s ‘big’ sailboat, it was a Rhodes 19. He let me take the tiller too!

Two of my brothers and a friend on the 'Snark'. Note the youngest brother is about two and has two lifejackets - the orange one and an inner tube. 

Surveys of experienced sailors asking why they love sailing get answers like freedom, adventure and escape. Most of us experienced those feelings when we learned to sail. Can programs provide any sense of freedom and escape? It’s exceptionally difficult. Programs are in charge of someone else’s child and live in dread of the legal system. Waivers, chase boats, expected outcomes, parental pressures, rigid schedules give programs very little latitude to provide the kind of environment in which most of today’s older sailors developed a love of sailing.  Maybe we need to ask for less from programs and more from parents the rest of the sailing community. 

To move beyond what a program can teach you probably need to own your own boat (or 'unrestricted' access). Then, if the breeze is up and the air warm, you can carry on sailing well after sunset, after the program has packed up its chase boats and the instructors have gone home.

Most of my real adventures were in my own (or family) small boats. And it can be cheap too. Last year my brother bought an old Hobie 16 off a front lawn for $500(plus a free Sunfish too!). WD-40 got most of it working well enough for a late afternoon sail. Light air and casual chatter meant I wasn't ready for the quick puff causing the classic buried leeward bow instantly flipping us. Being a $500 boat the leeward hull was streaming bubbles and sinking fast. Luckily we waved to a passing lobster boat which came to our rescue, dragged us as close as he dared to a rocky beach where we swam and dragged the thing up high enough to drain from the stern plugs. Cold, wet, hungry and laughing we sailed a little more carefully on the way back and made it home at 7. It was just one more small adventure added to dozens of others over the years. Can you get that in a program?

It’s funny the rebellious, freedom loving, baby-boomer generation has created such a highly structured society, but we have. And, as Emanuel said, it’s happened in soccer, hockey and all youth sports. Can programs provide the freedom necessary? I’m not sure how. Could you imagine a program that let kids take out boats completely unsupervised after 5 o’clock and being fully responsible for putting it away with no one there to check on anything? I’d guess the thought would strike fear in the hearts of program directors.

Programs are doing a great job teaching many sailing skills but there may be a limit as to what we can ask them to do. Geoff’s suggestions will help, restoring some of the activities from his youth program days will help and maybe more new ideas will contribute. Adventure camps rather than racing clinics could provide a parallel track for different type of kid. But I suspect the real freedom and adventure that attracts so many sailors is out of reach of most programs and only available when you make the commitment to own a boat. When you join a program you’re asked to sign in but when I go sailing I’m looking to check out. Fortunately there are thousands of inexpensive boats out there and often, the less expensive they are the more adventurous they become!

A sailing friend recently saw a bumper sticker that read 'Safety Second.'  It would be little scary if you saw that entering your shift in a coal mine or you're in charge of an OSHA inpected workplace or kids in a junior program but, if you think of your most hilarious and adventurous sailing stories, it's likely more accurate.  The other quote that comes to mind, 'A ship in a harbor is safe but that's not what ships are built for.'

If we were sitting in a bar sharing a beer and a few sailing stories you wouldn’t hear many about things I did in a ‘safe and nurturing’ environment. I had those moments when very young but you’d quickly fall asleep. The stories that might keep you awake, cause some laughter, have some excitement are all outside of programs and outside the boundries of comfortable afternoon sailing. I love pleasant, relaxed, evening, sunset sails but they’re a small piece of the passion.

So, I’m not sure how it’s done, but to really get kids involved I think we somehow need to loosen the shackles of programs and parents. Safe and nurturing may be good up until about 10 or 11 but not long after horizons and adventure will beckon. Kids need to be able to explore their own boundaries and push the limits. Speed is just one element or excitement. Night sailing, distant shores, tricky passages test other limits. And how many kids in programs have ever experienced the quietness of sailing – without the ubiquitous sound of outboard engines (or bullhorns, horns, clocks and whistles) cluttering sailing’s peaceful beauty.

If you think about compelling stories think about Robin Lee Graham taking off on the 24’ ‘Dove’ at 16 years old, or recently Matt Rutherford singlehanded sailing, non-stop around the America’s on a used Albin Vega 27 or Laura Dekker singlehanding around the world at age14! Or read (or reread) Jack London’s sailing adventures of a century ago ‘sailing small boats.

When your kids are 50 years old, sailing around with friends, hanging at the bar what stories will they be telling of their sailing youth? Where will all the cups, platters and ribbons of their youth be? Where are yours? My guess is the stories you’d tell of your sailing youth would not involve a ribbon won in a yacht club junior program but would involve something with more drama, more adventure and more fun than can be allowed in a waiver-restricted sailing program. Sailing programs do a great job with skills and have a great role to play to in building a foundation but I suspect it will be outside the boundaries of programs that the real, life-long love and adventure of sailing is developed.


Small-Boat Sailing
From the Human Drift Collection 1917
(Article 1st published in Yachting Monthly August 1912)
By Jack London

Is this safe?  Maybe not.  If it fun? You bet.  One of life's many paradoxes is most parents want their kids to simply be happy and safe.  However, being safe often just doesn't make people happy!?  Uprorious laghter and the intense bonding that comes from memorable experiences often comes from edgier moments.





Share this page


Hey John:

Sorry we did not get to share a beer last September. I am sure you were busy. We had a great time in SF and made some lasting sailing stories. Let's try again sometime.

I had similar early experiences and hope to have may more in the future. We started on the "Blue Chip" homemade sloop in Mt Desert Island, and when we had time with the adults sailed the "Maria" 40 ft Hinckley with no engine, no electronics and only a mouth controlled horn for when it got foggy. I feel fortunate to have had many on the edge experiences and hope to have many more.



I think you have hit the nail on the head. Read the recent Sailing World article "Sailing Nirvana", especially about Gus Miller's
youth in small boats on Narragansett Bay!
By the way, that Snark picture reminds me of the Maine Coast Summer I remember at age 15 while acting as a "gofer" aboard a schooner named Coaster!

My Snark sailing was all New England - MA, NH, ME - think that shot might have been Squam Lake in NH.

I'm with you John. Give a child a boat and let them go. Not structured activity....just let them go, dream of far off shores, put the boat in your own shed in the winter, and have them fall in love with the boat and the idea of sailing. Read Slocum to them as well.

When I was about 8 or 9, my dad set up the 9' tender with the sailing rig, might have taken me for a short spin around the anchorage at Catalina Island, but as I remember he just put me in and shoved me off, jokingly saying "write if you get work!", (words I will never forget) and after finally figuring out how to sail upwind, I made it back to the mothership eventually. (downwind was easy, y'know?). Admittedly it was a bit traumatic for a minute here and there when the wind picked up, but I learned for myself and was proud of it. Only parents are allowed to use that technique, can't get it from a program! Not even sure it's a great way to learn, like the "sink or swim" method of swimming instruction, but afterward being free to go out and just blast around in that little boat by myself whenever I wanted was what cemented my lifelong love of sailing. Of my almost 62 years, I've been boatless for about 4, during college. Many early years it was an old $500 dinghy of some sort, but I was still out there sailing it every chance I had. I'm sorry I didn't provide my kids with the same unstructured freedom- instead I put them in summer programs and none have kept an interest as young adults.

Thanks for sharing John. Wise, clear and practical. Well done.

As I think back more I remember two books that inspired me at an even younger age, 'Harold and the Purple Crayon' and 'Where the Wild Things Are' - simple tales of adventure (partly in sailboats!) experienced by a kids on their own.  There was exploration, danger, the unknown - all in a few simple drawings and pages but very exciting to a young boy.  What is over the horizon?  Of course today I never go anywhere without checking it all out on google earth in advance so I can safely walk outside my front door!  

Great story. But I would differ with you concerning Laura Decker. That's high risk in any book. Yes, I realize Robin Graham did so too. But sending your child off to single-hand offshore is not wise in my book. I am a single-hander and have done a lot of it--in coastal and inland waters. And, I might do so in offshore waters too. I love it and have the greatest admiration for those that single-hand offshore. But I am talking adults who accept full responsibility for this risk--not children.

But no child, no matter their sailing experience, should be allowed to sail offshore alone. Parents are responsible for their children--not the child. Send a youngster off around the world, and you bear the load for what happens to them.

Indeed, I believe every single-handed offshore sailor should realize this point--what happens to you is your problem. You should not rely on rescue, nor should you call on rescuers to risk their lives for you. You made the decision to do something incredibly risky. There is no way you will be able to maintain a lookout 24/7.

Indeed we should all promote the freedom and beauty of sailing to our children. But wait to allow them to set sail on adventures that could risk their lives.

I'd agree. I used Laura and Robin as extreme examples of what might be accomplished by youth (and luck!) but certainly not what should be considered or encouraged.  But maybe, at 14, sailing out of site of an instructor power boat?  Every parent makes different judgements on the boundaries for their child and it's harder for programs to set them looser than parents are willing.  This often leaves programs stuck with the lowest common denominator - restrictions guided by the most restrictive parent rather than the most liberal.   Finding the right balance is the great challenge. 

Laura, Robin, Tania Abei and recently Jeanne Socrates, oldest woman to singlehand non-stop around the world, give us ideas of what's possible but not what we should all do.  Howver, they certainly challenge us all to move outside our comfort zone.  

A respondent sent me this as a different style of junior program:

John, this sounds like a good program for youngsters. I agree to push kids past their comfort zone. Just accept the ultimate responsibility for their welfare. You have a great site, by the way. Nice layout and easy to navigate.

At Clinton Lake, Illinois, our 4-H kid program launched 10 kids on 5 sailboats every week and just let them sail on their own within the our "small boat harbor..." -- with two instructors on their own "chase" sailboats to offer advice to boats not yet moving and to herd the better sailors back into the harbor!

By the second and third weeks, the kids were jumping out of their parents' cars, running to the dock ( while putting on their lifejackets ) to board the sailboat they wanted to sail...

One 4-H instructor stayed on the dock to assist the kids launching and returning -- and explained to parents (encouraged to watch their kids sailing and take photos...instead of just dropping off their kids) what was being learned, how sailboats worked, etc.

On board, one kid manned the tiller and the other trimmed the sail....on whistle command, they switched responsibilities.

When giving individualized instruction, I put the youngster alone on a small sailboat and sailed next to them on my LASER until they learned to sail on their own....

Years later, some of these kids are racing against me locally with their Dad's boat or even their own....!

Mission accomplished...

Bill Vokac

I believe the problem is societal. in the safe environs of our own homes, kids are slowly dying, getting obese, while becoming experts on computer games. I don't hate computer games, but the activity level is not healthy. Perhaps we should look to another sport that's recently had an upsurge in youth participation; Archery. The clubs all across the continent were in decline, until a popular series of books, The Hunger Games, came out, followed by a box office success movie, in which a young teen shooting bows and arrows, was positively portrayed... If there was some way to encourage the author to take an interest in sailing.....?
A modern version of a Swallows and Amazons type of adventure...that somehow avoids the use of personal jet-ski type of crafts... and small boats are positively show-cased...
Any authors out there, wanna give it a shot?
Fair winds on everyone's quarter

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments