sailboat sailing on water near island

Sailing: Will it Help Your Child Find Their Place in the World?

Recently, my stepbrother remarked that my father was the only man of his generation that he had met who had no interest in sports. That revelation made me realize that I never had any parental pressure or support to participate in sports. As a result, I shied away from traditional after school games. As a kid, I often thought: “where was my place in the world?”

Dad had some different ideas about what you do with children.  A favorite was parking on the road at the beginning of an active runway at Idlewild airport, now named JFK. The giant 707’s passed what felt like feet over our heads and the roar was deafening. His other favorite was watching the construction of the Throgs Neck Bridge. We sat silently as dad pondered how the two sides would eventually meet. I thought this was as exciting as dad’s slide shows of his most recent vacation.

I did, however, stare out across Long Island sound and watched the white sails. I felt a strange and powerful connection to them. What propelled them through the water, where were they going and who were the people on them? I had to find out. Improbably, this became the beginning of a lifelong journey, one that it has been my privilege to share with my sons.

Sailing was my special place.

Sailing was my special place. I did not come from a sailing family and I did not live that close to the water. Somehow, I knew that I wanted to sail and did everything to become a sailor. I immediately began to do everything and anything to get me on a boat. I quickly learned that boat owners required crew and I was the most willing crew one could ask for. If it meant cleaning the toilet, scrubbing the deck or diving under to remove the marine growth, I was there. The years quickly sailed by and before I knew I had two sons to raise. So here I was with my crew in a New England seacoast town and they were going to become sailors.

Sailing became a special place for my sons also. With sailing, the junior sports pressure is minimal. This is partly because professional sailing barely exists in the US. There are no sports idols to emulate. Most traditional junior sports mimic professional sports and parents often hope their child becomes the next super star. Almost every junior sport has leagues with ladder competitions, culminating in some pint-sized Super Bowl event.

Not so with sailing. In fact, one of the perceived problems in junior sailing is that the kids drop out of racing in their late teens, with only a small number racing in college. After college, most simply become sailors for life, but not necessarily active in any sort of competition.

I’ve been sailing for over 60 years year. I coach sailing, but not a typical junior racing program, rather an adaptive and therapeutic program. I work with people who are dealing with addiction, physical and psychological challenges. Many are vets learning to live with service-connected disabilities, including PTSD and neurological injuries that may not be apparent when you meet them. On many individual’s first sail they experience a magical connection to the boat and the surroundings. We often hear, “I want to do this for life”, something that does not happen the first time one catches or kicks a ball.   

Junior sailing becomes a starting point for many journeys both literal and figurative. From a learning perspective, sailing provides a platform to practice problem solving, gain self-reliance, build confidence, develop teamwork without fear of dropping a ball and learn science. Yes science. Many junior sailing programs incorporate STEM into their curriculums.

Junior sailing often brings the family together, just as it did mine. Parents don’t just sit on the sidelines or the bleachers. Many programs encourage parents to participate. Sometimes it is to lend a hand lifting a boat or simply watching their child demonstrate their newly acquired skills. As children progress, venues include parents and children sailing together on the same boat with the child in command. Traditional children’s sports simply do not bring he family together in this manner.

As I write this, I’m reminded of a time when my wife and I were asked to bring a friend’s boat from Salem MA to the Mid-coast of Maine. The boys were 8 and 11. To this day each of us recalls the story of the overnight passage, dinning on lobsters in the cockpit and having to spend a day anchored in a secluded cove as a roaring Nor’easter came through.

Later in life our oldest brought a young woman to visit. I had my 13-foot race boat down at the local lake. He asked me to let him take her out for a sail. I thought to myself that he has not sailed in years. Off they went for a sail. He must have impressed her, as they are now married with 2 children. Just recently my younger son was visiting. I had injured a hand in a mountain bike accident. I was scheduled to sail with a group of children with neurological disorders. It was very wind day. He stepped in and handled the main sheet with great skill even though he had not been sailing for several years. 

We label sailing as a sport but as one sails the longer journey, it becomes so much more. They hear the sails and water against the hull just as the ancient mariners did thousands of years ago. The motion of the boat and the visuals connect us to something much larger. It can bring peace, tranquility and more.

Historically, sailing has a well-deserved reputation as a pastime for the privileged.  But as much as I love live aboard charters and the America’s Cup, the largest segment of the sports is about young kids on small boats. Even small boat sailing might seem from a distance to be out of reach, but it is not so. Sailing’s mantra is now, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”. The rich kid stigma attached to sailing is being irradicated. If you live near a body of water, you can get involved.  

The stigma that is attached to the sport of sailing as being exclusive is being quickly dispelled. Millennials have forced many sports to rethink their purpose and mission. Sailing and golf are at the top of the list. They understand that their future is dependent on attracting new participants and programs like FirstSail and First Tee are found in many communities. These sports are embracing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. There probably has never been a better time to consider exposing your child to learn how to sail.

“Community“ sailing programs are growing on bodies of water everywhere. Community sailing means just that. They are non-profit organizations that purchase boats and the requisite equipment and provide instruction and boats for the use by the members. They do this at costs that are affordable to most and when cost becomes an object, scholarships are available.

I am a proponent of programs that utilize US Sailing’s instruction and certification. They have developed a well-planned curriculum and it is taught by instructors who have passed rigorous certification. US Sailing also mandates that every instructor is Safe Sport certified. Instructors are trained to identify and protect athletes from sexual harassment and abuse. US Sailing’s instructors are professionals who in most cases are paid employees of the sailing center. They teach with passion and consistency. They are not parents rushing from their jobs to coach children in their spare hours. This difference is significant. Learn more about US Sailing Youth Programs.

Junior sailing can be an option for the child that doesn’t want to follow the traditional sports path or as a complement to other activities. It’s a sport that, even now, most parents won’t consider. Think again. When your kid is captaining a boat on a weekend outing and you are serving as crew, you will get it. 

Please, leave comments! I love a HEALTHY exchange of ideas. After all, critical thinking is essential to life.

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