Junior Sailing Programs

By Troy Gilbert

For kids learning to sail Optimist dinghies, it's not just about the competition. There are also the lessons in responsibility and honesty.

Young boy by sailboat

Whether your taste runs to boats under power or sail, there may not be a more effective method of introducing your kids to on-the-water self-reliance, safety, weather, and boat-handling knowledge than a local junior sailing program. Last July, on the steel blue waters of Pensacola Bay, 298 junior sailors, ages 8 to 15 years old and of varying skill levels, hopped aboard their 8-foot Optimist dinghies and proved this point as they competed against each other in the annual 2018 USODA Optimist Dinghy National Sailing Championships.

Hailing from Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, the U.A.E., Australia, U.S. Virgin Islands — and with the vast majority from the United States — these young sailors wowed the spectator boats and the nearly 40 support and Race Committee boats as they raced in multiple classes through varying wind conditions and sea states in their universal and unsinkable Optimist sailing dinghies.

With the oak-lined grounds of Pensacola Yacht Club at times resembling a sort of colorful vagabond child naval encampment, it took more than 10 days and three separate events to determine the Overall, Girls, and Team Racing national champions. The kids traveled with their parents, coaches, and local sailing teams and clubs to showcase and hone their on-the-water skills, but most of all to have fun.

Given their ages, it's similar to youth soccer or football leagues and is growing in popularity, with local community boating or yacht club courses and teams providing access through sailing camps or by hosting local high school sailing teams. Most of these kids come from boating parents, but not all.

At 14, Stephan Baker of Miami, Florida, picked up sailing after finally giving it a try after his third year at a summer camp and found he had a knack for it. Neither of his parents sailed, and now after only 4.5 years of sailing under his belt, he is a member of the U.S. World Optimist Sailing Team.

Read this article to learn more about the benefits of boat camp.

Junior Sailing Program

Fresh off his 40-point win at the Optimist North Americans in Mexico, Baker sailed hard for four days and ultimately won the 2018 Optimist Overall National Championship. Defeating 278 sailors on Pensacola Bay and headed to Europe to compete, he described his future goals: "I want to win a gold medal."

Samara Walshe of New York, also 14, won the Girls National Championship, and she talks like an old hand when discussing the difference between a northerly or sea breeze while on the water. She was in the top 10 in all three of her races.

"My coaches told me the game plan, but if something changed or shifted, I would adjust. I'm responsible for the tactics. I always want to come into the mark roundings on starboard tack with the advantage and come in fast."

While there is a girl's-only championship, the girls do actively compete in the overall championship. At these ages, the strength and weight differences haven't started to manifest, and it is not unusual to see four or five girls finish in the top 10. The true novice kids sailed in the shallower waters close to Pensacola Yacht Club's beach on a variety of courses and sometimes in stiff breezes.

Young girl preparing sail

"The sport absolutely teaches self-reliance, confidence, and managing a boat in the water, but the biggest aspect to teaching kids sailboat racing is that it's a self-policed sport," said Hal Smith, Pensacola YC Fleet Captain and overall fleet Principal Race Officer (PRO) for the National Championship.

He continued: "We know the rules and when we break the rules, we're supposed to do a self exoneration. The sport puts the burden on the individual to play fair and to be a sportsman. When you're being taught that concept when you're 6, 8, or 10 years old, while at the same time trying to be aggressively competitive, they all learn quickly that there's a very serious line against cheating and an honorable way to handle any missteps. And these lessons will likely stay with these kids throughout their lives."

To see these young kids, fully responsible for their own boats, sails, and gear while learning the rules of the road, boat safety, and handling on the water in a competitive, coached and fun environment, it is arguably one of the strongest organized means to introduce kids to become responsible and skilled boaters no matter if their future boating lifestyle leads them to become avid fishermen, daycruisers, or Olympians. 

— Published: April/May 2019

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