Fertilizing the Roots

A new growth initiative from US Sailing, with funding from West Coast benefactor Tom Siebel, aims to tap community sailing’s untapped potential.

RS Feva XL
At select community sailing centers around the U.S., young sailors will have easy access to RS Feva XLs and top-level coaching.Courtesy US Sailing

US Sailing made a smart move not too long ago when they implemented their biennial Sailing Leadership Forum, which was essentially a mashup of its three big annual meetings: one for yacht clubs, one for one-design classes, and one for the hundreds of community sailing programs doing the good work at public-access points all across the country. With stakeholders finally huddled under one roof, that first Leadership Forum ended up being a long overdue coming out party for the community sailing operations that most racing sailors take for granted.

These are the hundreds of public-sailing establishments with open doorways, through which anyone can walk through and say, “I want to sail.” These are the sailing and boating enclaves on U.S. lakes, rivers, and harbors that survive on volunteers, skinny checkbooks, and fundraisers, to provide low-cost, low-hassle access to the sailing lifestyle. No exorbitant initiation fees, no recommendation letters, or previous experience required.

According to US Sailing, there are currently 36 Accredited Community Sailing Centers and hundreds more that funnel thousands of new and young sailors onto the water. Their collective importance, of course, is not lost on the organization with headquarters in Bristol, Rhode Island. These centers are doing outstanding programing, says John Pearce, US Sailing's Youth Director, but there's now a bigger opportunity coming. Not just for recreational sailing, but for racing, too.

Enter the Siebel Sailors Program, a funded initiative to put community sailing butts in new and modern boats, with top-tier coaches.

“We have active racing going on around the country and US Sailing is heavily involved in that,” Pearce says. “Yet, when we look around, we see new community sailing centers popping up and there’s fantastic activities at those sailing centers, but it doesn’t seem to crossover to a lot of what US Sailing does with racing, so there was a bit of a disconnect. In the spirit of experimenting, we’re looking at what we can we do to make this sport look better in 10 years and bring those two worlds together around kids in their prime learning years.”

The connection is now made through a “landmark” donation from the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation. Siebel, a tech-industry sailor from San Francisco, has put up “seven figures” to launch the Siebel Sailing Program with a stated purpose to “increase opportunity and diversity in the sport of sailing by providing resources and support to youth sailors at public access sailing centers across the country.”

The windfall presents US Sailing a three-year timeline to get five fully-funded “Siebel Sailing Networks” up and running by the end of 2020. “The goal is to continue on through philanthropy and self-sustaining initiatives,” Pearce says.

According to a US Sailing press release, the program director (to be hired soon), alongside a working group of volunteer experts, will select qualified community sailing centers to establish five regional networks. Each Network will include four community sailing centers: one a “Primary Siebel Center” and three “Supporting Centers.” Center selection will be determined based on “several criteria, including an established infrastructure for learning, safe facilities, and equipment for youth, and a record of working with underserved youth populations.”

In total, 20 centers will be established by 2020. Each center will get a fleet of sailboats and “associated supervision and equipment.” The plan at the moment, Pearce says, is to have the first three Networks up and running by September (in San Francisco, somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic, and Chicago) with select coaches, boats and sailors in place The next two regional centers will come online in 2020 following a vetting process by US Sailing, with socioeconomic diversity being an important trait. “We feel good about big cities with big sailing communities that are close to the water and have good diversity,” Pearce says.

Each center will get a fleet of new RS Feva XLs, a lightweight roto-molded doublehanded dinghy popular with pre-teens and having international one-design class status. A “Siebel Coach,” employed by US Sailing will be engaged at each Network. Said coaches will oversee the fleet and “be a driving force in advising young sailors on how to take advantage of opportunities for experiences outside of competition, including learning other sailing disciplines, exploring careers in the marine industry, and serving in leadership roles at sailing organizations. As US Sailing staff members, another key goal for these Siebel Coaches will be to assist youth sailing organizations in their regions to implement best practices and grow sailing participation, including providing advanced training for instructors, coaches, and sailors throughout the region.”

Is it a strict development racing track for community sailing kids? Not necessarily, Pearce says. “We want it to be open and accessible. What we don’t want to do is have an elite selection for 10- or 12-year-olds and leave others on the dock. To have too many sailors and not enough boats, will be a great problem to have, but the concept of an elite-sailor pipeline doesn’t apply in this case. It’s more a jumping off point for kids to get involved and get more deeply into sailing and then that leads to whatever may follow.”

Pearce says he’s hopeful the Siebel Sailors will emerge with a high skill set, hooked on sailing, and follow their own path, and as they grow or age out, to move on to local high school sailing teams, another boat, or become instructors at the sailing centers themselves.

“We don’t want to rush them up the competitive ladder,” Pearce says. “Youth sailing is overrun by excess travel, expense and complexity, so what we want to see at each of these networks is 24 boats, a coach overseeing the whole thing and that’s your circuit right there. What would be an amazing outcome would be inter-squad competitions in the network to start attracting other sailors from the area that aren’t involved in the program but may want to come and race and play.

“I’ve heard recently that 'regional youth sailing is dead,' and I thought to myself, ‘if that’s true, we are dead.’ This is kind of an effort to bring it back to the simple way of doing it; keep it to the local region, sail against their friends and no need to go to the national championship until their good and ready.”

Siebel Coaches will primarily provide instruction and mentoring to sailors, says Pearce. As employees of the organization rather than the sailing centers themselves, the arrangement is unique, a first of its kind for US Sailing outside its Olympic coaching staff. Coaches will be provided new support boats (currently being sourced) and will oversee the care and maintenance of their respective fleets in cooperation with RS Sailing.

“By having the coaches immersed in the network and in the sailing centers I think there will be some magic that happens in terms of the coaches looking out for their sailors and the programs,” Pearce says. “They’re also a resource to all US Sailing members in the regions as well. This is something we’ve wanted for a long time. [The organization] wants to be more regionally active, and visible and this is a step in that direction. It will be a trickier relationship to make sure the coaches and the sailing centers are collaborating on the day to day stuff to make it all work.”

Like that first Sailing Leadership Forum, there’s a better chance for progress when everyone’s under the same roof. This movement, sparked by one benevolent sailor, US Sailing, RS and community sailing leaders, is what the sport needs to grow beyond the clubs.