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Building the Ideal Junior Sailing Program

Every junior sailing program is a little different, but common goals, standard safety protocols, and the right instructors will help turn youth sailors into sailors for life.

June 5, 2013
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junior sailing

Junior sailing

Group coaching at travel regattas provides junior sailors with valuable feedback and makes the most of their time. Matthew Cohen

Ican vividly remember my first sailing class, especially how anxious and nervous I was. It helped that I was with a dozen other aspiring six-year-old kids as we boarded our prams at the same time. We launched our little crafts off the beach and hopped aboard. It was a thrilling moment, and I recall being deathly afraid of capsizing, but an instructor in a small powerboat reassured me that I’d be OK. “You’re doing well,” she yelled over to me. “Watch where you’re heading.”

She was right of course. I was OK, and her calm encouragement, and that of many other instructors to follow, gave me a level of confidence I wouldn’t have found had I learned to sail alone. When I reflect on this experience today, I have a far greater appreciation for the monumental task required to ease a young sailor through his or her formative years. Experience and anecdotal evidence suggest that junior sailing “done right” will create a sailor for life, and our experience also reminds us how important our sailing programs are to the sport’s longevity.

In January, US Sailing hosted its 30th National Sailing Program Symposium, with a record-setting 275 attendees from across the United States. The mission of the symposium, of course, is to provide an environment in which sailing programs can collect and share information.

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“Everyone wants to avoid reinventing the wheel,” says Stu Gilfillen, one of the symposium’s lead organizers. “There are many sailing programs that have considerable experience, so everyone learns new ideas from these established programs, and often discovers new methods of instruction from newcomers.”

Gilfillen says most programs share common priorities, but their processes can be very different. When setting up a new program, or restructuring an old one, he says, the initial step should be to define a program’s goals. The second step is to put in place good safety protocols, and then lastly, he suggests, is matching the instructor level with the students. “One of the biggest mistakes some programs make is hiring a rock-star sailor to teach the beginner and intermediate levels,” he says.

Programs thrive when they focus on specific goals. A sailing program should give sailors an appreciation for the pleasures of sailing as both a competitive and recreational activity. Safety procedures must be at the core of every routine, and sportsmanship should be a fundamental virtue. A syllabus can include a variety of boating activities including kayaks, rowboats, basic powerboating, dinghy racing, day sailing, weather, an introduction to cruising, and an introduction to coastal navigation. Sailing programs can, and should, be very diverse, but I believe some common practices can provide a helpful template for any program.
The composition of a sailing program’s steering committee is important. I recommend including people of different ages, and the group should include a few parents, and non-parents, as well as a past instructor, and possibly an educator. There should be a safety expert, a skilled finance specialist, and someone who understands boats and their maintenance requirements. Finally, I suggest including a committee member who is on the club or organization’s board of directors. Having direct contact with the board is invaluable. A group of eight to eleven individuals is an effective group size.

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It’s also important to provide a balanced student-to-instructor ratio. There are many opinions on the right balance, and this is the kind of question the NSPS helps address. Mature high school and college students make good instructors, but it is important that all instructors go through safety and instructor training. These lessons will be valuable throughout an instructor’s sailing career. Some past instructors will likely serve on a committee sometime in the future. Perpetuating good practices and teaching skills is important for the long-term benefit of a yacht club or community sailing organization. Recruiting instructors should take place soon after the end of each sailing season. Successful programs should try to retain instructors for more than one season because continuity is important. Instructors will improve year to year just as sailors do. One of the great things about sailing is the freedom to be on the water. I’ve seen where some programs can suffer, however, because too many parents hover. Instructors must be given an opportunity to do their work free of parental oversight.

The same is true for the type of boats in the program: They must match the skill levels of young sailors, taking into account prevailing weather conditions and geography. Last summer I visited 13 yacht clubs on Barnegat Bay, N.J., over two days. I was thoroughly impressed everywhere I went, and I found it curious that different boats were being sailed at clubs only a mile apart, but I understand that using the correct boats for either instruction or racing is essential.

Another topic that comes up regularly, especially at programs with strong racing teams, is travel. When a majority of youngsters travel all the time, it can undermine the local program. Travel time should be considered carefully. I recommend that all parties, including the program committee, parents, and senior instructors meet early in the year to agree on schedules. The next step is to invite the sailors to a fun and casual meeting that explains what is planned. At this session, introduce the instructors, show some video or pictures, and include displays and boats. An instructional book or USB drive loaded with instructional content can get the process rolling before the sailing season. This is also a good time to ask the young sailors to write down and share their goals.

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Once a syllabus is shared with sailors and parents, a teaching format can be established. For most topics I suggest the routine start with a lecture to explain theory and what is going to happen on the water. The next step is to do demonstrations so everyone understands how things work. The third step is to use repetitive drills. This is the way all sports teams teach players how to improve their skills. The next stage is to challenge sailors to use their new techniques, whether it is racing, or some adventure and exploratory cruise. The last step is to review.

Sailing programs also suffer when a few sailors have personal coaches, which often creates a conflict with a sailing program, gripes among parents, and unhealthy have and have-not resentment. Most of today’s best sailors can very effectively manage themselves and their racing programs, and I can’t say the same for a lot of young hot sailors today, many of whom are overly reliant upon coaches or parents. I know there seems to be a need to hire individual coaches these days, but rarely do I see this action lead to extraordinary results. I strongly encourage parents to consider group coaching as an alternative.

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