Hoping There’s a Wetass Gene

How do you get your kids to like sailing? I'm banking on a combination of gentle nudging and DNA.

“Hey, Dad, are we winning?” my 6-year-old son, Jamie, asked me quietly, his face conspiratorial and hopeful in equal measure. We were sailing a small dinghy called a Topaz in the beautiful harbor of a small fishing village in Ireland called Glandore. I looked around. We were inside boat in a leading group of three headed toward the leeward mark, so it looked pretty good. “We might be,” I answered. “But you never know what might happen in a sailboat race.” As it turned out, we managed to hang on and crossed the line first. It was his first victory, and also his first race. He was thrilled—in part because I’d told him we could capsize the boat on the way into the harbor if we won a race. I was happy, too. I want him to love sailing, and figure it can’t hurt to experience the suspense and excitement of doing well in a sailboat race.

Of course, it’s not always possible to do well. Or sail in fair winds, or in the sun. So as much as we may try to instill a love of the water in our kids through good times on the water, you also have to hope that they simply have a Wetass gene—that no matter how wet and cold they get, or what sort of bad luck the gods of sailboat racing might try to inflict on them, something inside them makes them want to get out there for more. Parents who sail put a lot of pressure on themselves to introduce their kids to boating, trying to make each experience on the water a perfect combination of fun and excitement. But being on the water is partly about weathering the hard times and figuring stuff out for yourself, and maybe parents should simply stop worrying so much, chuck their kids in a boat whenever they can, and walk away. If there’s a Wetass gene, that’s the way to cultivate it.


Jamie at the helm

Forcing a kid into an intensive sailing program and then hovering endlessly in a Mommy boat—you know who you are!—can only turn a kid off over the long run. But beyond avoiding that obvious mistake, I’m mostly banking on something innate within my two kids (I also have a 9-year-old daughter, Natasha) to connect them with the water. If I get at least one full-fledged Wetass out of the two, I’ll be happy. But it’s a bit of a gamble, because I’m acutely aware that their Brazilian mother has infused them with genes that strongly prefer warm temperatures and sun.

Still, I’m hopeful. Both my kids are pretty adventurous, and the genetics seem to be kicking my way. My son has spent plenty of time this misty Irish vacation messing around in a kayak and jumping off the harbor wall. And the other day, when I suggested that it might be more fun to go crabbing on a day that wasn’t wet and chilly (I was also thinking how nice a pint of Guinness in a cozy pub would be—but didn’t actually mention that), he looked at me with disdain and said, “Dad, don’t be such a wimp.” If anything, the genetics might be a bit too strong in the boy. He insisted we go out dinghy racing again a few days after our victory, but halfway through a race in which we were lying perhaps fourth, he seemed a bit glum that we weren’t out front. I asked him what the matter was. “You’re not trying your hardest,” he charged. I was touched that his faith in my amateurish sailing skills led him to believe that we would always be out front if I would only try hard, but opted instead to explain that no one can win every race, and that the idea is to have fun and compete no matter where you are in the fleet. After that, with the possibility of parental sabotage cleared from his mind, he seemed to start enjoying himself again, as most kids do when let loose around water.


Still, regardless of the strength of any kid’s Wetass gene, what we do can have an impact at the margins. I took Natasha J/22 racing when she was about four. She was having a great time as the designated yeller of “Starboard!” (she particularly enjoyed calling for starboard rights even when we were on port, much to the amusement of my local fleet) until we laid the boat on its side during a windy and chaotic spinnaker takedown. On the way into the dock she ventured to say that she would sail with me in the future, but only after she turned 13. For now, I have turned her over to the capable hands of the sailing school here in Glandore, and they seem to be doing a pretty good job of undoing whatever damage I did in the J/22, even though there hasn’t been much sun this week. And it doesn’t hurt that whenever we go out sailing in my mother’s little gaff-rigged Cornish Shrimper, I authorize all children, no matter what age, to yell “Hike, Bitches!” whenever we settle in on a new tack. They definitely love that part of sailing.

So far, this combo of having fun together when possible, plus underlying DNA, seems to be working out. It’s pissing with rain today, and Jamie asked if we could go sailing. And when I asked him whether he wanted to go racing again on Saturday, he looked at me with a grin, and said “Oh, yeah!” I think the kid just might be a Wetass.


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