For kids to learn how to sail, for kids to learn how to love sailing, it needs to involve a sailboat. Yeah, that’s obvious. But it can be a challenge because it means finding the right sailboat for your family and sorting out what you want in a boat. The exact criteria will depend on your kids and where they sail. But there are certain things that make sense if you want a sailboat to hook your children on the sport. Here are some of the things I thought about:
Preferably it will be a sailboat that they will be excited by (i.e. it needs to somehow be more appealing than Minecraft or Dragonvale). Ideally, it will be durable enough, and versatile enough, for kids to use for exploring, simply messing around in, and for scaring themselves (just a bit) when they want a thrill. And since the minutes spent sailing go up in inverse proportion to the minutes required to get a boat on and off the water, it should be as easy as possible to rig and derig. Also, it would be nice if it was semi-indestructible because, yes, they are going to bang it into things. And maybe it would be good it it could be sailed by one kid, or a few kids, or even a kid and a big person (like me!). Oh yeah, it should also be affordable.
Now that’s a reasonable list, right? Well, see how many sailboats you can find that fit the bill. Not so easy. And perhaps that is why years passed, and suddenly I worried that my kids would no longer be kids by the time I bought them a sailboat. Sure, I looked at Penguins, which are popular on the Chesapeake, and often raced with a parent and a child (too tweaky and complex, I concluded). And of course I thought about an Opti. But I have never been an Opti fan, in part because I find the whole helicopter parent, insanely competitive Opti racing scene a huge turn-off, and not something I would voluntarily inflict on my children unless and until they became hard-core racers who INSISTED I let them loose in the youth sailing racing jungle. A Sunfish came as close to what I was after as anything I looked at. But they seemed so 1960s, and while fun to flip over, not as thrilling to sail.
So I continued to hesitate. My kids continued to grow. I wasn’t sure I would ever find the right boat. But then, as I wrote earlier this year, I found the right sailing school. And part of the reason the Glandore Harbour Yacht Club sailing school in Ireland was the right sailing school was that my son and daughter liked the boats they were sailing. A workhorse of the sailing school in years past was the Topper dinghy. It is a simple rig (mainsail and a scow hull) that has long been popular in the UK and Ireland.
But even Topper, orginally designed in 1977, knew that they had to keep up with the times. So they introduced the Topaz, which is now the boat that GHYC sailing school students spend most of their time sailing. My kids liked it a lot, and when I went racing with my son it dawned on me that this was the sort of boat I had been looking for. It is dead simple to rig (the mainsail wraps around the mast for storage), so all you do is rig the boom and sail, ship the rudder, drop in the centerboard, and off you go. If it is going to be sailed solo, the Topaz sails beautifully with main alone (a great starter boat for a kid that will eventually transition into a Laser). For two or more crew, there is a jib that takes about another minute to rig. Total time to get the boat ready and go sailing is maybe 5 minutes.
What else? The hull is molded polyethelene, which is both forgiving and durable. If there are scratches or dings (and there will be) you can iron them smooth. And there is an open transom so no bailing is required (is there any chore which is more annoying or tedious for a kid than bailing?). The rig is powerful enough, and the hull form sporty enough, that even in middling breeze it is a hiking boat (and in good breeze it is quick to plane). A few years ago I told my kids that they were allowed to cuss in one context: if they were shouting “Hike, bitches!” So not only is the Topaz a thrill for them to sail, but they get to yell the B-word non-stop. And if the wind is light, or they get bored with being upright, they can always capsize for fun.
When we returned to our home waters of the Chesapeake, I wondered if it might be possible to find a Topaz. I had never seen one in the US, but a quick Google search revealed that not only is there now a Topaz dealer in the US, it is just up the road in Annapolis. Sometimes, you have to love globalism. I called. Peter Cook, the friendly rep charged with taking the United States sailing world by storm, was eager to sell me a boat and just happened to have a lightly-used Topaz. That’s when I knew that the sailing gods had held me back from buying a sailboat all those years because I was fated for a Topaz. We struck a deal and I car-topped the Topaz home with two excited kids.
So that’s the story of my (nearly) endless search for a kid boat. And it worked! Both my daughter and son are eager to take the Topaz out sailing, especially if they have friends around. When they are done, I hop in and go for a sail myself. So far, so good. And when cruisers in our anchorage see a pack of kids out on a sailboat by themselves, sailing, capsizing, and generally having a pretty good time, they sometimes ask: “Hey, what kind of boat is that?” I don’t know if the Topaz will take off in the United States, but if anyone else is having a kid-boat dilemma, then it is worth checking it out, either online or at this week’s U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis because this is what you will get…
**My daughter and her friends Topazing in Whitehall Bay.