Just Like Her Old Man

What does it take to get a kid hooked on sailing? Lessons are a start, but it's friends and camaraderie that really set the hook. Gaining Bearing from our July/August 2011 issue.
Sailing World

Opti Sailing

Matt Cohen

I often get asked about my daughter Tory’s sailing prowess. Tory, now 14, is a completely normal kid, gets good grades, has a very proud mom and dad, and plays several sports. She loves drama and essentially taught herself sixth grade when she, and her mom, followed the 2008-’09 Volvo Ocean Race around the world.

And until recently, she hated sailing.

Now, hate is a pretty strong word. I don’t use it much, but in this case, it’s absolutely appropriate.


My family has a sailing tradition started by my grandfather (who himself never sailed): the grandfather buys the grandchild his or her first boat. I wanted to continue for this next generation of Reads, mainly because I was cheap and wanted my old man to pony up for an Opti for my kid. So, I reminded my father that Grampy bought me my first Sunfish and convinced him to carry on the tradition. Right around Christmas, when Tory was 7, a new Opti arrived.

Kathy, Tory, and I had spent a huge amount of time on the water through Tory’s early years, but we were typically on a Pearson True North 38 powerboat so sailing wasn’t exactly ground into her at a very young age. We thought she would come around to sailing, at her own pace; and that an Opti at her disposal would jumpstart things.

How wrong we were.


Tory’s first summer of sailing class at Sail Newport didn’t go well. In fact, there were days when our terror-filled little girl refused to step foot in the boat. She loved swimming in the pool, but the fear of flipping an Opti was more than she was good for. After two weeks of “sailing” class (more like sitting-on-the-dock class) we’d taken a huge step backwards as a sailing family. Let’s give it a year, we thought, she’ll come around.

It was about then that I really started to remember my own introduction to sailing—at about the same age. I did more sailing as a youngster than Tory, but the more I thought about it the more I realized we weren’t all that different.

The major difference is that I spent most of my summers on the family’s 30-foot Pearson Wanderer, cruising or racing around Narragansett Bay and Vineyard Sound. I don’t remember much of my pre-sailing-school years, other than holding on tight when the boat heeled and not really liking the sensation. We towed around Grampy’s Sunfish, and Dad and I played around on that. When he sat on the rail, it never seemed to heel, so that was fun. He let me off on my own one day in 3 knots of wind and it seemed pretty easy.


When I started sailing classes at Barrington (R.I.) YC, at age 8, however, I was terrified. The club used the dreaded Blue Jay for its beginner classes, and I came up with every excuse in the book to not sail. It was the same thing the following summer. Absolute terror. I claimed I was seasick. Hurt. I hid when class started. You name it, I pulled it off.

And just as mine did, Tory’s second year of sailing classes bombed. She didn’t have to go through an entire summer though, only two weeks of holy terror. We tried everything to get her hooked—to no avail. She wasn’t having it. We were officially raising a non-sailor.

So we stopped the madness. Tory’s summers as a 10- and 11-year-old had more different activities than we could shake a stick at, but no sailing. We sold the Opti. I remember seeing tears of joy from my daughter as the boat drove away in the back of someone else’s truck.


Then I had an epiphany: If she’s anything like me, she’ll embrace the social part of sailing and eventually forget the fear. This had been my turning point.
The winter before my third summer of sailing lessons I negotiated a deal with my father. They would sign me up for only half the summer. If I still hated it, I could skip the second half and never do it again. A good deal, I thought.

Day 1 of that pivotal year I ran into a kid I’d played hockey with: Al Girard. We hit it off immediately, the instructors threw us in a Sunfish together, and off we went. We didn’t lose many races that summer and we were in “advanced” class before we knew it. I never invoked that half-summer deal.

I still see Al often and tell him the same thing every time: If it weren’t for Al Girard, my life would be pretty different.

So where does this leave Tory? When she was 12, she and her friend, Annabelle Fischer, thought sailing class was worth one more shot. Part of the deal was no Opti sailing. Instead, they’d use the Hunter 140s at Sail Newport. Annabelle quickly became Tory’s Al. Still a bit timid, they improved and the excuses to get out of sailing came to a screeching halt. I didn’t want to ask, but I think she actually liked sailing class.

For the summer of 2010, another friend, Cleo Farrick, joined Annabelle and Tory. Hunter 140s again did the trick, and this time it was even more fun. One day she came home laughing hysterically because they’d flipped the Hunter 140—on purpose! Huh?

And then, one day this past winter, she asked if she could take sailing class again this summer.

Did she just say what I think she said?

This time, several other school friends wanted to take sailing because they’d heard how much fun the three of them had. They all signed up and—get this—they are going to take on the Club 420s. Unreal. It took her a while to get there, but she went down almost exactly the same path as her old man.

So what do I take away from this? First of all, our kids will do whatever they want to do, and we’re just along for the ride. I had dinner with big-wave surfing pioneer Laird Hamilton a couple of months ago, and we were talking about our kids. He has three, and only the youngest has any interest at all in surfing. The other two couldn’t care less. We agreed it’s best to give our kids some space; they’ll work it all out eventually.
And you simply can’t overestimate the social element of sport: if their friends are doing it, they’re more apt to do it, too. And once that happens, who knows. If they have talent, it will eventually shine. If they don’t, well, then it’s onto the next activity.

Kathy and I have had many puzzling moments as parents. Wondering why Tory didn’t want to be an Opti wiz kid, traveling the globe and winning world championships like a lot of our friend’s kids, is just one of many. But the reality is that each child will come into their own, at their pace.

Give them slack and make sure camaraderie is involved. It worked for us.