Who says racing is the only way to acquire sailing skills? Teach children that sailing is fun and watch the numbers grow, writes Daria Blackwell

For some reason, the teaching of sailing skills in many countries where sailing is an active pursuit has over the years changed from learning the ropes on a local body of water from an experienced friend to a rigorously structured multi-year racing-based certification process.

How did it evolve this way, and who says racing is the only way to acquire the necessary fundamentals?

I say bring back the fun and watch the numbers grow.

Two young girls visiting us from Nova Scotia couldn’t wait to tell me their stories. I had inspired them to take sailing lessons when we visited their home before crossing the Atlantic. Their mother read my blog to them as we completed a circuit round the Atlantic. They couldn’t wait to be old enough to learn how to sail.

Fast forward about six years and the girls were ready to master the craft. The older one, who is quite smart and emotionally a bit older than her 12 years, was the first to ask her parents if she could learn to sail.

She had been dreaming about it and watching the kids out on the bay. They gave her an enthusiastic endorsement. Off she went to sailing school at the local yacht club.

As she told the story, “The first time was great. They taught us about the wind and how the sails work and we went out in little boats and had great fun. I loved it. The second time, they started racing and I hated it. I really hated it. They were yelling and screaming and it was stressful. I never went back.”

Teaching children to sail

Teaching children to sail

For me to hear from a gorgeous young kid that sailing is stressful was painful. I know this myself. Racing actually destroys sailing for me. I had a stressful career so sailing was the antidote.

We would cruise out for the weekend, drop anchor, and stillness would prevail. For me, racing was the antithesis and made sailing stressful, the last thing I wanted it to be.

I told my young friend that sailing didn’t have to be stressful. I confirmed that I don’t like being yelled at either. I told her that aboard our boat, we have a rule. No yelling! She liked that.

But just then, her little sister four years younger had to tell me that she also tried sailing at age eight. On their first day, they were put into Optis to sail alone. She was terrified, she didn’t want to be alone without knowing what to do.

There was a whole pack of little girls, five or six boats, and they started sailing out of the harbour and into the bay. This Bay is huge and remote out there. Suddenly she realised she didn’t recognize anything and she didn’t know where she was.

She remembers feeling panicked. One girl somehow found the way and they followed her and made it safely back to shore. She has not been on a boat since. She is terrified of trying again. She doesn’t think she ever will.

How very sad. I don’t know where the instructor was in that situation, but a child’s dream was crushed.

I told the girls and their mother the experience of our yacht club. There was a huge attrition problem, with kids dropping out of the sailing program after a season or two.

So my husband, Alex, and I started talking to some of the kids who dropped out. What we found was that there were two predominant reasons:

  • Some did not like sailing alone.
  • Some did not like racing (which meant being yelled at and getting stressed out). The situation we had uncovered back then was identical to the stories I had just heard.

Back then, we had mentioned our findings to the sailing programme coordinators and, after investigating further, the following year they started something new. They started a programme for messing about in boats for the kids who were not likely to enter the high performance racing circuit.

They hired a sailing naturalist who would take them around the inlets in their dinghies and show them the miraculous life that is teeming along our shores. It was a huge success. It was reintroducing kids to nature. It was reinforcing sailing as an earth friendly pursuit. Just exactly what’s needed in this world.

Then they expanded the sailing programme to include a two-handed sailing option for kids. And more kids stayed tuned in.

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They also started a trade up experience-building migration to the big boats programme, and they now have a teen crewed yacht in the regular Thursday night series. They also sponsor a teen crew in the overnight race on the Sound and year after year they consistently take top honours.

These kids graduate to crew for local club white sails regattas and for the big ones, too. Some are planning to go on to campaign their own boats.

The same club introduced a women’s adult course in small keel boats. On top of that they added an all female crewed yacht that sails in the Thursday night racing.

And guess what? It’s oversubscribed.

Now they’ve got kite surfing and all kinds of options to keep people in the club and on the water. And isn’t that the point of a sailing club? To help people find a way to get out and enjoy the beauty that surrounds us and challenge themselves in whatever way suits them?

Interestingly, by splitting the sailing programme into several natural segments, it not only kept more people in sailing, it also allowed the high performance group to excel.  Without having to support kids who were really not into racing, the racers got more specialised attention.

Now the club fields one or two Olympians every year.  It’s a win-win all around.

I am a cruiser. I am not a racer although I have raced. I am very cognisant that sailing is a schizophrenic pursuit. Racing is exciting, group oriented, and high-profile and gets the monetary support to keep the sport going. Cruising is more self-sufficient, generally low profile and fuels the dreams of people stuck on corporate treadmills the world over who wish they could just untie the lines and escape.

Racing is expensive. Cruising need not be. Both can be daring, testing your own limits in different ways. It’s a conundrum that no representative body for sailing the world over has managed to represent effectively, as far as I know.

Yet, it is abundantly clear from multiple surveys that for every racer there are at least three times as many cruisers and that is the lifeblood of the pursuit of sailing and the health and vitality of the clubs that support it.

Sailing has no gender bias (look at Dame Ellen MacArthur) and allows imperfect bodies to harness the wind as effectively as the others. It takes skill, athleticism and extraordinary self-reliance.  It can teach you what is really important in life, and it allows you to harness the wind for free and travel the world to meet new people and discover new ways.

If you choose, it can take you around the world — whether on a racing circuit, as a professional skipper, or an independent cruiser. Moreover it teaches you more about yourself than you would ever learn otherwise.

It teaches you humility and that no matter how much you learn, you will never know it all. It keeps your mind and body active and alert and always hungry to learn more. It teaches you what kind of person you are and want to be.

How about we change the way we teach sailing to allow the children to learn it for themselves, the way they want to, not the way some adults in a board room prescribe?  How about we allow them to choose the track that speaks to them via the wind?


Daria Blackwell

Daria Blackwell

Daria Blackwell is a USCG-licensed captain who sails a Bowman 57 cutter-rigged ketch with her husband Alex and otherwise makes her home in the west of Ireland. They are co-authors of Happy Hooking. The Art of Anchoring and the Blackwells’s new book, Cruising the Wild Atlantic Way is published in April 2015.