“Have confidence in the young people, give them a chance, and they will surprise you,” said Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. And he’s right. What we are about to see in Tokyo at the Olympic Games, if it goes ahead, is a celebration of youthful achievement, extraordinary athleticism and the purest competitive spirit across myriad disciplines. Favourites will be ousted, triumphs will be storied and youth will shine in the pantheon of the Olympic cradle. The tears and sacrifices not just of the athletes but of faceless coaches, parents and supporters will be repaid with ounces of semi-precious metal and eternal glory. It’s a wonderful celebration of youth and life amidst the harshest global backdrop and difficult times for many.
The Olympic pinnacle is attained by a precious few with the layers below being littered with inevitable drop outs from sport along the way. Kids that were pushed beyond their talent end up falling out of love with the sport that preoccupied their youth. We see this most starkly in sailing with ambitious parents pushing their offspring towards racing so quickly and forgetting that there’s a sheer pleasure in just messing around in boats.
Dinghies can, and should be, so much more than just a vessel of victory. They can inspire independence, bravery, courage, discovery or exploration as well as being a gateway to yachting of all forms. Many of us can remember the sheer thrill of just getting out on the water, getting wet, surfing the waves and learning the hard way without a coach and a whistle demanding a gybe. I contend that self-learning is as powerful as coached and when you truly get that feeling of being at one with the boat, and only then, should you line up on a start line.
Progressing on from dinghies is a tricky transition but there are plenty of old hands in our sport who give youth a chance. Speak to an America’s Cup sailor and they all have someone to thank in the background. That one person that took them on and handed them the tiller, the wheel, the navigation responsibilities, the tactics or simply provided a boat.
Experience can be passed down like a baton but the key is the continuity of keeping that young person in the sport. Yacht Clubs woke up a few years ago to the fact that old members keep the club in funds but an active youth membership keeps the club alive and there are countless younger members drives at nearly all the clubs up and down the country. That’s to be applauded as the future success of our sport and its structure relies on encouraging future generations to actively participate.
So I read with great interest, and signed up to, the new initiative by the Junior Offshore Group called ‘Generation JOG’ which has teamed up with some of its supporting partners to encourage those under 25 to get involved with both its inshore and offshore races.
It’s a tricky one asking that age bracket to ditch the PlayStation, stop chasing the opposite sex, get out of the pub, stop Formula kite-boarding (really?) or Waszp blasting and sit on a rail for 12 hours upwind to a buoy in the English Channel and then shy-reach in the rain to the Needles but they’re giving it their all to support and nurture those that do. Generous kit packages are on offer and I reckon that if you start the youth off on the inshore races and slowly introduce the distance races as part of a team then they’ve really got something here.
The proof of the concept of youth encouragement can be squarely found in the excellent Greig City Academy programme ran by the surely-to-be-knighted Jon Holt. After buying a boat on eBay in 2014 he encouraged his kids from a pretty tough inner London academy school to take part in yachting. He smashed open the doors, cajoled and persuaded and by 2017 had a team on the start-line of the Fastnet Race in the old IOR 45 footer Scaramouche where they finished 144th out of 362 boats. Flipping amazing. Today the programme is enormous with the school running inshore, dinghy and offshore projects at a canter.
But what strikes me is the sense of camaraderie in the teenagers. None wants to let the others down and you can find them down on the boats at 5am in the Cowes Yacht Haven scrubbing the bottom, fixing the winches, preparing the sails and listening intently to their sailing coaches keen to glean any and all information. And the word is that everyone at the school wants to get on the sailing programme…amazing.
The Yachting Journalists Association named Jon Holt as the ‘Sailor of the Decade’ in recognition and a more brilliant teacher you could not find. They say you never forget a good teacher and judging by the opportunity that these kids have been presented with, and many going on to secure jobs in the sport and the sailing industry, it’s Holt’s can-do attitude that has opened the pathway and they will never forget him.
Generation JOG deserves to be a success. The club with the best balance of an active racing programme and lively shoreside minus the stuffiness and expense of yacht club facilities is on the money here. Getting the next generation onto the boats and feeling an integral part of the crew is a mission worth the effort and as Stuart Lawrence, Vice Captain of JOG says, “The future of our club and many clubs out there lies in the hands of the up and coming generations. We want to make sure we are offering the easiest, possible route to participation for those younger than us and help our club flourish in decades to come.”