Flicking, as I do, through the latest copy of Seahorse – and yes, like you I start from the classifieds at the back as ever day-dreaming about buying Rothmans for an ‘absolute snip’, I kid myself, at £190,000 – I came across a truly engaging article about dinghies that wrong-footed me in the world’s leading offshore racing magazine. Pictures of Fireballs with reasonable price tags and a 470 at just £700, it got me reading and kept me captivated on the loo for longer than is polite.
The truly depressing statistic that was proffered was that 80% of kids who start out in the Optimist fleets, drop out in their teens or when the lure of life’s pitfalls (you know – the good stuff) befalls them. Some re-enter the sport but most get whooped up into examinations, grades and university entrance and from there, as we all know, it’s only a short fall to a desk job, mortgage, first home and weekends lost to mowing the lawn and fixing shelves before Arabella announces she’s pregnant. Sailing becomes a distant pastime – a memory of simpler days.
Where, as the Seahorse editors rightly say, the problem lies is in the parental determination to produce the next Ben Ainslie or Hannah Mills and the incessant demand on racing. What happened to just sailing? The 4×4’s, the private RIBs, the expensive coaching staff, the relentless circuit around the country to puddles in the Midlands and the iffy B&Bs. No wonder little Johnny gets utterly bored of it all, sick to the back teeth of valuable weekends missed in front of the Xbox, football in the park, a sneaky vape or a can of cider with mates in town and other equally worthwhile, essential, teenage pursuits whilst Mum & Dad pursue a middle-class vision of what they think good looks like.
Where Mum & Dad get it wrong is pushing their kids into a pretty wet, uncomfortable sport where physicality, judgement, technique and concentration is rewarded and encouraged by people with whistles insisting that you tack or gybe on their command. The kids can’t wait to get off the water in the main away from this hellish experience. But when you look at the likes of Ainslie, Mills, Goodison, Roberston, Percy etc, what they had (and still have) is a quality that stands them out from the rest – you literally couldn’t get them off the water. They were addicted to it. Finish a race and then go for a further sail. Blast downwind for a laugh and to hell with coming ashore. The dinner was in the dog for those legends as they were growing up. Sailing was everything. And it’s in that free-practice that skills were honed, techniques that are un-teachable learned and reactions instilled that no coach in the world can even describe, let alone coach.
I was watching a video of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas – two of the world’s top golfers – who grew up together in Florida and who described weekend fun sessions where they would use a driver to putt and a putter to drive. Why not? It was fun. But what they learned was invaluable. Control of the club, pace assessment, alignment, confidence etc etc and it’s no surprise that they can magic up a ‘wonder shot’ at will, ten years later on the pro circuit.
But back to sailing and the Seahorse article where the costs of campaigning dinghies were brutally exposed. Dinghies are expensive and the ‘pathway’ boats are eye-watering. Sails are throw-away items and hulls last a season at best for the top of the top and the ambitious. It was like that back in my day but amplified further now. It doesn’t have to be this way for everyone and clubs are now in a period of soul searching to try and keep kids involved and marry their waters with boats. Seahorse found an excellent example of a French club that “cornered the market in Laser 4000’s” – unfashionable yes but who cares when you get great racing at a fraction of the price.
But my feeling is that kids should see sailing as a fun thing to do. Passage sailing with a picnic at the end sitting on a beach with your mates is the holy grail in my book. Exploring a Bay or a river estuary and finding a sandy stretch to run your boat up and forget about the micro scratches that knock 0.0001 of a knot off your upwind speed and give Dad a heart-attack. As kids come into the sport they need to be encouraged to sail and enjoy it – surfing off a wave on a broad reach with your heart in your mouth and spray in your hair is something of pure joy in a little dinghy and it doesn’t need a gybe around a buoy at the end of it – how about a tack around and a faster reach back?
Racing, as Seahorse opines, doesn’t have to be in ‘pathway’ boats like Optimists, 29ers, 420’s or Waszps. It can be just as happily conducted in a ‘non a la mode’ vessel and the genius concept of handicapping to age, ability and boat standard is one that has legs in my opinion. The Laser class have been very successful with their delineations of Master and Grand Master (I’m eyeing that flavour myself) and clubs up and down the country need a regeneration where those craft that are clogging up the garage or are lost in a barn somewhere are brought back to the local club and encouraged to get out there again.
Great article in a great magazine and food for thought. If you aren’t getting Seahorse you’re missing out – even if it’s just daydreaming about Rothmans or Gipsy Moth IV that’s “only” £165,000.
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