I don’t think there’s a better sight in sailing. For all the wham, bam, thank you ma’am of the grand prix circuit, for every foiling offshore mono or multi, all those Starboats in full flight – and they’re pretty special – Slingsby balletically sailing the Moth or the sheer unadulterated beauty of a 5.5 Metre at Lake Garda – no, the picture below says it all.
It’s what we do the racing version of the sport for. It’s absolutely everything and for those that have enjoyed the experience, it’s truly unforgettable. For most of us it’s so rare as to be memorable, burnt into our recollection, etched forevermore in the memory banks as leading a fleet of one designs by a country-mile is just so, so special – this below is young Madalena Wanzeller at the Lusitania Christmas Races organised by the Club Navale de Cascais, heading a 49 strong Optimist fleet and looking pretty in control to my eye post gybe. Fantastic.
I can remember a 420 national championships back in the late 1980’s when I had what we shall call ‘one of those’ beats in light airs having come off the start line with dynamite pace and a Marlboro, hit three shifts up the first leg like a sailing genius, rounded the top mark and watched as the rest of the fleet wallowed in a hole. We’ve all got stories like this.
Down the first run it was like the boat was on rails, no wrong could be done, but by beat two, the late, great Jonny Merricks was hunting me down before literally powering over the top to windward and shouting back: “what the **** are you doing up here Wheatley?” I’ve never really forgotten that. It was good whilst it lasted.
But back to the Optimists and wow, take a gander at these shots that have come in from the brilliant Matias Capizzano from Argentina who has been taking photos of the class in Argentina in big breezes for what seems like forever.
These latest are from the 2021 Argentino de Optimist Regatta at Mar del Plata and I just look at them, rather like I suspect you do, in utter admiration with misty eyes. I can’t do that. I can’t sail like these kids can. It’s the art of the impossible. It’s unbridled joy. There’s a sense of complete abandon – a freedom almost if you like – and I just take my hat off to them, sit back and go ‘Wow’…the skill, the athleticism, the suppleness, the bailing, the hiking, the kinetics, the lack of fear. Just incredible.
I’ll make a prediction here – Argentina are going to be a super-power in world sailing within a generation. How can they not be when the kids are doing this? It’s going to be fascinating to see how the country comes through the ranks – watch out, this generation is on its way. How they even keep afloat is beyond me – as someone who’s sunk one of these things on a Boxing Day race back in the day having ploughed into what felt like a Southern Ocean roller, I full square appreciate just how skilful these kids are. Brilliant to watch…
And I have to say, the Optimist always catches my eye. I was on a ferry quite recently coming over to the Isle of Wight in pretty horrendous conditions, the type of breeze and sea state that you just look at and go: “no, not for me, thank you” and there flitting about at the mouth of the river were the unbelievable young sailors from the Lymington and Keyhaven fleets sailing like billy-oh, powering along upwind on an autumn training camp. It’s just electric to watch and I’m sure it’s going on not just on the South Coast but around the globe. Amazing.
As seasoned observers, it’s easy to pick on the Optimist fleet and point at pushy parents all hoping that their little darlings are the next Ben Ainslie, Robert Scheidt or Tom Slingsby but I think that does a massive dis-service to the commitment on display. What’s actually wrong with giving your kids the opportunity to experience a sport like sailing and to push them to achieve? In a woke, molly-coddled world, sailing is a fabulous antidote that teaches so many life-skills. I applaud those Mums & Dads, Aunties & Uncles and Grandparents plus all those coaches and club officials who give up their time, money and effort to give the next generation a shot. Without them sailing dies on its knees. Heroes all.
Sure, the pathway forward in the racing world is like a vicious, narrowing triangle with only the very best, the most committed and those with a computational intellect getting right to the very, very top and yes, many kids do go and find other sports. But there’s a huge number that experience sailing and racing at a young age, then discover the good things in life, and come back to the sport as well as those that stay in and compete, race, cruise, have a laugh on the beach with skills that they’ll never forget. A bit like riding a bike, it’s a heck of a skill to have under your belt is sailing.
So to all those kids out there getting ready for the winter training or those in sunnier climes looking forward to perhaps a regatta this weekend, a district championship, the club race or just a blast – go and enjoy it. Say thanks to Ma and Pa, acknowledge those on the Committee Boat with a wave after you cross the finish line, cosset the friends you make along the way, do your best, win if you can, smile if you don’t but most of all, get out there and enjoy it.
Sailing – the best sport on the planet.