As the final embers of Omicron extinguished in our household having come knocking once again to haunt like a January ghoul stalking menacingly and striking with abandon, I escaped with the faithful hound and the Boy Wonder off down the coast to Bembridge to watch some thoroughly entertaining dinghy racing at Brading Haven YC. Filling our lungs with the freshest winter sea air, we strolled the chilly beach with the dog still utterly convinced that it’s high summer and the twinkling Solent is warm. If you look up the word ‘daft’ in the dictionary, you get ‘senseless, stupid or foolish’ and he ticks the box on all three. Lovely though.

But for the 40-odd dinghies milling around the sheltered harbour, it was joy on display. Unbridled joy. What better way to spend a January Sunday morning than out there duking it with your friends?

Dinghies of all hues were on display from some very competitive Lasers and RS Aeros to Mirror dinghies, RS400’s and the ultimate little starter-boat, to my mind, the RS Tera’s. It was a great scene and lovely to watch. Just messing about on boats in calm winter waters, picking the zephyrs, perfecting the roll tack and pretending you’re Matt Wearn, Giles Scott or Hannah Mills is proper fun and fully deserved of a piping roast dinner afterwards or a few ales. Sunday perfection in my book.

Brading Haven Yacht Club ©Polly Shafer

Up and down the country it’s the same. I eye the reports of ice-breaker, icicle and winter series events with glee. A puddle in Derbyshire, a Yacht Club in the West Country or the brave in Scotland, it matters not a jot. It’s just lovely to see on a winter’s morning the glorious social distancing, exercise and enjoyment. We really do have a cracking sport at our disposal.

©Polly Schafer

The big question that dominates our sport however is: how do we transfer this to the next generation? You like sailing, I like sailing but it’s not a given that our children or younger members of our extended families will similarly take to it like ducks to water.

Sailing to me was, at first, something that I didn’t really get (some might suggest I still don’t) but it changed when I found independence in a modern single-hander. The freedom and confidence that gave me was unbridled and it was a thrill to go ever further down the river and eventually out into the Solent that eventually became my playground. I still call it that today. It was an evolutionary experience and as I got more competent, racing came into focus and that’s just a useful way of keeping the score in my book.

Victor Samson in action in the Inspire Racing x WASZP program. France SailGP SailGP, Event 5, Season 2 in St Tropez, France. 08 September 2021. Photo: Ricardo Pinto for SailGP.

Can I honestly say that I enjoy racing? Well that depends. I’ve had magical, memorable times at the front of one-design fleets or winning under IRC and there’s a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction in that but if I weighed up whether it was the actual ‘racing’ that I enjoyed or the sheer thrill of ‘sailing’, if I’m truly honest it’s the latter that wins every time.

Buying a Laser last summer and sailing the family International H-Boat caused me to reflect on what I actually enjoyed whilst I was on the water and to be frank, racing is an excuse for the enjoyment and thrill of simply sailing. Perhaps my competitive edge is being smoothed by time but it’s an honest reflection of what I enjoy now. I’ve never really stopped to analyse it before.

Young sailors take part in the Inspire Racing x WASZP program on Race Day 2 at Spain SailGP, Event 6, Season 2 in Cadiz, Andalucia, Spain. 10th October 2021. Photo ©Felix Diemer for SailGP.

Offshore racing is becoming deeply attractive. Perhaps it’s the utter privilege of seeing and reporting on the amazing races happening under the guise of Rolex, RORC and the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. I don’t propose cruising as an option – but I can see the attraction. But I like the longer passage sailing (even in a dinghy) and less of the wham, bam of One Design racing. Almost certainly I overdosed on that in high-performance dinghies, J24s and Etchells. Is there a dinghy cruising association? I daren’t ask Google that but I’m sure there is.

One thing I absolutely know though about myself is that I love tinkering on boats. That to me is a good 30% of the attraction of sailing. Heaven knows what the people at Rooster think about me? “Another order for Wheatley in Cowes,” and it could be anything from the “ultimate Laser Traveller” (don’t call it the ‘ultimate’ as I can’t help myself) to a carbon lower section (ditto) to a new light weather jib to new coachlights. I just can’t stop the bimbler in me. It feels good to just be on a boat up to your neck in tools, rope, Harken fittings, splicing tools, sanders and drills. I hope I’m not alone. I love it. I’m no good at it, but I love it all the same. Give me a Loos Tension Gauge and that’s the afternoon gone. You know what I’m saying.

Young sailors take part in the Inspire Racing x WASZP program on Race Day 2 at Spain SailGP, Event 6, Season 2 in Cadiz, Andalucia, Spain. 10th October 2021. Photo ©Felix Diemer for SailGP.

But what this shows is that despite all the mis-spent youth hanging around reservoirs in the Midlands and causing havoc on the J24 party scene (some might call that a well-spent youth), racing isn’t the be all and end all. It’s great, but it’s not everything. Instilling the joy of simply sailing or being around boats is vital and keeps the youth involved through adulthood. It’s the flame that draws you back.

The best sails of last year, or at least the most memorable for me, were sailing not racing orientated. The dead-run into Yaverland Bay in the Round the Island Race was a highlight. Playing in monstrous building waves and big breezes off Calshot alone in October was another. Sailing alongside the Boy Wonder as we played chicken with Argo was memorable. Taking the Laser from Cowes to Hurst Beach and then flying back down the Solent against the tide in waves and breeze was simply magical. Those are the moments and that joy is what I feel needs to be transferred to the next generation.

SailGP Inspire WASZP program at Denmark SailGP, Event 3, Season 2 in Aarhus, Denmark 19th August 2021. Photo ©Matt Stephens for SailGP.

I heartily admire and applaud any parent, grand-parent, brother, sister, whoever who encourages their children into racing and goes the extra mile standing on the banks, retrieving the trolley in waders, acting as driver, mentor, chef, counsellor and chief rah rah-er to feckless, easily distracted teenagers and pre-teens but I also see a huge merit in just letting kids find their own way, at their own pace and simply enjoying messing on, in and around boats no matter what they are.

I love what SailGP are doing with the Inspire programme both on, and crucially, off the water and buying a fleet of Waszps was, well…inspiring. Just blasting around and foiling was almost better than seeing the cats in action (almost) and the look of total joy on the athletes faces just gets me every time. That’s the elixir of sailing right there. Bottle that and you have gold-dust.

It’s the question of our time. It dominates winter discussion and there’s reasoned argument and pointed proclamations about why it’s different today to when we were young. I would suggest the same discussions have been handed down the ages but what I know for sure is that sailing is a skill for life and teaches you far more than to tack on the next five degree windshift – vitally important as that is – and can really take you places.

Tom Slingsby poses with young sailors taking part in the SailGP Inspire program and the SailGP Championship trophy at Gosford Sailing Club as he helps launch SailGP Inspire Racing in partnership with WASZP. Australia SailGP Team’s national trophy tour for SailGP Season 1. Sydney, Australia, Wednesday 6th November 2019. Photo©Darren Leigh Roberts for SailGP.

Sailing clubs have the best real estate anywhere in the world, the international language of sailing is ubiquitous, it’s all there, right there if you want it. Selling the bigger picture of sailing and the opportunities that can arise, alongside the thrill and spill of actually being on the water, is perhaps worth thinking on – how many people do we know that met business partners, life partners or had opportunities presented by our shared involvement that otherwise would never have arisen? Countless. It’s probably the greatest networking sport. Golf doesn’t come close.

Sailing at any level gives us more than we can ever give back. It’s an important sport on so many levels and for those kids lucky enough to experience it, it’s something that is never forgotten and can truly and accurately be described as a lifetime sport. Racing is there for those that want it but sailing more generally covers so many bases. The possibilities are endless.

For those breaking the ice this weekend, good on you, whatever flavour you choose.

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