Have You Asked The Kids?

saving sailing

Have You Asked The Kids?

By Nicholas Hayes, Author of the new bestseller Saving Sailing

“Have you asked the kids?” snapped the sailboat dealer, when I suggested in a discussion panel that instead of racing in strictly delineated age groups, as we generally do now, we should race in multi-generational teams some of the time.

It’s a common question. The assumption, of course, is that kids don’t want to race with the codgers and will summarily reject sailing if forced to. And if you poll sailing teens, the majority will probably say that they’d rather hang with other teens than with mom or dad. So it is a valid point, but it widely misses the mark. Worse, it’s the basis for the structure of most sailing development in the US today.

With due respect to my dealer friend, who I believe meant well; ask a stupid question, you’ll get a stupid answer.

It is true that we have more kids in more programs sailing at a higher skill level than ever in US history. (For facts and figures, watch this talk, at the October Sail America meeting in Annapolis. Footage courtesy Mr. Clean.)

The book Saving Sailing elaborates:

Sailing isn’t alone among American pastimes in the development of junior programming as a theoretical feeder for long-term interest. It does, however, deserve a special award for creating extreme isolation between adults and kids, when it has the least reason to do this. A sailboat might be among the best platforms on which generations can gather and learn from each other, but sailing hasn’t taken advantage of this tremendous, built-in opportunity. For example:

  • In most sailing clubs today, the kids show up in the morning, and leave in the late afternoon, just about the time the adults are arriving.
  • On most sailing boats underway with more than three people onboard, you’ll find nobody under the age of about 45 (in races, the adult age may be a bit lower).
  • In most races, except those created specifically for kids, there are no kids.

Of course, the book also goes on to show how defection correlates to format: 95% of the kids in today’s sailing programs won’t sail after about 25.

Most every sailing club has a model team on a different tack. At the South Shore Yacht Club in Milwaukee, three generations of the Sabinash family campaign their J-35 Sabotage. Years ago, novices Ray and Joyce took up sailing with their school-aged sons and daughters. Now the same sons and daughters bring wives and kids from toddlers to teens. Note that nearly every sailing Sabinash after Ray and Joyce came through SSYC’s junior program to learn important skills. Now, on most Wednesday evenings in the summer, you can count fourteen to sixteen on the rail, if you include the babies in the laps of hiking moms. And Sabotage is a perennial winner; collecting major trophies continuously for decades in both one-design and handicap, and in both buoy and offshore competitions.

I’ll never forget clawing a 6-mile lead through 150 miles of the 2001 Hook race, only to be passed on an inside lift that took “Sabo” over the horizon in the last 45 mile-long beat. They won overall. This year, they lost their rig with a third of the bay series left to sail, and still stayed on the podium, though the boat didn’t leave the dock in August or September.

But the Sabinash’s are not just race winners.

Sadly, three winters ago Ray passed away. When the news spread within the community, competitors and friends paused and bowed. The line outside of Ray’s visitation was a block long. Sailors from all over town and from distant clubs waited and wept together for four hours in the frigid Wisconsin winter, for the chance to recall their favorite racing stories, and to reminisce over four decades of sailing snapshots and fond memories.

The next spring, Joyce and her kids and grandkids did what they do: they went sailing together. When you ask a Sabinash if they “asked the kids,” you realize that they don’t understand the question. They don’t ask. They do.

Boy do they.