will mom and dad save the sport?

will mom and dad save the sport?

When you read stories about parents exploiting kids in the hope of reality TV fame — like pushing a teen into stupidly dangerous stunts and basking in the glow of the camera lights — it becomes awfully hard to believe in the American parent. One can only feel deep cynicism when popular culture myths overrule basic, good parenting decisions.

But the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center (winner of US Sailing’s Outstanding Outreach and Inclusion Award in 2009) is placing its bets on American moms and dads anyway, with its new Family Learn-to-Sail program. We think, given the option, most parents will do the right thing.

Like soccer programs, music lessons, little league and irish dance, most junior sailing programs, including MCSC’s traditional offer, are age-segregated and skills-oriented. One of the primary conclusions of the research that was the basis for the book Saving Sailing is that “…we tend to do things for our kids and we almost never do things with them.” MCSC’s board of directors and program committee agreed to try something completely different. So after almost a year of planning, Family Learn-to-Sail offers a clear and logical alternative to the youth-sports paradigm. Instead of parents dropping kids off for lessons; this program, new in 2010, helps parents who have sailed before introduce their children, children who have sailed before introduce their parents, or parents and children who have never sailed to learn how together.

From the onset, the program is designed to be intergenerational and experiential — oriented towards making (as opposed to receiving) big gobs of fun while building great memories of family time. The kind that can only be had on a sailboat.

Before the family arrives, they are paired with a mature, capable instructor, one with both strong sailing and leadership skills, who takes the time to understand everyone’s concerns and aspirations and will be with them for the entire four session experience. When the family arrives for the first class, the first experience isn’t rigging or points of sail; instead the goal is to sail to a location that would be otherwise inaccessible, and snap pictures for a family sailing photo album that becomes a memento when the class is over.

Subsequent days offer similar, progressively more difficult and interesting and well-documented challenges. Along the way, everyone; adults and kids, learn how to be safe, to steer, trim, tack, jibe, dock and rig. After the first four sessions, the family might elect to continue to a more advanced course, and may try to test into a “rating”, which enables the family to sail independently using MCSC’s shared fleet in their own free time.

To be sure, it’s an idea in early infancy. Our first class was yesterday, June 28th. But we’re already learning and adjusting. We found that finding four Sunday afternoons in a row is almost impossible, and we’re making schedule changes for the latter half of the season to make it more accessible to more families. And the MCSC board and directors Peter Rieck and Holly Davenport have made a multi-year commitment to stay with it and get the program just right, along the way sharing lessons-learned with other sailing centers and schools around the country in a broad effort to strengthen the family through shared, fun free time activities like sailing.

If you want to learn more, if you know a Milwaukee-area family that might be interested, or you just want to bet on American moms and dads again, friend us on Facebook.

Nicholas Hayes, Author of Saving Sailing, and Milwaukee Community Sailing Center volunteer.