Encouraging, Nurturing, and Developing Young Sailors

By Jack Finefrock, Former Thistle Class President

We need more sailors! And adults are difficult to cultivate for lots of reasons. They already have work, houses to maintain, children, and other hobbies to keep them busy. And learning how to sail / race isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. Our game is complicated & difficult and let’s face it, when people are accustomed to succeeding and excelling in their activities sailing can be frustrating to learn.

So, where can we find our sailing candidates? How about teaching young people that are still in the learning mode and don’t have so many obligations and time constraints? Finding them is probably the toughest part since sailing isn’t the norm like soccer, baseball, and other activities. I don’t have great ideas along this line except for inviting them to try our sport the same as we do adults. So, let’s focus on what to do when youth drop into our laps.

I’m not good at large group training with sailing drills, etc. I am at my best one-on-one, serving as a mentor on an individual basis. Following are tips and considerations for turning individual younger people into sailors (and by sailors I mean Thistlers).

How to engage young sailors

Be patient, respectful, kind, and accepting.

Young people get a lot of instruction from adults, so you don’t want to be viewed as just another adult that is trying to pound something into their heads. Show interest in them and what they like to do.

  • Engage them when you are around them. Most adults don’t find it easy to strike up conversations with kids – it might be a stretch for you but try it.
  • If your club has a meal or even just hot dogs after sailing watch for opportunities to chat with the kids. Stop by the single-handed area and help rig or take down their boats after sailing and ask about their sailing. Listen to them!
  • If kids are in the boat park with their parents or other adults, include them in the discussions. Ask them about THEIR race or sail – our natural inclination is to talk to the skipper and adult crew, but make sure to include the kids.
  • Share fun stories about sailing and Thistling that might be interesting to them.

How to train young sailors on your Thistle

Figure out a way to get them on your boat on a day that won’t scare them. Make it an easy sail even if you are racing in a club race. Forget being competitive and focus on THEM.

Talk about everything

Describe the sailing and what you are trying to accomplish with an effort to coach them at their level. I like to babble to young crew about what I’m doing and thinking while sailing. My attempt is to have all actions and reactions make sense to them. This gets as simple as, “Look, the jib is

about to luff and we are beginning to slow down – we better bear off.” And, “Look – those guys over there have a lift. We better tack to get over to that wind.” And, “I am pulling a little on the tiller, let’s hike a little harder,” etc.

Answer their questions sincerely and at their level. There are no dumb questions. No need to try to impress them with complicated answers. Keep your responses accurate and simple.

Let them try

Have them try everything on your boat that they might be able to do. Provide gentle instruction with a description of how it will feel when they get it right.

Make sure to have them take the helm when they are ready for it. And when you do, explain the importance of paying attention on all points of sail. Ask them what it feels like and make suggestions to make it feel right.

Compliment them when they do get the job done well. We all like to hear, “Well done.”

Make sure they’ll want to come back

No yelling! Ever!! Keep it light. If you ever need to raise your voice to make sure that you don’t capsize or hit another boat, make sure that it is just volume, not derogatory comments.

Judge the kid’s personality with an effort to keep it from being scary or thrilling if they aren’t ready for it. And if they are ready, step it up.

How to keep them coming back

Follow up the sailing with light conversation on shore on whatever seems to interest them, sailing or otherwise. But respect their desire to talk and hang out with other kids.

Make sure to offer another time to sail together. Don’t let it be a one time event. Be persistent and encouraging.

The next time out, add to the training and expectations of them as they improve.

  • Review what you worked on the last time out.
  • Share the helm on the way back to the dock every time.
  • Increase your expectations and intensity carefully to make sure that they can be challenged yet confident.

Encourage them to sail with everybody they can to learn even more. While my kids learned things from me, they sailed with many other Thistlers and gained SO much from them. I’ll never forget the stories they told after crewing for Blair Dryden at Eugene Nationals one year as they finished 3rd.

When they move on to their own boats or crewing for others, don’t forget them. Check in with them to see how it’s going and see if you can give them any help – with anything. These “kids” are really your friends by now. And who knows what you may learn from THEM?