When I was first learning how to sail in my old wooden Optimist, the dads that used to teach us had one saying that they used more than any other:
"Smile - it'll make you sail faster."
I remember it not because it is good advice, but because they used it so much. I mean, they used to say it all the time.
But it is good advice.
The problem, though, is that you generally say something like that to someone who isn't smiling. And it is the last thing that someone who isn't smiling wants to hear.
You know what I mean - it is the sporting equivalent of saying to someone that is grumpy "Cheer up, it might never happen", or "It takes more muscles to frown than to smile". These are not good ways to cheer someone up.
That said, the dads that taught us (and used that saying) were right. You do sail better when you're relaxed and happy. And, possibly more importantly, you sail more often if you are happy and relaxed when you are out on the water. I also suspect that they could see something that we kids couldn't - that we were already starting to take sailing too seriously. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with taking something seriously, but we were already starting to see results as something that defined who we were, instead of seeing them as a by-product of the fun we were having.
I remember the first Open Meeting we did. It was at a neighbouring club, a lake with lots of islands. The course brought the boats near to the shore once per lap, and as the Optimists from our club reached past (bringing up the rear for the most part) our parents would throw chocolate bars to us. It was fun (if nutritionally questionable). I doubt if any one of us remembers how we did at that event, but we all remember having a good time.
As we grew older, and started counting our position from the front of the fleet instead of from the back, the chocolate bars stopped coming (we'd have probably been protested for receiving outside assistance or something). But that is how we wanted it. We weren't just sailing around with our mates any more, we were racing with our mates, and that's what we found rewarding.
Those of us that were still sailing, that is.
The first Optimist we had was called "Box of Chatter", and the reason it had this name was because my older sister would go out sailing and spend the whole time sailing around chatting to her friends. After a while she and her friends realised that they could chat just as well on the shore, and they wouldn't have to worry about where they finished in a race, or whether their younger siblings were ahead or behind them (we were mostly behind - she was a good sailor, my sister), and nor would they have to spend time learning about knots, or tides, or any of that nonsense.
And so, over time, they sailed less and less, until they didn't really sail at all.
So why have I brought all this up?
Well, it occurs to me that we worry a lot about making sailing fun for teenagers and early twenties sailors. We're losing a lot of sailors from this age group, and our immediate reaction is to wonder how we can make sailing more fun.
But, wait a minute. Sailing is fun.
We need to stop worrying about making sailing more fun**. I don't think my sister stopped sailing because sailing isn't fun. I can't speak for her, but I think she stopped sailing because it wasn't rewarding enough. What I mean by this is that different people are motivated by different things, and they'll gravitate to the things that fulfil those needs or wants. This means that we need to figure out what these needs or wants actually are.
Maybe she'd have carried on sailing if we'd have got her a Mirror instead of an Optimist (so she could sail with a friend), and they'd been encouraged to sail to an island and had a picnic instead of sailing in races.
Then again, maybe not.
Maybe she'd have preferred sailing on an evening when there was no racing on, and there was some social event after they'd been sailing.
Then again, maybe not.
Maybe she'd have carried on sailing if, when sailing with my dad in our Enterprise, he'd have stopped falling out of the boat, leaving her flailing around trying to sail the boat single-handed whilst he enjoyed his impromptu swim.
Then again, maybe not.
My point is that sailing was more about competition and the pursuit of improvement for me, and less about the social aspect (although this was still important); but it was more about the social aspect than the racing for others. But trying to make sailing more fun is a bit like telling someone to cheer up or smile more - you can't force people to enjoy something.
But you can help them find the bit of something that they do enjoy, and let them explore that.
Maybe we just need to try and empathise with what others want, and find ways of helping them do more of it.
- "But if we want to keep more young sailors engaged in the sport in their 20s and 30s, they need to see more of a return on their time in the form of fun and social interaction." (Where have all the young ones gone?)
- "Create different event formats and get club/community sailing boats to make it easy, fun and cheap to participate." (Not every kid needs to be the next America's Cup skipper)
- "In my experience, by far the most challenging aspect of running a junior sailing program is finding the right balance between competition and fun for so many unique personalities." (There's more to a successful junior program than racing)
- "If it (sailing) is fun first, so kids want to remain doing it, then the ones who want to can push themselves and the rest can have a lifestyle, a sport, a family activity they can do until at least 82 – the age of a mate of mine still cruising in the South Pacific." (It's time for Adult Sailors to take the Youth Challenge)
- "Most would people probably love sailing, because it really is amazingly fun. We just have to remember how to keep the fun in it." (Will 2014 be the year for change)