Coming Up To Speed On Youth Sailing
Spending time with a parent at a sporting event is like buying a ticket to a baseball game and finding yourself coincidentally seated between Bob Costas and Peter Gammons. You’re going to get educated about the sport. And if you want to know the important stuff about virtually any amateur sport, talk to a parent of one of the athletes.
At the U.S. Youth Sailing Championship this week, my MVP (Most Valuable Parent) was Dave Calhoun, who was quietly minding his own business tracking his son Doyle’s race when I dragged him into the vortex of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour.
I recognized Dave’s New England accent right away, and we immediately began to compare notes. It turns out that he was raised in Worcester, MA which just happens to be where The Bird was living when I met her. He now lives in Cohasset, on Boston’s South Shore, after having lived for a time in Plymouth – a town that I once called home. This happens all the time with New England natives. Put us together anywhere on the planet, and in less than five minutes we will triangulate to a shared place, time and favorite watering hole.
Given that he had a vested interest in tracking his son’s progress in the C420 competition on the horizon, Dave was content to follow the action via binoculars from his spot on the beach. I on the other hand, was in search of a better view of the action. Any action.
Now Dave is a good bit smarter than the average bear, so I’m thinking it took him about four and a half nanoseconds to figure out that I was a complete landlubber. Therefore, when I mentioned that I was going to head down to the end of the Cabrillo Beach fishing pier to watch the race being conducted on the “inner course” side of the jetty, he volunteered to help me out by telling me exactly what it was that I’d be watching.
This is what I learned in my briefing…wait, make that this is what I comprehended in my briefing…
The boats that were racing in calmer waters inside the protective jetty were there because, well because basically they weren’t technically full sailboats. They were 29ers, small skiff-like boats that are operated in races by a two-person crew – even though there’s barely enough room for both people to fit comfortably in the boat.
To the best of my understanding, a 29er is operated by one sailor handling the sails while standing and leaning well out over the water – sometimes almost parallel with the surface. The other sailor remains a bit more vertical, and takes more responsibility for manning the tiller and more mundane things. Like making sure they don’t get maimed by running headlong into another boat, for example.
Armed with this knowledge I ventured off to get as close to the action as possible – and to independently generate some no doubt ill-formed impressions about sailing. I have to think that Dave was chuckling to himself as he watched me head down to the end of the pier.
After watching several legs of racing in the 29er competition, one thing that definitely struck me was that, unlike any other race in any other sport, sometimes the best strategic move is to deliberately “overshoot” a turn in order to tack later and get a better (warning: made up term coming) “wind line” for the next leg of the race.
The first time this happened, I felt badly for the boat’s crew. “The poor kids”, I thought. “They can’t manage to control the boat well enough to negotiate a sharp turn at the marker buoy.” I hoped that they didn’t become too discouraged. Lo and behold though, after they had gone well beyond the marker, the poor lost boat suddenly tacked on a floating dime and made up for lost time quickly.
For a linear guy like me, this makes sailing a hard sport to grasp. Whereas in baseball nobody steals second base via right center field, in sailing there’s clearly more than one way to get from Point A to Point B in the water. So inspired strategy to an experienced sailor looks like random wandering to me. On one turn the extremes in how two separate boats chose to approach the next leg of the race took them hundreds of yards in different directions as they angled for the fastest way to get to the next marker buoy Which they each arrived at more or less simultaneously.
I watched this play out for a while, and realized this was really a sport that could only make complete sense to me from the perspective of being on the boat itself. It was very cool to watch the agility with which these kids got back and forth on the boat though. And I’ve always been a sucker for a colorful spinnaker.
It was time to wander back and report on my findings.
When I got back to the beach, I found Dave mildly distraught at the way things were playing out in the 420 competition. Son Doyle had been on a hot streak coming into this event, and like many of the parents that I had met during the NCAA Golf Regionals, despite his best effort to stay low-key about it, Dave couldn’t hide his pride and admiration for what his son had been accomplishing on the water this summer.
We talked a little about the competitive path for young sailors, and I was surprised to learn that sailing is very much a collegiate sport. And probably not coincidentally, the schools that boast the best sailing programs are also those that happen to have the best academic reputations. I learned that, while a good record as a junior sailor won’t necessarily get you a full ride at an Ivy League school, it could very well put you over the top in terms of piquing that school’s interest.
At the end of the day though, what Dave reflected on as the best part of the junior sailing experience is the responsibility that the kids learn to accept. In addition for the “respect for Mother Nature and what she can do to you at a moment’s notice”, he went on to say that the kids learn to be responsible for their schedule and their equipment, more so than in any other sport.
Speaking as someone who was once late for a playoff game because I had to fish my baseball glove out of the rain gutter that I had tossed it into…I’m thinking he’s got a point there.