Saturday, February 7, 2009

22 New Fans of Sailing

My daughter Samantha was turning 6 and so it was time for her ‘superstar’ week at kindergarten. Superstar week is special every day for the child, with different treats and activities all week, and the week finished up with her able to bring in someone to ‘show and tell’ to her class. Well, she wanted her whole family to come In to visit her class. She also wanted me to do a show-and-tell that was all about sailboats.

So there I was sitting in front of 22 little kids, all of them staring at me, listening intently and being very polite by raising their hands before speaking. I had a model sailboat as a prop and I started my talk by asking how many of them had ever been on a sailboat? A few hands went up, so I followed up by asking those with their hands up to say something about those specific experiences. In reality most of them, it turns out, had either been on a power boat, or had only seen a sailboat and not really been on one.

So I started out by telling them how a sailboat works. Nearly all of them were aware that it is propelled by the wind, that a sailboat ‘tips over’, and many of them also knew that the keel is what helps to keep the sailboat upright. These things surprised me, as they were much more knowledgeable than I had given them credit for being. Then my daughter told the class that I have done the MAC Race, which led the children to ask what that was. So I showed them a large chart of Lake Michigan (most of them recognized the lake, and also knew where Chicago was on that chart). I then began to tell them about the Race to Mackinac each year, and how 300 boats race, using only the wind to go from one end to the other, and that they are all racing to the same place (one child asked if there were stop signs to keep people from bumping into each other).

The idea that all these sailboats were all heading somewhere at the same time going to the same place using only the wind to get there generated a bunch of oohs and aahs. After talking about the race, I told them that a lot of people also take vacations on their boats, and that some people even live on their boats. We then talked about what the inside of a sailboat looks like, and I showed them pictures that let them see how it is like a small house with a kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms. Most of these children were very surprised to learn that a sailboat was that nice inside, and suddenly they all wanted to go on one (one girl asked me if I had brought a big boat with me; another said the boat was nicer than his house).

What struck me was the realization that right then -that exact moment-I was given a great opportunity to create a positive perception of sailing, and maybe plant a seed that would end up with one of them winning their own MAC Race someday, or representing the USA Sailing Team here in the 2016 Olympics. Luckily, with my own children I will have many other moments like this in upcoming years. Moments where what I say, tell, and do will maybe help create big ideas and dreams that will take root in them. Right now their world is full of nothing but possibilities, with relatively no boundaries or limits to what they can achieve. I hope that my 20 minute talk caused most of these children to have positive thoughts and ideas about sailing and sailboats and its possible place in their futures.

It is us who are responsible for creating the next generation of sailors, for growing the sport, and helping pave a path for others to discover it. Sailing was not very accessible to me while I was growing up, and my main image of it was that it was only for 'rich' people, and that you could get sick easy. Obviously my reality of it today is much different than what I grew up believing. Sailing deserves a better image than that, and it will need it if it is going to attract new blood (young or old) and diversity. At the end of my presentation, I asked: “After learning about sailing and sailboats, how they work and how much fun they are, how many of you want to go sailing on a boat?” Every hand in the room shot up (even their teacher’s hand went up). That tells me that it’s never too early (or late) to create involvement, interest, and new sailors.