To race or not to race, that is the question.
If your child has been taking sailing lessons for more than a month, thequestion of racing is bound to pop up. In most advanced sailing courses,instructors regularly use races as a way to motivate their students tobuild their sailing skills. When your child sees that the ability to hike out, read the wind, or hold tension on the sheets, makes the difference between just sailing and sailing well, those lessons stick with him or her longer than a lecture or a textbook.
Once your children have some exposure to racing sailboats, they're very likely to want to join a racing team.
What's a parent to do? Don't panic. Talk to other parents and children involved in sailboat racing. Researchthe racing programs in your area. Most important, talk to your child to findout why he or she wants to race, and give some thought to your child's temperament, too.
Like any other sport in which your child might want to get involved, racingsailing dinghies has some pros and cons.
"The one really cool thing about sailing is that anyone can do it," saidNan Walker, the Executive Director of the US Sailing Center in MartinCounty, FL. "You don't have to be in the best shape. You can be bigor small. People with disabilities will find that this is ahandicap-accessible sport."
"It's an incredible co-ed sport," Walker continued. "Sailing fostersindependence, self-confidence, responsibility, and good sportsmanship. Andthere's teamwork, because you all help to move the boats around at the dockand on shore."
"It's fun because we get to travel and see our friends," said 12-year-oldParker Davis, who has been racing for the past six years.
David Ames, a 22-year-old instructor who went to the Opti Worlds when hewas 13, 14, and 15 years old, echoed Parker's positive endorsement ofracing, but offered his own drawbacks as well.
"You get to travel the world," said Ames, who traveled to Norway, Sweden,England, Holland, France, Italy, Portugal, and Greece during his racingcareer. "You do things that maybe average people don't get to do. You seedifferent cultures. The cons are you have to be very dedicated to whatyou're doing. You sacrifice time away from school. It can be expensive.You're learning either way. You miss 30 days of school each year, butracing teaches you commitment, dedication, and a strong work ethic."
Sailing instructors see their fair share of children who can't find theright balance between school and sailing. Instructors also know thatchildren who have tender egos can be quite hard on themselves when theylose.
"The potential problem these days, with kids starting early, is burnout,"said Walker. "It's a lot of pressure to be an eight-year-old in a boat on a200-boat starting line. It's the goal of the coach or director to balanceout racing. You can still train without racing in each practice. And youcan choose the appropriate regattas for your child's level."
Sometimes, the pressure doesn't come internally, from the children, butfrom their parents. A child who is easily scared or intimidated by a longstarting line of boats can end up in tears at the finish line if the parentcriticizes her performance or makes her feel pressure to finish better inthe next race. Parents can also get caught up in spending too much moneybuying the latest equipment and the most extravagant gear. If a parentrigs the boat or is too heavy-handed with participation, the child who isracing will not receive the positive feeling of independence orself-confidence, either.
In conclusion, racing is a highly personal, very individual decision. Ifyou think that your child can find a good balance between sailing andschool, racing could be a great way for him or her to develop mentalstrategies, work on coordination, learn responsibility by caring for theboat and for her equipment, and develop some environmental awareness. If,however, you feel that either you or your child will focus too much on thegoal of winning, instead of the path to winning, then perhaps you shouldboth concentrate on friendly, non-competitive daysails and longer cruises.
After all, this is supposed to be fun, right?