Learning to Capsize

March 31, 2012 § 6 Comments

First published in Spinsheet Magazine – April 2012

Learning to Capsize

Any eight-year old in my town can learn to sail in the summer at the local, not-for-profit sailing center. The only pre-requisite is that the child has passed a swim test. On the first day of class, with just a few minutes of basic instruction, the kids put on life jackets, buddy up, climb into prams and are helped overboard in a slow, managed capsize, at the behest of a senior instructor and many watchful lifeguards.

Icy cold lake water produces high-pitched squealing, no matter the gender. Once the noise abates, and if the kids have listened to instruction, their only task is to verbally and visually check on their buddy, and then dog paddle to the exposed centerboard, where in subsequent lessons, capsize recovery efforts will be taught and mastered.

At the same learning center, a beginner adult receives very different treatment. Adults start with classroom training to learn the points of sail, the names of the parts of a boat and the basic controls. On the water, the only thing that is the same is the requisite lifejacket. Adults don’t have to prove swimming skills, in part, because it’s not likely that they’ll do any (although they do have to sign a form saying that they can swim, for insurance liability reasons.) There is usually no capsize test, since they learn on more stable keelboats. Even while sailing, the adults won’t get near water, except, possibly, to dip a fingertip into it or when it comes to them in spray over the bow.

It seems logical that these lesson plans start in different places, given the fact that the students are different ages. But let’s go out on a limb and ask two questions:

  1. Why do kids need to know how to swim to learn to sail while adults don’t?
  2. Why don’t adults start to learn sailing – a water sport – by going into the water, just as kids do?

Ask around; you’ll usually hear suppositions like it’s “always been done this way”, or “adults don’t like to get their hair wet”, or “our policy requires swim tests”. It’s hard to find compelling answers.

In fact, there is a simpler reason: it’s easier to teach in uniform age and experience groups. Lining up ten inexperienced 2nd graders and giving them the same basic do’s and don’ts is much simpler than mixing 2nd graders with their 5th grade siblings and their mom or dad in the same class. If your goal is to provide basic skills training to many, then it makes good sense to organize by age and level of experience.

However, easier is not always better. If your goal is to provide rich, unforgettable experiences in addition to basic skills, then learning to sail must take on very different forms.

A new study commissioned by Australia’s equivalent to US Sailing, called Yachting Australia, asked families, young and old, what they wanted from a sailing school. They interviewed over a thousand moms and dads, many who had taken an introductory sailing class or had tried sailing once or twice, but had not learned to sail on their own.

Amazingly, nearly everyone wants to take sailing lessons together, that is, in family groups.

Families with young children prefer a joint learning experience in dinghies on weekends and say they need a good coach to child ratio. This ratio is very important, because it provides the necessary attention to safety, skills and fun, while ensuring a great experience across the age groups.

Families with older children also want to be in an intergenerational program, but sometimes as team-mates, and optionally, as cordial competitors on a race course. They want to go fast and play games. And this group insists on an emphasis on practice, rather than theory; that is, an experiential curriculum. Notably, among families with older kids, there are more women than men who aspire to sail or want to increase their sailing skills.

Among adults without children, also interviewed, there is no expectation that sailing should be for adults only. This group also emphasizes practice rather than theory and it doesn’t matter to them if kids are in the mix. What matters is spending as much class time on the water as possible and having the most fun in it.

At my own sailing center, we are exploring a new concept that marries many of these ideas: advanced sailing courses taught aboard fast, durable and affordable four or five person planing dinghies with sprits and spinnakers and that mix and mingle the age groups. The only pre-requisite: basic skills mastered. The idea may be an anomaly in the U.S., since no American builder offers such a boat. A committee has been searching for just the right one, and has found good examples built in the UK, but not here. It is ironic, however, that there are classic American designs, like the Flying Scot and the Thistle, that embody the spirit of our plan, if not it’s vision. It will be a major shift for our program to introduce the possibility of capsize to adults, and we’re not taking it lightly. We are planning new skills training, safety procedures and gear requirements like wetsuits for all, taking lessons from the Cal Sailing Center program that does this now. I’ll be reporting on our progress in future articles.

Back to our questions:

Does a kid need to swim to sail? Of course not. A good life jacket, proper attention from instructors, and some rules of the road are sufficient to ensuring safety. Aspiring sailors often become better swimmers simply because they are spending more time in the water. That’s a very good reason for non-swimming kids to learn to sail.

Do adults need to stay dry? Of course not. But realistically, adults may have more entrenched habits and deeper inhibitions. It might not make sense to toss them in the water on the first day. But we should set the expectation that advanced, fast sailing, undoubtedly the finest, most memorable sailing of all, is also wet sailing. Adults should expect and plan to conquer the capsize, just as their kids have. For many hard working parents, entering and exiting the water via sailboat with their kids will be the most exciting, invigorating, confidence-building, satisfying and enjoyable part of their day.

And when these families go into the lake for the first time, I can assure you, there will be high-pitched squealing, no matter the gender. Or the age.


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§ 6 Responses to Learning to Capsize

  • Great article. Our new (adult) fleet held a capsize day and helped get several of our members into the action (with some squealing).


  • ndhayes says:

    Thanks, Robert. Envy your spring sailing. We’re still dry here.

    I saw (and shared) Andy Griswald’s footage. Is this from the same day? Fun.


  • […] Sailors need to bring a life-jacket, shoes/sandals that can get wet, hat and sunscreen. Drinking water will be provided. Swimming experience is recommended, although there will not be a swimming test. We'll do capsize drills and get wet (just like adults should). […]

  • David Neff says:

    Hi, Excellent article, informative and insightful. You mention “It is Ironic the Flying Scot and Thistle, embody the sprit of our plan, if not it’s vision.” I have read this paragraph several times and cannot determine what you are saying. Where is the irony?
    Thank you

    • ndhayes says:

      Hello David,

      A good question often exposes unclear ideas. Your’s is a good question.

      By ironic, I mean to say that it is ironic that designs from decades ago embody the spirit of our plan. Sandy Douglass obviously saw the value of small, intergenerational groups co-mingling on affordable sailboats. Sadly, not many newer designs offer the same grand benefits. I see from your website that you are a Flying Scot aficionado. Our search committee seeks a boat that carries 4-5 sailors, planes, is indestructible with very high use, and costs around $10K, sail-away. So, neither the Flying Scot nor the Thistle quite match our needs. But, as I said, fans of Douglass’ timeless designs know exactly what we are trying to accomplish in our program, because you accomplish it every day.

      – Nick

  • […] the Opti-resigned assume that the only way for a kid to learn is in a pram, starting precisely at the age of eight. Opti haters blame the boats for scaring kids away, or, at least, for not being enough fun to sail […]

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