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What Are We Doing Wrong?

Dave and Jaja Martin are not your typical couple. In their twenties they spent seven years sailing around the world in a 25-foot boat, during which time Jaja bore three children. In 1995 they upgraded to a 33-foot boat which they cruised (with the children) into the pack ice above the Arctic circle before moving to Maine.In Round Pond, Maine, there is a YMCA summer sailing camp. The

Dave and Jaja Martin are not your typical couple. In their twenties they spent seven years sailing around the world in a 25-foot boat, during which time Jaja bore three children. In 1995 they upgraded to a 33-foot boat which they cruised (with the children) into the pack ice above the Arctic circle before moving to Maine.

In Round Pond, Maine, there is a YMCA summer sailing camp. The program has five MIT Tech dinghies that were donated in 1981, and two donated 420s. The “clubhouse” is a cabin leased each year for $1.

Jaja soon became head of the sailing camp. She rides herd on 25-30 children every week, from ages 7 on up. She gets everyone out on the water every day in all weather conditions (other than lightning). “If it’s really miserable,” she says, “we wear long underwear; if it’s foggy, we set a limit at the mouth of the harbor and patrol to make sure no one goes outside. If we are outside and the fog closes in, I get the kids in the chase boat and we tow the dinghies in so I don’t lose anyone. We’ve taken the 420s out in 35 knots. Everyone did a tack in and out just for the experience.” These kids have no idea how lucky they are.

“We do things that are difficult, but not dangerous,” says YMCA executive director Craig Wilson, “so that we can up the ante in terms of learning and character development.” Jaja sees sailing as the vehicle for teaching an appreciation of nature and a respect for the ocean. “Sailing is what focuses the kids’ energy, but is not necessarily the most important skill learned at camp.”

Jaja spends much of her time keeping the boats operational. Running rigging consists of clothesline bought from a local discount store. One of the 420s takes on water so quickly it has to be brought into the dock every 15 minutes to be bailed out. The engines on the two chase boats need constant attention. Craig Wilson spoke of the expense of running such a camp and the difficulty of raising funds for it when he also has year-round programs to support.

What are we doing wrong in this country? Even before the recession, much of our recreational boating industry was experiencing tough times. The past three years have been close to disastrous. Our sport has been steadily losing ground to other pursuits. Meanwhile, a substantial segment of the boatbuilding industry has been chasing baby boomers into ever larger and more expensive boats with seemingly no strategy for what to do when these people are finally too old to sail. In Jaja and others like her, we have people who are firing up the sailors of the future and renewing the lifeblood of our sport, yet they are rigging leaking 30-year-old dinghies with clothesline.

The past few years I have spent summers cruising northern Europe. Every little seaport has a fleet of Optimists and similar dinghies, with children as young as three and four years old learning to sail. In our modern world in which we don’t dare let our children out of our sight and micromanage their every activity, this is for many kids the first time they’ve been in total control of their immediate surroundings. It’s a heady experience. In the process, the seeds that will become Europe’s future boatowners are being planted.

American yacht clubs do a great job of introducing young children to boats and the water, but these programs tend to be exclusive to yacht club members. Beyond that and some community sailing programs, there’s not much that is in any way structured.

Contrast this with the inland fishing industry. The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (rbff.org), funded by a grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, has developed a series of programs for schools, the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, the Sierra Club Water Sentinels, and others. It has partnered with ESPN and the Discovery Channel. In 2010, over 350,000 children participated in one of its various programs.

We need something that goes beyond the Grow Boating campaign run by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA). We need a mechanism to promote and support local programs that put kids in sailboats. This would not necessarily require a lot of resources. I feel sure there are plenty within the industry who would be willing to provide people like Jaja, and the YMCA, with equipment at cost.

What is needed is a small, dedicated staff whose mission in life is to connect kids with the water, and who can pull together the many disparate pieces that already exist that can help to make this happen. People like Jaja need a phone number they can call to find out where they can get running rigging at cost, or a new engine for a chase boat, and maybe even a new boat or two. Who can make it happen?

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