Dinghy sailing is a fabulous sport for children, and it can lead to a lifetime's passion... if you get it right (for more tips on getting your kids hooked on boating, read Get your family boating in 6 steps).
Waders were a last resort when I started helping my children to sail. Hardly a fashion item, but it saves getting cold and wet in wellies or flip flops, it’s simpler than forever repairing scrapes to the boat, and far less stressful than watching a child struggle to launch independently in a breeze.
Rather embarrassingly, at just over 5ft tall, the waders make me look like an Oompa-Loompa. But it raises a smile from the kids on shore, even those nervous at the thought of going out on a windy day, and allows them to launch calmly and without carnage. The message is that if you want children to enjoy sailing, it’s vital to make it as easy as possible, and fun.
Your local sailing club
Probably the best way of doing this – compared with the frustrating process of perhaps trying to teach them yourself – is to enrol them at a local sailing club either for an RYA (Royal Yachting Association) course or a kids’ club.
This way you can hand over the reins to qualified instructors, who with any luck will include some cool teenagers your child will want to impress.
Then you can watch your child listening attentively to all the advice on how best to launch – the very same tips you may have tried to impart but found ignored - and go sit in the clubhouse with a nice relaxing cuppa! Let’s face it, you would probably be heading for divorce at least once if you tried taking driving lessons from your spouse. And there’s absolutely no need to test the limits of family harmony when it comes to sailing.
There are over 2,200 Royal Yachting Association recognised training centres at home and abroad and many sailing clubs have a range of boats for courses and hiring out, alongside thriving youth and junior sections.
Children can pay to go along to a kids club, and from there gain skills, make friends and work their way through RYA training courses.
Other clubs prefer to have children undertake a course first to give them a basic knowledge of sailing, then invite them to continue sailing by taking part in their children’s sessions either for fun or to learn racing skills.
The RYA Youth Scheme
The RYA Youth Scheme is usually taught in dinghies, typically catering for children aged eight and upwards, with each stage taking a minimum of two days or an equivalent number of short sessions, with all the correct kit, qualified instructors and safety cover provided.
There’s absolutely no need to buy a boat when starting out. If you decide to later on, check out what is popular in your area, since kids usually like to have the same as their friends.
Stage 1 and Stage 2 develop the basic skills towards becoming a confident sailor; and Stage 3 (equivalent to Level 2 in the adult RYA National Sailing Scheme for sailors aged 16+) sees participants able to launch and sail a triangle course in moderate conditions. Higher levels consolidate this learning and cover skills such as spinnaker work and racing.
In our case, we by-passed the RYA courses by teaching our daughter the basics, then she joined a Saturday morning beginners’ group for children at Draycote Water Sailing Club, quickly progressing to also join in with the Friday night racing club.
It has led to growing confidence and fantastic new friendships, and now aged 10, her passion for racing is developing not just sailing skills, but also life skills like determination, independence and teamwork.
As for her younger brother, if it’s hot and sunny, he’s interested. Cold and wet, forget it. The response to this is absolutely no pressure. At six years old, he’s as likely to be found throwing stones in the lake or playing Lego with his best buddy. Occasionally he will jump aboard a boat and imagine going fishing or being a pirate.
I will bide my time. I know that if he too is making friends at the sailing club, they will all eventually lead each other onto the water.
Top tips to get your kids sailing
1. Fun. When children talk about sailing, it is usually about having fun rather than spotting windshifts!
2. Friends. The other important F is for friends; these strengthen the association between sailing and fun.
3. Games. Use games and never underestimate the power of bribery. Concentration and steering improves no end if there is treasure to be had - or Haribo – for making a destination or mark.
4. Clubs. Find an RYA-accredited sailing club or centre offering courses/sessions for children, and ideally follow-on activities like race coaching to continue developing their skills (see Yacht club or sailing club: choose the right one and 14 of the best UK sailing clubs).
5. Stay local. Choose somewhere local: travelling is boring, and you will get more time on the water, more often. See the RYA's tool to find your local sailing club.
6. Kit. Ensure your child has the right kit – it’s miserable for children to be freezing cold, or hot and bothered.
7. Patience. Sailing is one thing, racing another. If this is your aim, be patient. Pulling in the main sufficiently to avoid reaching the long way up a beat can take a while... then they forget to let it out downwind!
8. It's their time. Always remember they are sailing the boat, not you. For them, it may actually be quite an amazing feat of independence, perseverance, sometimes sheer bravery, to be out there mastering their boat and the elements.
9. Inspiration. Inspiration and aspiration can be powerful motivators. Get along to boat shows or regattas where they can see or meet their heroes at events like the ISAF Sailing World Cup regatta for Olympic classes and the America’s Cup World Series.
10. Squads. For those hooked on racing, there are a number of RYA-backed youth and junior classes and some sailors may get selected for RYA squads.
There will be times when your young sailor comes in crying: the conditions may overwhelm them; sometimes they know they could have done better (you don’t need to tell them); or they may just not be in the mood. Keep smiling and be ready with ice cream or hot chocolate. Because above all, first and last, it has to be fun! And assuming your children do find it fun, there is an awful lot to look forward to.