One of the reasons that sailing is such a great sport for kids is the variety of dinghies designed specifically for them, enabling all ages to get on the water, whether it’s for Swallows and Amazon style adventures or competing against the world’s best.
Novice sailors: Laser Pico and Hartley 10
For learning and having fun, there are a variety of hard-wearing entry-level training boats which are ideal for children since they tend to have high booms to minimise head bumps, easy-to-reef sails to reduce power in windy conditions, and rotomoulded plastic hulls which are virtually indestructible and maintenance-free.
They include the Laser Pico, which for many years has been one of the most commonly-used training boats at clubs and sailing schools, and more recently the Hartley 10 – one of a range of Hartley training boats – which with its roomy cockpit is kind on the knees and back and growing in popularity with both training centres and parents wanting their children to sail. It is designed to be stable, managing and forgiving, and easy to right after a capsize, making it ideal for juniors or those who want a simple boat to get on the water.
Improving: Optimist, RS Tera and Topper
Beyond the initial stages of sailing with a parent or learning at a club or centre, it will be friendships and fun that continue to be the enduring factors in whether children enjoy their sailing, and a good way to choose a boat is to see what is popular locally.
Many children, from aged around eight upwards, start out in singlehanded Optimist or RS Tera dinghies. Both can offer great fun and games on the water, training and racing, and the most appealing choice for your child is likely to be whatever their mates are sailing.
Optimists have been around since 1947 and are largest junior class; hundreds attend Oppie championships in the UK and there are also flotillas nationwide so children can play and race together at their local club or regionally. Excellent for getting even very young children helming, they can be raced up to aged 15.
The RS Tera meanwhile, a rotomoulded racing dinghy designed in 2005, offers two rigs, with the smaller Sport for younger/lighter sailors, and the more powerful Pro for older sailors. With strong fleets in various parts of the UK, training squads and great racing, the RS Tera can take children from days out at the beach right through to international competition, and is chosen by some children for its looks and by their parents for its robustness.
Toppers are the second largest junior class in the UK and likewise durable, and easy to transport on the top of a car, hence the name. They are usually sailed by bigger junior sailors, with huge numbers taking part in racing and training nationwide. There is also now the smaller Topper 4.2 rig ideal for younger children and siblings wanting to get sailing in the class. For older junior sailors there is also the Laser 4.7, the smallest rig of the Olympic class Laser, which like many of the larger junior classes is part of the Royal Yachting Association’s performance pathway for junior and youth sailors.
The aspirations of parents and children will influence the choice of boat, in that for those wanting to compete, there are a number of key classes recognised by the RYA as offering the best route for developing the next generation of racing sailors. RYA recognised classes help children develop their skills to race at the highest level through professionally coached squads and national and international competition, and for juniors (under 16 years) include the Optimist, RS Tera Sport, Topper, Laser 4.7, RS Feva and Cadet.
Doublehanders: RS Feva, Mirror, Cadet
For children who prefer to be in a boat with a friend, or who would rather crew than helm, doublehanded sailing can be a great option and it also enables them to learn additional skills like teamwork and spinnaker handling.
The RS Feva is a modern junior doublehander with a tough hull and asymmetric spinnaker, which has taken off with an exciting mix of national and international racing, large fleets, class training and RYA-backed squads.
There are also some strong pockets of Mirror sailing and racing around the country, where the distinctive red-sailed junior class enables children to sail with each other or with a parent helming. Another popular junior class in some areas, likewise designed more than 50 years ago from the stable of legendary boat builder Jack Holt, is the Cadet, which was designed especially for children and continues to be sailed worldwide.
As with many of the older traditional classes it is often possible to pick up an affordable second hand boat which offers great value-for-money sailing to get your child started.
For children who come into sailing in their later teens, the RYA recognised classes for under-19s include the singlehanded Laser Standard for boys and the smaller-rig Laser Radial, the 420 doublehander with a single trapeze and conventional spinnaker, the 29er skiff with single trapeze and asymmetric spinnaker, and a twin-trapeze catamaran class.
For those who don’t want to sail in these classes, an alternative is to look at any number of adult classes that actively encourage young sailors and beginners.
The Firefly class, for example, is great for fleet racing as well as the team racing so popular with universities. Spinnaker classes to consider include the asymmetric RS200, which has a growing youth contingent, including a new northern squad for those who want coaching, while for those wanting a trapeze boat, the Fireball is among the many dinghy classes which aim to inspire youth sailors and novices alongside their hot-shots.
So no matter when your child comes into sailing, whether it’s aged eight or 18, there will be a boat to suit their age, weight, skills and ambitions and your pocket!
Making the right choice of boat as they progress through their sailing will not only help them develop a great sporting passion but also the confidence that wherever they end up in the world, they will belong to a club of like-minded friends.
For a guide to buying a sailing dinghy for all ages, see: 25 best beginner sailing dinghies.