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Sail Training – A Parent’s Perspective

“We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding” (Four Quartets)

I had been thinking about getting my kids to start sailing almost since they were born.

From the early 1990s and after half a lifetime on the water, mostly on the foredeck, I wish I could communicate what being on the water means to me—not only the freedom of the open ocean, the immersion in nature, and the tight camaraderie of sailing mates, but also the intellectual challenges of so many different and interconnecting disciplines including physics, aerodynamics, fluids, weather, orienteering, pioneering, mechanics, racing rules, tactical strategies and teamwork.

However, after surviving several personal near-misses myself, almost drowning as a child, and knowing several close friends with child fatalities, I’ve also been quite risk-averse and nervous for my own children’s safety. You can imagine my trepidation, as I would imagine my kids sailing off into the distance, without being able to see or guarantee their well-being.

In the December 2004 Asian Tsunami, my wife and I were the only survivors from our resort in Khao Lak, Thailand, and spent a month in Bumrungrad from our injuries. So, she scolds the “gweilo” in me, with some healthy Chinese superstition, that I should think positively, and not speak openly of bad outcomes. In my mind, better planning can still abate tragedy and disappointment.

It’s also been difficult finding the best ways to teach my children. As most parents would recognise after numerous scolding and nagging sessions through Chinese, English, math, and music, parents are seemingly among those least listened to by their children. Efforts to teach my kids knots, camping, and sailing principles are often met with, “Oh Dad, never mind”, and back to Minecraft and Roblox on their iPads. They’ve each had multiple swimming coaches and violin teachers, before finding the right mix of patience, rigor and encouragement.

And we are still trying to find that right mix.

So, this summer, not being able to travel thanks to COVID-19, it seemed a unique opportunity without distractions to get my kids on the water for an extended time. Ultimately, the plan was to bring our boat down to Middle Island and live off the boat as the kids did their daily sailing lessons. It would be like a summer sailing camp for as much of the summer as I could arrange.

I talked to sail training staff off and on for a month or two before the summer started, but I was pleasantly surprised once training started thanks to Luke, Kelvin, Jono and the rest of their teams. Staff members were well organized, with 8 to 10 simultaneous classes in the morning and the same in the afternoon. Adding to that, Laser training, racing clinics, and other specialised programmes, and there seemed a regular hum and rhythm to the masses of kids swarming around the grounds.

Setting Sail

It was also the little things that I noticed that were encouraging and gave me confidence that our kids were in good hands. On the first day, the kids were lined up in their PFDs and helmets, and making a train of increasing height, waded up to their heads in the water. I had been surprised there was no swimming test, but the instructors could easily tell from this exercise which kids were comfortable in the water, and which needed to be further assessed. When one of the junior assistants seemed upset, I saw a senior instructor, in a caring and sensitive way, ask if she was ok. The staff seemed to be sensitized to making the learning environment positive and supportive.

Step 1 was all about getting the kids comfortable in the water. Icebreakers to learn names, paddling races, and boat rigging were followed by downwind sails in light air. But the capsizing drills were the most surprising in how much some of the kids enjoyed it! A pair of 7-year-old girls were so delighted, they did not want to stop, giggling each time the boat pitched over. On a day with no wind, the kids were towed out to Round Island for a beach day, and tried to see how many kids could get onto an Optimist, trying to sink her. The number was 24, and the kids got a great demonstration that the boat was nearly impossible to sink with its air-filled hull.

Step 2 introduced more sailing principles and points of sail (the sailing pizza as they called it), as the kids sailed farther out. Days with strong winds due to an approaching typhoon, were spent closer to the pontoons. But on day 3, they got to enjoy a beautiful day of gusty winds in front of cloud-topped mountains over Repulse Bay. And what more beautiful vista could one hope for learning to sail?

Step 3, Solo prepared the kids to sail alone. They also had to capsize and get back in the boat on their own, which was not easy for many of the kids, due to their limited upper body strength. Going into this day, my 8-year-old daughter was quite scared, and didn’t want to go. But we eventually got there that morning, and sheeting in on a reach, she sailed away from the pack, in the lead with a big smile on her face.

No matter how much we lecture our kids, they need to learn and make discoveries on their own. And we need to do as much as we can to encourage and facilitate that.

Planning and preparation are important. In addition to swimming classes in the pool, I tried to get my kids comfortable swimming and playing in the ocean. When they turned seven, they were not yet strong swimmers. So, I took another two years allowing them to get confident with waves, tides and currents. Spare weekends were spent anchored off islands in Sai Kung, swimming several hundred meters to and from the beach. So now at almost nine and 10 years old, they are confident and mostly unafraid.

Life Lessons While Sailing

It is often remarked how sailing can nurture so many favorable behavioral traits: self-confidence, spatial awareness, a sense of direction, neatness, accountability, cooperation, patience, balance, resilience, bravery, camaraderie, a sense of adventure. In one of the Step 1 paddle races, my kids’ team was in 2nd by many boat lengths, and I could hear them giving up. But the instructor encouraged them, “Don’t quit, you never know, they may not be able to complete all the tasks.” And at the pontoon, the other team struggled to execute the correct cleat hitch to tie off their boat, and my kids’ team won!

A life lesson learned.

A sail blogger writes, “When you sail for the first time, you have one of two experiences. It becomes a one-time, bucket-list thing you check off your list, or it becomes a part of your soul forever.”

I am delighted my children’s adventures are just