Every year, countless parents find themselves navigating the do’s and don’ts of enrolling their children in a summer learn-to-sail program for the first time. While the prospect of getting your kid on the water is exciting, as a sailing camp program director, there are a lot of things I wish parents knew going in. Here are a few recommendations, based on the questions I’m asked all the time as the summer season approaches.
When it comes to buying kids’ gear, there is a lot to consider. A life jacket that fits well and closed-toe shoes are the two most important items to have at almost any learn-to-sail program. Most programs do a life jacket test, in which the kids swim and are pulled out of the water by their life jacket to make sure it will stay on them; however, if you want to test it without the waterworks, secure the buckles and give a sharp tug up on the shoulder straps. If you can pull the life jacket up to your child’s ears, it needs to be tightened or downsized. As for closed-toe shoes, flipflops may be comfortable on a hot sunny day, but closed-toe shoes keep their feet protected on and off the water—sharp objects and other things to stub your toes on are everyone on docks or in boatyards. Sailing in bare feet isn’t for beginners either.
After you have your basics, knowing what to pack for a regular day will help your child show up prepared to get the most out of their sailing lessons. Here’s what I recommend: sunscreen, lunch or lunch money, a water bottle, a towel, a change of clothes and (of course) their life jacket. If you’re sending them with a hat or sunglasses, croakies and hat straps are great for keeping everything attached and secure. (I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent replacing sunglasses.) Be sure to also keep an eye on the weather. If a program runs rain or shine, they’ll need foulweather jackets or raincoats and warmer clothes to change into. Having a raincoat handy may also be useful on windy or chilly days when there’s spray.
My last piece of advice for gear: put your last name on EVERYTHING. The lost-and-found piles up quickly at a typical sailing school or junior sailors program and a lot of kids’ sailing gear is similar, if not identical. All too often a sailing program’s lost-and-found is where young sailors’ gear goes to sit for the rest of the season, only to be brought back at best stinky and at worst a biohazard—if it is reclaimed at all.
When it comes to choosing a program, a lot of sailors send their kids to the program at whatever club they’re already a member of. But not all programs are created equal. If your kid is not used to sailing on their own, doesn’t like to be active all day or doesn’t want to be sailing all day every day, then a full-time sailing intensive program isn’t the right fit. My parents started my siblings and me in a half-day camp where we learned how to sail at our own pace. As we got older, they moved us to our home club, where camp was all day and focused solely on sailing.
Along these same lines, talking to a sailing director about what their program looks like will help you understand things like the overall daily schedule, but is less likely to give you insight into how well students learn. Look for word-of-mouth recommendations. Some programs have been around longer than others, and hearing from other parents with firsthand experience may offer better insight into what the coaches and instructors are like. Don’t be afraid to ask the director questions about the instructors’ training and prior teaching experience. Good programs have well-trained instructors certified in CPR and first aid in addition to their sailing instructor certification. Most importantly, apply early. Many camps have a limited capacity that fills quickly. Some even have waitlists. A lot of clubs also have a “members first” policy when it comes to their youth programs, so getting your application in quickly, member or non-member, will help ensure that your spot is secure.
What to know
Directors and sailing programs are happy to work with certain wants or needs that you or your kids have, but it is important to remember that the safety of the group is the number one priority. Instructors are not babysitters, and they won’t always be able to make sure that your kids are reapplying sunscreen or drinking water while they’re sailing if they have an entire class of kids to manage.
Additionally, you need to know your child’s limits. While it’s normal to have kids that are nervous about getting on the water, it isn’t good for the student, parent or instructors if there are tears every day because a child is too nervous to go sailing. Age limits usually help keep young kids from jumping in before they’re ready, but be realistic about how independent and adventurous your kid is. Sailing is a challenging skill, and it’s hard for kids to learn when they’re anxious. Choosing the right program can help with this as well.
Finally, since sailing is a weather-dependent activity and most programs operate rain or shine, your kid almost certainly will spend some days doing chalk talks, playing games and watching movies. Last summer my camp had the most stormy days it has ever had, and we had no choice but to stay inside. We don’t like keeping the kids cooped inside any more than you do, but we do our best to keep teaching and make sure they’re ready to move forward once the weather has passed.
Ed Note: In addition to being an intern at SAIL magazine, Megan McSweeney is also a veteran sail instructor and director of the junior sailing program at Edgewater Yacht Club in Cleveland, Ohio