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A Q&A with Kimball Livingston about San Francisco high school sailing

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 13 Jun 2017
A new vision for high school sailing is forming on San Francisco Bay thanks to work, leadership and organizational efforts from local-area yacht clubs Kimball Livingston / St Francis Yacht Club
Spend enough time in the San Francisco Bay area, and one starts to realize that residents take pride in doing things a bit differently, from Silicon Valley’s start-up traditions to the Haight Ashbury’s cultural contributions in the 1960s, to the area’s embrace of clean, renewable energy or its love of parks and big, wide-open views. This way of doing things differently also applies to sailing. But, while the Bay Area spawned kite racing and is home to iconic events such as St. Francis Yacht Club’s Rolex Big Boat Series and the Singlehanded Sailing Society's unique Three Bridge Fiasco, it’s also home to organizations that for years have offered programs based on the standardized, national model of high school sailing.

While this model works well in some places, Bay area sailing programs were feeling held back by what they saw as a bloated calendar dictating a formulaic format. Read: windward-leeward racing in dinghies designed 62 years ago—for the X Games generation, not. This being the Bay area, something had to give. Imagine a modest-but-meaningful disturbance in the Force that sets the calendar. And then imagine the St. Francis Yacht Club (StFYC) taking off on a flyer, apparently confident that it is sailing toward the new breeze.

Here in Seattle, some 800 miles to the north, I started hearing whispers of shifts in the San Francisco Bay high school sailing scene a couple of months ago. A few inquiries informed me that all roads, threads and conversations led to my friend and colleague Kimball Livingston, a world-class sailor (and dedicated RC volunteer), scribe, and past commodore of StFYC who isn’t one to keep his seaboots dry when the topic turns to opportunities for the next sailing generation. I caught up with Livingston via email, and the first question was obvious.

Word on the street is that StFYC cut its high-school sailing calendar by half. What’s going on?
First, understand that High School sailing doesn't just mean kids sailing while they're in high school. We're talking about a set format in which teams represent their schools in provided boats—in California, that's FJ's—and we're stepping back there to offer more performance stuff, more time in keelboats, more focus on seamanship, more focused coaching for advanced sailors, more clinics and more opportunities for kids who don't attend the seven high schools we support.

High School Sailing is huge in America. Two semesters worth. Looking ahead, St. Francis Yacht Club is in for the fall semester only. Come spring, we're doing sailing our way.

When Olympian Helena Scutt spoke to our Juniors earlier this year, she told them she was a more successful sailor in college, 'because in my high school years I sailed a variety of boats and put time into the fast ones.' That's the nub of it. Our choices wouldn't fit everybody, everywhere, but I think that what we're doing fits neatly into the national conversation about how we bring up our young sailors.

And there’s no loss or downside to this change?
The positive side of High School Sailing, for our club anyway, is that it brings in new people and exposes them to the beauty of life on the water. They travel a bit, meet kids from other schools, and have a tremendous social experience. The downside is that it's a narrow experience of sailing and doesn't produce a complete sailor.

Last month we held a clinic and put FJ sailors into Nacra 15 catamarans with lifting C-foils, double-trapeze rigs, and spinnakers. The kids were way over their heads, and the grins were wider than their faces. The scientific term for that phenomenon is Stoked, Totally Stoked. We like Stoked, but we can't be all about giant steps.

Going forward, we want to support high-performance sailors where we find them and do much, much more to develop them. For most of our kids right now, however, it will mean a lot to raise our game in Club 420s and offer more time in J/22s. Both of those fleets are more tweakable than FJs, so there is a higher level of learning. They're also more capable than FJs, so we can get the kids off the city front to go exploring San Francisco Bay, spotting marks and ranging cross-current, discovering new perspectives and expanding horizons. A season or two of that and the best of them will be ready for another step up.

Overall, we're looking to build a program that anchors the growing Opti sailor, bridges the tween years and then advances the kid who has talent and a passion for achieving excellence. High School Sailing, as we were practicing it, was in the way.

How, exactly, was it in the way?
It crowded out everything else, or almost everything, and we had no control over the calendar.

Let's compare. Point Loma High is a powerhouse in High School Sailing and they won the Nationals, again, in 2017. Point Loma High is over-enrolled with kids who came up as peanuts in prams at San Diego YC or Southwestern YC. High School Sailing is there for them for a few years, and winning feels good, so they do it. They work hard. They achieve. Point Loma High stages out of San Diego YC, but the school has its own coach.
SDYC's junior program focuses elsewhere, and for all of Point Loma High's success, it does not escape being part of the conversation about why we lose kids when they leave school.

At StFYC, our typical kid comes as a freshman with no background at all, and the club provides the coaching. Only 10 percent of our high school kids have a sailing background. Our biggest team is Bay School, 14 kids this spring. Bay is not going to lure Steve Hunt away from Point Loma to coach 14 kids, and the size of our program is limited, severely, by parking space for boats on trailers. During a high school semester each school, even if the school struggles to maintain a team, gets two afternoons of FJ practice per week, plus regatta days. That's just like the Point Loma kids, except they're not starting from the same place. Our advanced sailors who get invited to join Team St. Francis in the Club 420 program—including the kids who grew up sailing—get one afternoon a week. I'm not sure how we painted ourselves into this corner, but what I'm describing is not a blueprint for excellence. For the newcomers the thrill of those first rides in an FJ begin to wear off about the 27th time Daniela Moroz blows past you going thirty knots on a foilboard.

I remember the 'Laser Generation' with John Kostecki, Paul Cayard, John Bertrand and a slew of other names-you-know. I remember a Laser North American Championship where St. Francis juniors took the top four spots—while our reigning world champion did not attend. As of 2017, we've taken a good look at ourselves, and the advanced kid with a passion for excellence is not well served. I'm all for sailing for the fun of it, and our coaches are not and should not be trying to make every kid a world beater. But this club has to be in the business of coaching excellence where the passion burns.

Couldn’t you just hire more coaches and have it all?
Not unless you're willing to help us pay for it. And I'd better clarify my role. I'm not the architect of any of this. It's just that, during my time as St. Francis Yacht Club’s commodore, I discovered that our junior program had grown while I wasn't looking. It had turned into a silo at the 'other' end of the building. We didn't know the kids and the kids didn't know us, so—

I started showing up at practices, and I took kids sailing on a 46-foot woodie—the first big boat experience for most of them—and by and by the coaches opened up and started telling me how frustrated they were with the existing situation. Too many High School Sailing regattas eating up their time. Too many hours in just FJs. Not enough attention to developing complete sailors. Not enough resource to effectively coach excellence. That's what I heard from our sailing director, Brent Harrill, and our head coach, Adam Corpuz-Lahne.

I’m not sure that that’s the first image of StFYC that most people have…
It's nice and then some to have both the 2017 US Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year and the 2017 US Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, but Daniela and Caleb [Paine] are not products of our junior program, which is a program we're proud of, so don't misunderstand me.

But we can do better. Brent and Adam got me cranked up, and as commodore, I declared it a mission to rethink youth sailing. The Flying Junior was designed in 1955. The boats capsize easily, and we're on the San Francisco city front. Capsize conditions are the norm, and the water never gets warm. There aren't many days when we can say, 'Hey kids, forget the drills. We're going to sail out under the Golden Gate Bridge and hoot and holler and shoot selfies.' The only reason we have FJs everywhere in California is that FJs are everywhere, so your program has to have FJs to fit in. If they went away, the 21st century would not reinvent FJs.

Our junior committee chair, Jon Paulsen, tasked the coaches to produce a new plan. I went off and talked to other clubs around San Francisco Bay and learned that it was not just us. Everybody had some version of the same frustrations ('too many High School Sailing regattas') and an isolated, passive sense that nothing could change because nothing could change because nothing could change. But those phone calls led to a meeting of flag officers at Encinal Yacht Club and then to a meeting at Richmond Yacht Club that included flag officers plus coaches from those clubs and the San Francisco YC, Sausalito YC, St. Francis and the Peninsula Youth Sailing Foundation.

Call it surreal, because the coaches and sailing directors of those organizations make up the board of directors of Bay Area Youth Sailing—BAYS—and they are the people who had been telling us the calendar needed a haircut. Here was a posse of commodores telling our employees that we wanted them to do what they were telling us they wanted to do. And still it seemed hard. And we wondered, with the political weight of the Pacific Coast Interscholastic Sailing Association residing in Southern California, were we wasting our time? Fairly or unfairly, and I'm sure they have their own story to tell, and they're not our adversary, PCISA has not built a reputation for stepping outside its tidy box.

Richmond YC's commodore, Dick Loomis, generated a letter that all the clubs cosigned. That letter asked the directors of BAYS to develop a less-restrictive calendar, more open to opportunities beyond FJ racing and better balanced between training and competition. BAYS ran with it. They negotiated with PCISA and to the surprise of a lot of people, they got most of what they asked for, including some race days for multiple classes. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but trust me, proving that it could be done was a very big deal.

But this wasn't enough for you?
Ahead of the Richmond meeting I circulated a proposal advocating a single-semester model for High School Sailing. Other high school sports run one semester only. That proposal got no traction with the other clubs, so I let it go. St. Francis was a different matter.

Brent and Adam brought us the single-semester model. The choice came out of their assessment of what is best for our club in our time. The alternative is the status quo. Or we could cut our High School Sailing from 60 kids to 30 and try to coach that smaller group to a higher level in FJs. Or drop High School Sailing altogether and lose the positives, such as—

There's this one—passionate—student who came to us as a first-generation sailor. His high school was his pathway in, his first glimmer that sailing might be something to think about, and he made the team, he says, 'Because I was the only new kid who showed up for try-outs.' The whole world that is 'us', meaning yacht clubs and boats and sailing, was foreign to this kid's family, a black box. But the father told me that was all right: 'What's in this for us is the joy, the satisfaction, the sense of well-being that our son brings into the home when he comes off the water.'

Holy crimminy.

Yes, we'll keep High School Sailing. And you'd better believe we brought that family into our 'black box' and turned on the lights. And we helped the kid—AND his father—get a start in kite sailing. Welcome to the party, dad. The young man in question still sails FJs, and he values his place on the school team, but he's tasted spicier fare and he likes where we're going.

I think you mentioned once or twice that the northern Midwest scrambles every spring to get off a few regattas to qualify a team for the Nationals, and that's their spring 'semester.'
They have a long—did I mention long?—winter. There are people in the Midwest who have wondered out loud whether the High School Nationals shouldn't run in the fall semester, when their teams are geared up, instead of in the spring.

What do you expect to come out of this experiment?
'High School Sailing' will continue to bring in new kids and teach them how to tack, gybe, and enjoy time on San Francisco Bay. A few will be passionate, and with a more open springtime format, we can better feed that passion. The kids that turn out will have some variety in their sailing diet. We believe that a range of experience gives kids a shot at growing into complete sailors and a better pathway to grow into sailing adults. Our seven schools will sail enough PCISA regattas in the fall to be ranked, and come spring, if a school just can't let go of the FJ thing, our boats can be chartered. And by the way, we're already loaning out Techno boards to kids who promise to take them home and get them wet.

Many of the best teenage sailors in America participate in High School Sailing, but that's not how they became the best teenage sailors in America. At my club we somehow allowed ourselves to be cornered by this FJ thing, and we're busting out. The 2018 PCCs will happen without us, but we were not on a trajectory to be a threat at the 2018 PCCs. Our current commodore, Jim Kiriakis, has been a green light all the way, and in our handoff he gave me his blessing to continue what I started. Certain parties have assured me that we're headed for failure. I don't think so.

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