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Tips for sailing with a young crew

by N12 class 25 Oct 2019 04:00 PDT
Taking kids on board the A-Class cat known as 'Proof of Concept' © Nils Frei / Yves Detrey

Here are some top tips on sailing with young people. The guide covers boat set up, jobs for the crew, sailing techniques, kit and incentives. It is written from the experience of several people who have sailed with kids between the age of 6 and 12. Older than that and the attention span/weight/strength issues are less of a problem - but some of the tips below might still be useful.

Boat set up

Different classes allow you to modify your boat in different ways and different amounts. Being able to modify the boat to get it just how you want is particularly helpful when sailing with youngsters. Here's a list of the typical mods that are worth considering; if you plan to race then you should check with your class rules to check they are legal:

1. Jib Cleats. It is worth having cleats as your young crew might struggle to hold the jib in all the time, particularly if it is windy. Also the jib sheeting can be pretty random if their attention wanders, use of cleats helps to keep the jib well set. Position the cleats so the crew can get the jib into and out of the cleat when they are sat on the deck going upwind. Bear in mind that they might not be able to pull the jib in fully so you may need them to pass the jib sheet to you to pull it in all the way. It is worth therefore having the cleats angled back towards the helm so you can pull and cleat the jib sheet from the helming position. Positioning the jib cleats on the deck by the shrouds works well as you can then pull the jib sheet from behind their back. Alternatively positioning the cleats on top of the centre board case works okay as you can pull the jib sheet over the crew's legs but this means you have to lean in and take your eyes off the course.

2. 2:1 jib sheet system. If your crew struggles to pull in the jib fully then you could consider adding a 2:1 pulley system to the jib sheets. For this you need two pulleys attached to the jib clew and you need to invest in some extra-long sheets. You may find that smaller diameter sheets work better (less than 8mm which is the a common diameter). There are problems with the 2:1 system though as there is a quite a bit more friction so it can be hard to let the jib out and more difficult to change sides on the tacks. Also, there is a lot of rope in the boat that turns into knitting and can get wrapped around various fittings and body parts. These problems can result in it being equally hard for them to handle the jib as they have to untangle the knitting and pull it in over the friction. It is generally best to try the jib cleat method first and see how you get on.

3. Mark on jib sheet. As they get older they'll be able to use the tell-tales without any problem but when starting off it can be handy to have a mark on the jib sheet showing where they need to pull the jib sheet to upwind. Position the mark so when the jib is set correctly the mark is just going into the jib blocks. To make the marks, you can use a permanent marker or sew in some whipping twine

4. Control lines. Think about which ones they will be able to do and which you will need to help them with. The kicker is often led back to the helm anyway, if your class rules allow you to re-position the outhaul, cunningham and other controls then position these in a place you can also get to such as onto the thwart.

5. Central board uphaul/downhaul You may want to consider having an up haul or downhaul on the centreboard, as without one it can be very tricky for kids to pull the board up and get it down, as often there is a lot of friction to overcome. A simple dual control is a good idea. The uphaul can be led to the mast foot and up to the shroud and the downhaul to the thwart (as shown by the purple control lines in the picture below). Cheap plain bearing pulleys and a 4mm control line can be used to keep this mod low cost.

6. Painter. Many racing dinghies don't bother with a painter but it is handy to have one when sailing with kids as it is much easier to get the boat off the launching trolley and get the trolley up the slipway or tie the boat up whilst you deal with the trolley. A painter is also handy for tying onto the pontoon whilst you take the trolley up the ramp.

7. Toe straps. Kids have shorter legs so you may need to lengthen the toe straps a bit. Bear in mind that if the toe straps are too loose then they may feel unsafe or unsteady and just perch on the deck. Best to see how they feel with them at different lengths - don't be worried if they are tighter then you might desire just to give them the security.

8. Mast bend/rake. You'll likely be sailing with less weight in the boat than normal; as a result you'll need a flatter sail sooner. It is best to do this through a combination of increased mast rake and less lowers/mast ram tension. If you are always sailing light then it is worth move the spreaders back to create even more bend. You will need different amounts of bend depending on your combined weight but you may find that letting the jib halyard off by between 3cm and 5cm compared to the normal position is fine. The simple rule is - "if you are over-powered then use more mast rake, more bend and finally more cunningham". If you are underpowered then use less mast rake. If a range of masts are available, and you are sailing really light, then you may wish to choose a less stiff section. Carbon rigs are very controllable and excellent for de-powering to the extreme.

9. Halyard cleat. Having a V Cleat for the main halyard is helpful for dropping the main quickly when you return to the shore.

Finally a word on maintenance; Having gear failure when sailing with kids is not great. It is difficult for them to help fix problems and they might get worried if the gear failure puts you in a tricky position or results in the sails flogging. So it is best to avoid gear failure and do some preventative maintenance - check ropes for fraying, check fittings for wear and check toe straps are tied in properly.

Jobs for the crew

Keeping your young crew interested and engaged may be a challenge. Some youngsters are mad keen and need no encouragement whilst for others their mind might be wander after 30 minutes before you've made it to the starting line. Here are some ideas to try and keep them focussed and involved:

1. Rigging and de-rigging. You can try getting them involved in the rigging, taking the cover off, getting them to think about pointing the boat head to wind to put the sails up, getting the sails out of the bags. De-rigging is a bit more tricky as tiredness, coldness and lack of enthusiasm kick in.

2. Count down for the start. Talk them through the starting procedure, explain where the start line is and run through the course. Make sure they have a watch so they can give you a countdown to the start.

3. Jib sheets. If the conditions are good enough for you to contemplate sailing then they should be able to handle the jib sheets most of the time. It is worth practising tacking without the added pressure of racing. Get them to un-cleat the jib on the current tack just as the tack starts and grab the new sheet from below their feet as the boat tacks and they cross the boat, then pull the new sheet in as much as they can on the new tack. If they can't pull it in fully then get them to pass it to you to pull it the final bit. Putting a mark on the rope when the jib is fully in helps them know roughly where they need to get it to.

4. Jib tell tales. They should be able to trim the jib to the tell-tales down wind. This gives them something to keep their interest up. Use the simple rule, if the closest one is flapping pull it in, if the furthest one is flapping let it out. If you spot that the jib isn't trimmed right then rather than saying "let the jib out" you can say "check the tell tales" and see if they can get the hang of it themselves.

5. Balance and trim. Moving around the boat is something that will likely take a bit of time in order for it to become smooth and second nature. A good crew will move in anticipation of an event, for example moving to the deck as a gust comes, moving in as a gust goes, sitting in to help the boat luff up by heeling to leeward or helping the boat bear away by sitting on the deck and creating heel to windward. This movement will take a while to learn as it does any crew. Try and help them understand when they need to move rather than simply giving orders. So the communication might go "there's a gust coming, can you see it? Are you ready to come up on deck?"

6. Eye on the compass. Older kids should be able to follow the numbers on the compass upwind and read them out and start to develop a feel for when the boat is headed or lifted.

7. Spotting wind. It can be tricky to keep their heads out of the boat, but good sailors never look at their feet, the bottom of the boat, their hands or the tiller... kids however don't know where to look or what they are looking for (to be fair this is the same for any new crew). Try and get them looking around for signs of wind, gusts on the water and other boats heeling over.

8. Spotting other boats. Sailing with a nipper in the front can in itself be pretty attention consuming for you. So it is often a challenge to keep an eye on the other boats on the course. If there is nothing else going on then ask them to keep an eye out for boats, particularly starboard ones upwind. Giving them a specific boat to keep track of is a good plan and you can ask them whether they think you are ahead or behind. Best not to rely too much on their spotting skills and judgement though...

9. Graduating to the control lines. Once it's right to do so, (i.e. the crew is comfortable with the jobs that they have control of), then you can start to get them doing other jobs, helping set the pole, balance, letting off the outhaul or releasing the shrouds downwind.

Sailing technique

If you want to make a success of your sailing with youngsters then you may need to adjust your sailing style. Here are some areas to think about:

1. When to go sailing. The first question to ask any day is whether to go sailing. Is it too windy or too cold? Is there too much risk of a long cold capsize? Some kids are more hardy than others and some have less or "no fear". You need to know your and their limits and make your own decision, don't feel pressurised by other people launching and don't put them off for good... you may find that their confidence varies from day-to-day and does not necessarily depend on the conditions. And it is the child's level of confidence on the day that ultimately dictates whether you're going sailing or not. Try not to show disappointment even if they have been out in similar conditions before (this is really hard).

Handling the lighter weight. You may well be sailing lighter than others. In light winds this might give you a speed advantage, but in stronger winds it will be a handicap. In the strong stuff bear in mind that you will be overpowered more quickly than others, even with a de-powered rig set up, as a result you may have to sail a different course to other boats. For example you might not be able to hold a lane upwind with a boat on your lee bow, so try and avoid getting into that position and leave yourself more of a gap. On the reach you may have to sail lower in the gusts in order to keep the boat flat and keep your speed on so try and make sure you have the sea room below you.

2. Position downwind. Some boats can be pretty twitchy downwind.. Having the crew and helm sitting as far apart as possible helps to increase the stability as it means there is more inertia for waves and gusts to overcome. When the helm and crew are similar weights then they can often sit easily on opposite decks; which gives the ultimate stabilising factor. With a nipper you will still want them to sit on the opposite deck when possible but you may have to sit in yourself. When you sit in the tiller extension often ends up in a sub-optimal position for steering as it ends up too near the centre of the boat giving you less leverage on the tiller. The best way to handle this is for you to sit with one leg either side of the thwart with legs/ knees as far to leeward as possible and with your shoulders as near the windward deck as possible. As the wind increases you will need to move from the thwart towards the back of the boat.

3. Play safe and plan ahead. It is important to remember that your boat handling might not be as good or repeatable with a youngster in the front. Everything needs more time, both to explain and execute the manoeuvre so you should make allowances for your tacking speed and boat handling and try to avoid getting into situations where you need to make sudden or surprising manoeuvres.

On the start line you may want to choose a quiet spot, avoiding the crowds, potentially even starting towards the wrong end or second row to make your life easier.

The boat handling will generally go better if you can give them lots of warning and explain what to do with plenty of time. Also, as you approach the next buoy it is worth discussing what the next leg of the course will be and therefore what's expected. It is important to establish what calls will be made, by whom and what actions are required to execute any particular manoeuvre. The width of some boats is a long way for child to go during a tack, so these have to be at a pace they can manage So play it safe on the tacks and gybes, plan ahead and allow plenty of time for those manoeuvres

4. Capsize recovery. Some children love to capsize and others can get very worried. Sometimes it's the hardy children who get most worried about a capsize. To be fair, it looks a long way down when a boat capsizes and you're a small child on the side deck which now may be 4 feet out of the water and your world has been turned upside down. Before going sailing you should cover what they should do in the case of a capsize so it isn't too much of a surprise, and hopefully some of that information will come flooding back to them. When the boat does go over, the chances are that they will be in the water on the mast side of the boat, and there is a fair chance you'll be the centre board side (at least that's where I usually end up).

a) The first thing to do is make sure they are okay and a free of any ropes and sails then ask them to keep in contact with the boat.

b) In most conditions an adult should be heavy enough to right the boat on their own. If think you can right it easily then you can ask the child to hold onto the lowest toe strap as you right the boat, they will then get scooped in as the boat comes up. If the boat looks like it is going to turtle then make sure they come out from under the hull.

c) If it is choppy and windy it will be harder to right, a good tip here is for the child to hold onto the bow, they act as a mini-sea anchor and the boat will lay better to the wind making it easier for you to right. Once upright they can either swim around to the transom or you can lift them in over the side.

5. Keep calm. Your outlook needs to be calm. As with normal life, kids pick up on how confident their parents are and they'll get worried if you appear worried. The difference in a boat is that it is hard to console them once they are worried or frightened. So try and keep calm and in particular try to avoid shouting either at them and other competitors. They may get worried if you shout at competitors as they think something is going wrong or that they have done something wrong. Try to avoid being overly competitive. If things start to go wrong (and you become animated), your child will think it is their fault and easily be put off racing.

6. Post mortem. If they are attentive and interested after sailing, on the way in or on the way home then you can discuss and critique how the sailing went. Usually emphasising the good tacks/gybes and what fun it was planing or hiking out, ensuring that all discussions end on a positive note so they look forward to next time. You could get their view or score out of 10, led by the small person and not the helm!


1. Warmth - kids can easily get cold, they're usually going along quite happily (in our boat that might mean dangling their hands in the water making waves) then all of a sudden they're freezing! When planning what to wear think how much risk there is of being in the water for a while. Anticipate that they will need an extra layer or two than you. Think gloves, full wetsuit and hat/balaclava, even in Summer.

2. Buoyancy aid/Life jacket. For children under 6 a life jacket with a collar and leg straps is a good idea. Above age 6 then are some racing style dinghy buoyancy aids available which are more comfortable for them to wear. Always wear the buoyancy aid or life jacket on top of everything else as the shoulder straps are great for pulling kids back into the boat, and leg straps stop the jacket coming off over their heads.


Do your kids have a short attention span? If so then you'll need a range of motivational ideas to make it through a 45 minute to hour long race never mind a very long National Championship race. Things we've tried are:

1. Sweets, a.k.a. "Ammunition". Ammunition needs to be earned through good sailing and is typically issued at a mark of the course, this gives a clear target to earn a sweet. We also have a saying "boat before ammo" i.e. after we round the mark we need to get the boat setup properly for the new leg of the course before the distraction of food is contemplated! In summer ice-cream, or, in winter, hot chocolate, are also good bribes to finish a race.

2. How to handle "I'm bored!" - Concentration (or lack thereof) is a key factor and constant coaching and briefing (point of sail, wind direction, sail settings, etc.) is important to keep them engaged. Try to stop them staring at the water (looking straight down) or the bottom of the mast (unless it's broken)! Of course, if they do point out something that is completely unrelated to racing but interesting to them (big fish or seeing the bottom) try to refocus their attention gently. You can try using some targets like let's try and beat boat X who is just there, or it's just Y minutes to the finish.

3. Keep them involved in the race - tell them what the next leg of the course is and how long there is left. If you can highlight where are the other kids they might want to beat (or not be beaten by) then this might spark some interest.

4. Finally, know when to come ashore. Kids can get bored and cold pretty easily and they may decide they are cold because they are bored. They may also get frightened. You can try some motivations (see incentives above), but don't be ashamed to head in if it is clear that they aren't enjoying the sailing any more.

So there are a few tips from National 12 sailing experience, hope you find them useful and above all we hope you enjoying sailing with your kids.

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