Game Plan ~ sailing with the kids


By Patty Lawrence

My family and I race a small sailboat called a Thistle. While we have raced all over the country, home is a small lake outside Cincinnati, Ohio. Forget swanky yacht clubs. This treasured venue consists of a clubhouse built of cinderblock and has a fireplace to warm cold hands on crisp days. The lake is part of a state park.

One of the things I love about sailing it that the entire family participates. There are no sidelines. Whether racing or cruising, children interact with adults and are given a fair amount of responsibility. Mostly these kids turn into lovely, articulate, poised adults. I’ve always considered my family to be very lucky to be a part of it.

The following article was originally published in Sail magazine.


Naively my husband, Andy, and I thought that our sailing game plan would remain the same when our daughters were born. The plan was to simply incorporate our children into regatta mode and not skip a beat. So far we have skipped beats and runs and even entire races. We have arrived late, gone to bed early, sailed better, and had more fun. Avery (8) and Jordan (6) love regattas but their game plan trumps ours every time.

Children alter the regatta experience. When they were small we would tell the girls on regatta day “we're going to a different sailing club.”

Avery would shout, “Great! I’m going to play with my buddies!”

Once, racing was the intense part of the weekend. Now, arriving in time for the start, finding the sitter, rigging the boat with two “helpers” in tow, and tired children at the end of the day are the challenges. Racing is downright tranquil.

During one regatta, I held the boat at the empty dock—every other competitor had left while we were meeting the sitter—and braced for an outburst about our delayed departure. Instead I watched as Andy moseyed down the ramp from the parking lot. He was thrilled we’d made it at all.

I was 700 miles from the race course when the major game plan deviation occurred. Andy called from then-home South Carolina to report, “We raced in the club race.”

“Who?” I asked. “Avery and Jordan and me. It was blowin’ about 8. . ..”

My jaw hit the floor at the thought of my four year old, my two year old, and my oh-so-adventurous husband out racing in a very deep lake. “I didn’t take the chute,” he said.I let out a screechy noise. My friend told me to shut up: “They’re home safe and you’re shopping in New York" she said.

If you find that sailboat racing has become stale, add children to your team. There are endless ways for the diminutive crew to add zest to a triangle course. When wearing life jackets, two year olds resemble the Michelin Man and cannot cross the centerboard unassisted. Tacks stretch into eternity and nearby boats send waves of panic to mom-middle crew.

“Just give us a minute,” I'd say and smile at competitors—pretending this to be a legal hail. This got dirty looks from the husband-skipper, so I found it best not look at him. For fun, the wee crew holds the tiller, goes “fishing” with jib sheets, and hikes off bungee cords. Mostly they move around the boat a lot.

Avery and Jordan don’t know when we have crossed the starting line or our finishing position. They do know if they are hot or bored or if there is chocolate stashed in a turtle. They gauge the fun-factor with laser precision. They tell made-up knock-knock jokes—sort of. “Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “Patty.” “Patty who?” There is never a punch line. Even so this game lasted all summer. The crew understands what’s important.

Andy and I understand if the fun-meter dials south, something’s gotta give. Once, this meant first place in a small regatta. Rather than risk mutiny, we retired. We are betting that the occasional missed race now will pay dividends later. Focusing on fun has made sailing infinitely better, even when we watch the race go by from the beach.

With each race, we incorporate the girls into the team by showing them a single new thing. One venture included a lesson on how to adjust the forward hiking straps. Moving line though a cam cleat is wonderful fun and if your legs are short it doesn’t matter if the cleat catches or if you simply rely on the stop-knot. I learned in a heart-stopping moment not to hook into the forward straps and I have ensured the middle straps are so well-knotted that only a knife will change their setting.

The small crew is learning to identify puffs, follow sailing lingo, and hold the tiller straight. The big crew is learning patience, humor’s value, and to bring candy that won’t melt on all outings.

When they are tired, my little chickadees roost in the bow. In addition to being a great sail, the spinnaker also makes a fine nest. Most of the time, the extreme forward crew is agreeable exchanging the nest for a fort and will assist by pulling down the jib. The skipper has learned not to mention the speed of sail change maneuvers.

One lovely summer day, Jordan, then four, decided to learn the mechanics of the forestay tensioner. We were about 100 feet from the windward mark when she extracted the pin and lifted the lever. The entire boat shuddered and then relaxed. Amazingly all her fingers are still attached to her hand and she didn’t cry until she saw the horror on her parent’s faces. After a few minutes assessment, Andy eased the boat back upwind, but my heart was the only part of me still racing.

By ages seven and five, Avery and Jordan were at home on the boat. Rail walking is Jordan’s light air entertainment. She holds my shoulders then slips around the outside of the shroud, moves over onto the grating, back to the thwart, and up on the rail again. While she practices on the Thistle’s 3-inch-wide balance beam, I promise myself if she bobbles, I’ll push her out of the boat so she doesn't fall onto Harken blocks. Long-legged Avery loves a hiking breeze. She leans out so far that her hair touches the water. Only once did I have the girls’ hair cut before the start of sailing season. If the goal is to get one’s hair wet, longer is better.

A couple of years ago home moved from SC to mighty Cowan Lake near Cincinnati, OH. The lake is seven hundred acres huge making a good, long beat last about five minutes. One day on the three minute sail out to the course, Jordan proudly displayed an empty water bottle, the contents she’d consumed since leaving shore. Her needs and short course legs made for a busy race. It also prompted a new rule on our boat: Don’t put lunch in the bucket. Ever.

My job on the new team is to filter information that streams simultaneously from two directions, “Can I what do have you think looks better some raisins left or please right?” I weight the urgency of the requests. The race depends on forward crew contentment so I answer them first, “Yes, you may have the raisins.” To the skipper, I say “left.” Maybe it really is left. Or maybe I have not looked out of the boat since the start and I really have no idea where anything is except the raisins. And if Andy thinks I can handle bucket duty, snack supply, and the big picture on the race course then I really am the woman of his dreams.

Another job is to practice smiling so that when the girls fall out of the boat my expressions says, “Wow! What fun.” On light air summer days, I excel at this, but on windy fall days “smile” and “grimace” are interchangeable. One day when the wind notched up to around 20 Andy said, “Don't worry. They are having a ball. They love heavy air.” He’s right. The girls are having a blast. “Yes,” I replied, “they are having fun because they trust us to keep them safe. Go in.”

Over the Labor Day series, just Jordan crewed for one day. In the bow she happily communed with nature. “Look Mommy. I’m a wave. . . a gull. . . the wind . . ..” Then it occurred to her that she could have the coveted forward crew spot all to herself and that her legs would extend to adjusted hiking straps. Andy had reverted back to quick tacks and threw the tiller. I screamed, “Noooooo!!” Dousing the five year old was narrowly avoided. The next day Jordan says to Avery, “You stay in the bow. We are a team and we don’t need you.” Parental units were inspired to have a chat about “team.”

On one of our last fall sailing days, Avery skippered the boat to shore. The air was light and she was at ease on the helm. She tugged on the tiller gybing the boat. Andy and I ducked. She gybed again. Again, we ducked. She found this cause and effect sport hilarious. Again and again she pulled the tiller and we ducked. Then channeling the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland she commanded, “Off with their heads!” and gybed again. Andy and I laughed so hard that tears rolled down our cheeks. It was a perfect moment.

Art by Mo--canvas, acrylic, collage

After Game Plan, read another essay by Patty Lawrence.

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