Every Saturday the mooring field at Coconut Grove Sailing Club comes alive with children in small sailing dinghies heading out to Biscayne Bay. Passing by my boat, their contagious laughter always leaves me wondering what has made them so happy. After meeting the young sailors, coaches, parents and program director, I knew there was something special right here in my own backyard.
Nick Mansbach has been running the youth program for seven years. A professed cruiser and non-racer, Nick chose a Corinthian Spirit approach – promoting respect for others, honesty, courtesy and consideration toward other boaters – to run this successful program. As we sat in his office talking about the program, 13-year old Theo Quenee appeared at the door. Nick shared how Theo, while still new to the program, was mentoring younger sailors while working his way up through the Opti fleet. “Theo’s spirit is what this team is based on,” Nick proudly stated.
Teamwork, positive attitudes, and good education are the keys to the success of the program and the kids.
“It is just as important what they do at home and at school as what they do on the water,” Nick said. Since there is a wide range of age and condition of boats within each fleet, Nick applies these principles to a merit-based system that qualifies the children for “Best Boat Privileges.” Coaches, parents and teammates rate each sailor in a variety of categories. Every child, parent and coach in this program lives and breathes these values. Nick wouldn’t have it any other way.
A Day at the Races
I arrived early one Saturday hoping to spend more time with Nick before the children arrived, but was already too late. Optimists and Lasers dotted the lawn as team members, parents and coaches busily rigged the boats for the practice session ahead. Young sailors helped each other. Parents worked alongside children, and coaches offered praise for an excellent job rigging or gave words of encouragement when things weren’t quite right.
Luby Costa, mother to Opti sailors Evan and Emma, said her children can’t wait to get to the club on Saturday. “It’s a struggle to get them out of bed for school, but come Saturday morning they are getting me out of bed.”
That weekend, CGSC was hosting the 470 National Championship in which Allison Jolly, 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist in the 470 class, was competing. Allison spoke to the kids before hitting the water herself. The children hung on every word as she told them how she hated her first summer sailing camp experience but chose to go back for a second session rather than take golf or tennis lessons. It was that second session that hooked Allison into a life of sailing.
Her advice to the kids was to “sail anything you can possibly sail. The more you sail, the better you will get.” Allison signed gear and offered to take anyone who wanted to go for a ride on her boat after her race. Dannielle “Dani” Valdes-Pages made a mental note to be the first in line once practice was over.
Dani and fellow Laser sailor, Tristan Lara, are the most tenured members of the new CGSC 470 fleet. Like every sailor in the program, she began sailing on Prams in summer camp, quickly moved through the Opti Green, Red, White and Blue fleets, and has now moved on to a Laser. This shy but articulate young lady has clear objectives for her future. At age 17, Dani is searching for colleges with a naval architecture program and a strong sailing team.
Later that day, all signs of the shyness I saw on land were gone as Dani attacked the wind and water like a woman on a mission. Her clear goal was to beat her mostly male teammates. There was no mistaking that Dani thrived in this program. Later that day I spied Allison sailing through the mooring field with a new teammate on the trapeze – Dani was grinning from ear to ear.
Before sending the sailors out, coach Maykel Alonso conducted a dockside chalkboard session, commanding their full attention by asking questions that encourage further discussion and learning. A former member of the 470 Cuban National Team, Maykel is humbled by the children and their parents. “The way I train these kids prepares them for life,” he said. As he teaches sail adjustments or tacking away, he tells them it is the same approach they should take to life. “When you see an obstacle ahead, it’s okay to adjust your course. But if that obstacle becomes too great, tack away, readjust your sails, and continue forward.”
The Corinthian Spirit does not end with the children. While they are out on the water, many of their parents settle into the clubhouse, sharing a cup of coffee or planning for the next regatta.
Growing the Program
There is no coincidence that membership at CGSC has soared in recent years. Vice Commodore Sean Connett is pleased that the board of directors recognizes the importance of the youth program to the overall growth and success of the club’s membership. Many of the parents have taken sailing lessons at the club and plan to sail as a family in the club’s Flying Scott fleet.
“At the CGSC, we have been fortunate to bring together a dedicated and professional coaching staff with a committed group of sailors and families,” Connett said. “It is essential that youth programs thrive so that when those kids go to college, get married, and have kids of their own, they will remember the great experience they had as a youth and want to enroll their children in youth sailing programs.”
The day I spent with Coach Maykel and the Opti Fleet was no different than any other Saturday at CGSC. Sailors were helping each other prepare their boats for competition. Maykel followed them out to the course in the coach boat, ready to offer advice before each sequence or provide a quick snack between races.
The other team’s coach boats stayed with their top sailors in each fleet, but Maykel remained near the back of his fleet, offering positive reinforcement and words of encouragement to help the struggling sailors through the race.
One of the most powerful displays of sportsmanship that day occurred when Maykel and the entire CGSC Opti team helped a young Ecuadorian girl from another team. Camille Lyc had briefly been a member of the CGSC team prior to moving, so most of the children knew her. Unfortunately Camille spoke no English and she was clearly struggling through her first regatta.
Speaking to her in Spanish, Maykel guided her through the the regatta as the CGSC team members shouted words of encouragement each time they passed. By the end of the day, Camille was smiling broadly and was clearly having a great time.
“It doesn’t matter what team they are on – if someone needs help I will do what I can,” Maykel explained. It was clear that for every one of the CGSC children, it wasn’t about winning or losing – it was about making sure they had fun and learned.
Building on Success
On Sunday I headed out to spend the day on the ocean with the Laser fleet, the next step for young sailors who have aged out of the Optis or exhibited the skill level needed to handle the larger, faster boat. Coaching at this level remains focused on teaching and challenging the sailors to push themselves further.
CGSC is fortunate to have a long-time racing competitor and seven-time Argentinian Opti Team Racing National Champion Hernan Perlalta as its Laser fleet coach. Before heading out to the course, Perlalta challenges each member to improve in a particular area. For newer sailor Nick Herrera, that meant charging the start line even if it means he is over early. For twins Alejandro and Santiago Holz, it meant trying to move up in the standings by being aggressive in the strong wind. For veteran Laser sailor Tristan, who had proven himself capable of handling a full sail in building breeze, it meant finding the confidence to believe he could beat his competitor who had taken first in every race the day before.
“The most important thing I want to teach these kids is teamwork,” Hernan said. “While this is an individual sport on the water it’s the teamwork before and after each race that makes you successful. Working together is what I want these kids to take with them in life.”
At the end of the first race, each team member returned to the coach boat to tell Perlalta how the race went and to hear about teammates’ races. Even though the racers compete in different classes, their interest and encouragement is for their entire team. Perlalta’s lessons are having their intended effect.
Before every regatta, youth director Nick Mansbach sends the teams onto the water with these words: “It’s not about if you win, but what you learn to help you improve for next time.”
Asked where he sees the program in the next five years, Connett said, “Our next challenge is to help our young sailors and their families get involved in sailing together. I would like to see the parents and children move up from the Youth Sailing Program and step into bigger racing boats.”
Given the motivation and inspiration of the leaders of the Youth Sailing program, these goals look easily achievable.