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Vol. 20, no. 1
February/March 2017


Keiki Cruisers 
Story By: Noel Nicholas
Photos By: Monte Costa

It’s Saturday morning in the junior sailors’ clubhouse at Kaneohe Yacht Club, and a dozen squirmy kids are trying their best to pay attention as sailing instructor Jesse Andrews talks them through the day’s lessons.

“Say you get hit by a big puff while going downwind and your bow is about to go underwater,” he says hypothetically. “What can you do?” Feet are tapping and fingers are fidgeting; these kids want to get out on the water bad. “Capsize!” a boy blurts out. Andrews raises his eyebrows at the intentionally wrong answer, and the class bursts into laughter. “Trim your sail,” says another kid. “Very good,” says Andrews. “Trim your sail and you decrease the power.”

After ten more minutes of talk, Andrews releases the class, which bounds out the door toward the docks. I’m expecting a mad rush, but it’s surprisingly orderly. A few kids take it upon themselves to slide their classmates’ racing dinghies into the water while the rest don their life jackets and help one another with the rigging. Although each kid will sail his or her own boat solo, it’s clear this is still a team. A half hour later all the boats are slicing through Kane‘ohe bay, the skippers smiling, laughing and bellowing at each other as they pass.

Hovering nearby in a motorboat, Andrews spots a rippled patch of water indicating that a heavy gust of wind is moving their way. “OK, there’s a big puff coming,” he yells. “Everyone remember what we talked about!” All across the water little backs stiffen in anticipation, then the puff hits and the boats lurch into high speed. Most of the kids whiz off, hooting with excitement, but one of the youngest kids slackens his sail and stares straight at Andrews with apprehension all over his face. “Cameron, the wind’s going to be heavy for a while, but it’ll die down soon,” Andrews yells. “If it doesn’t we can switch you out, but do you think you will be OK till then?” Cameron considers this for a few seconds and then nods, visibly steeling himself. Then he sheets in his sail and gets back underway.

Hawai‘i has nine junior sailing programs, generally open to any kid age 8 to 17. They are run by Kaneohe Yacht Club, Hawaii Yacht Club, Waikiki Yacht Club, Lahaina Yacht Club, Hawaii Kai Boat Club, Pearl Harbor Yacht Club, Hickam Harbor Marina, the Big Island Sailing Association and the Kaua‘i Sailing Association. One of the wonderful things about these programs, Andrews tells me, is that they bring together a variety of kids who somehow manage to find common ground—so to speak—on the water. “And it leaves them with skills they can use the rest of their lives,” he says.

The junior sailors I’m watching on Kane‘ohe bay today—the bold, the timid and everyone in between—are all years away from getting behind the wheel of a car. But as I see them operating boats that are several times their body weight, I can’t help but wonder what else kids their age might be capable of. And I can’t help but appreciate how good it is for these kids to see what it’s like to be—pardon the cliché—captains of their own ships. “When I’m gliding over the water and the wind is good,” a 13-year-old sailor named Matt Grimsley later tells me, “it feels like I’m flying. It feels like I’m free.”

With Andrews and me in the coach’s boat is 15-year-old assistant coach Kalia Baker, who watches Cameron brave the big puff, trimming his sail and not burying his bow. “He’s gotten so much better,” she says. “He used to be really afraid of high wind, but he’s slowly getting better at handling it.”

Baker herself began sailing at age nine and progressed through the program, eventually getting recruited to help teach the younger kids. Now she coaches on Saturday mornings and takes advanced racing classes in the afternoon. “It’s so great watching these kids face the same fears and make the same mistakes I did and being able to help them through it,” she says. “A lot of sailing is just learning to have confidence in yourself and your training so you can think clearly when problems come up or weather hits.”

Last summer Baker traveled to Santa Cruz, California, with a team of local teen sailors for a dinghy-class race called the El Toro North American Championships. The Hawai‘i kids were met with twenty-five-knot winds the day before the race. Nearly all of them opted to stay ashore that blustery day, but this was Baker’s first Mainland regatta and she was determined to get some practice in beforehand. Braving the heavy winds and fifty-degree water, she took her El Toro out and ran some drills. Junior sailing programs employ a variety of dinghy-class boats, with students assigned to different models based on their weight and skills. The El Toro is a boxy and tipsy model, and Baker capsized a couple of times that day. But she stayed out long enough to get a feel for the course. The following day she placed a respectable seventh overall, beating fifteen other boats including some skippered by kids who sailed those waters all the time.

El Toros are among the boats Andrews’ class is sailing today on Kane‘ohe bay. There are also some clunky but stable, fire-engine-red Toppers—the most common beginner’s boat—as well as some sleek, speedy O’pen BICs. Sailing one of the BICs is ten-year-old Sage Andrews, the coach’s daughter. She has been sailing since she was six, and she’s a fierce competitor. “I love the feeling when I win,” she says. “But even more than that I love being able to adventure with my friends.” More than once Sage has taken unsupervised joyrides to Coconut Island, an islet in the bay about a mile and a half from Kaneohe Yacht Club. “I’m the biggest fan of animals, like, ever,” she says. “The best part about sailing to me is being able to be on the water and see all the creatures that not everyone gets to see. I’ve seen sea turtles, dolphins, and once I even saw a manta ray jump out of the water! I feel really lucky that I get to see things like that through sailing.”

Across O‘ahu, at Ala Wai Harbor in Waikiki, Hawaii Yacht Club junior sailing instructor Scott Melander takes his Saturday beginners class out into the ocean for some free play. “Follow me!” he hollers at the small fleet of Toppers behind his motorboat. Although usually sailed single-handedly, the Toppers are loaded with passengers today. “Is it normal to have three kids in a boat like that?” I ask. “Party boat!” Melander replies. He explains that it’s the end of the season and there’s no better way to keep kids coming back than to give them time to fall in love with sailing for sailing’s sake. As the kids in the Toppers make their way out of the harbor and into the open ocean, they glide past a massive red channel buoy, which they reach out to slap for good luck just before jibbing toward Diamond Head.

Conditions outside of Ala Wai Harbor are less predictable than those inside sheltered Kane‘ohe bay. The wind might shift from onshore to offshore at a moment’s notice, or it might suddenly die altogether. While such variable winds aren’t so great for beginners, they’re useful for advanced junior sailors who train to race in different conditions all over the country. During the school year, Melander coaches a half-dozen local high school sailing teams out here; sailing has been an accredited high school sport in Hawai‘i since 2003. “Elsewhere in the country it’s highly unusual for high schools to have dedicated teams,” he says. “A school might have a student-led recreational sailing club, but hardly ever a team with a budget and a schedule.” Hawai‘i, however, has ten high school sailing teams, all on O‘ahu and all drawing talent from the junior sailing programs. “It’s a great discipline for the older kids because sailing is a collegiate sport and can really open doors in higher education for the kids who take it seriously,” Melander says. “It’s also something they can do the rest of their lives recreationally or even professionally if they choose to.” Melander has former students who have gone on to captain charter-fishing boats, deliver boats to destinations around the world and work for big maritime companies such as Navatek and Matson.

At nearby Waikiki Yacht Club, junior sailing instructor Guy Fleming is hauling a collection of large, freshly engraved junior sailing trophies from his car into the clubhouse to put into display cases. “The clubs are just finishing up award ceremonies for the season,” Fleming says as he rubs a smudge off a name placard. Awards are mainly for the junior sailors with the season’s best finish times, but some programs also present awards to those showing the greatest improvement, even if winning a race is still beyond their reach. “It’s really fun to see the kids’ faces when they get called up and acknowledged for all the effort they put in,” Fleming says. “We want them to realize they’re learning all sorts of different skills—skills most adults don’t even know.”

Fleming believes that the entry-level, romance phase of sailing is a critical period. If he’s able to help kids fall in love with the sport and he rewards them as they learn, they’ll be more disciplined and dedicated when they’re ready for skill building, and they’ll be more likely to push into higher levels of competition, he says. “Hawai‘i has produced some seriously world-class sailors,” he says. “It’s such a great thing to watch a kid grow and excel in these programs and take their talents to the world stage.” 

Twenty-eight-year-old professional sailor Mark Towill is a perfect example of Fleming’s philosophy at work. Towill’s parents signed him up for the junior sailing program at Hawaii Yacht Club when he was nine, and he was instantly hooked. “To be that young and in control of your own little boat felt really liberating,” Towill tells me. Within a few years of learning to sail, Towill was racing in national competitions. At 18 he was featured in Morning Light, a Disney documentary about fifteen young people sailing from Los Angeles to Honolulu in the Transpacific Yacht Race. A few years later he teamed up with fellow Morning Light alumnus Charlie Enright to form a team of young Americans for the prestigious Transatlantic Race. From there the pair went on to become the youngest team to compete in the nine-month, 38,739-mile, round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race—competitive sailing’s ultimate blue-water challenge.

Not one to forget his junior sailing roots, Towill recently made a huge donation of sailing gear to the Hawaii Youth Sailing Association, which supports sailing education and competition throughout the Islands. “I can still remember the first day I ever went sailing,” Towill says. “I felt like my hair had been lit on fire.” Despite the countless soakings with sea spray he’s taken since then, that fire has not gone out. His introduction to the sport through a junior sailing program at the tender age of nine set him on his life’s course. And, as he puts it, “It all started on a Topper in Waikiki.”