What does being WELCOME TO ALL really mean for sailing programs?

by Blair Overman, US Sailing Siebel Sailors Program Manager

I have been in the business of intentionally molding sailing programs to be inclusive for any person who wants to engage in our beloved sport in a myriad of different ways for almost 15 years now. My learning curve has been steep, and I gain new knowledge every season. The Siebel Sailors Program that I manage with an incredible team of five coaches is halfway through its second year. The program and the sailors have taught me more than I can succinctly put into an article, but I wanted to share this year’s takeaway for me, personally.

We came into this opportunity to build a new program with US Sailing that would increase diversity in our sport with the best of intentions. I wanted to help sailing organizations (both community sailing centers and yacht clubs with open programming for youth) reach out to sailors who were representative of their surrounding community demographics, but were not showing up in a program, and invite them in. It was a very, “what can the sport of sailing do for you?” approach. Isn’t that how we all feel sometimes? That this sport has changed us and bettered us in ways we only want to share with others? If people just knew how incredible this experience could be, wouldn’t they would flock to it? If we could just show them…

But I was wrong. It’s not a bad way to think, it’s just not putting the sailor first. Instead, we are learning that opening up your organization with the intent of just diversifying your participants for the sake of doing the right thing or increasing diversity in your participant base can do more harm than good. Conversely, I would encourage sailing centers to ask themselves, “have I done the work internally to ensure that I can support each individual child that walks through my doors?” Have I accurately identified their unique needs and am I prepared to meet them where they are? Everyone has needs, including the mostly white affluent population that currently dominates the makeup of most sailing organizations.

What we have to realize, is that white affluent adults, staff, and board members are serving white affluent youth. So the needs are well understood. If you are a white affluent organization welcoming youth sailors that are different from you, you’ve got some work to do to understand what they need.  Purely altruistic intentions and well-meaning attitudes don’t replace the work of getting to know your sailors.

What does getting to know a new population of sailors look like?

  • Reducing transportation barriers
  • Having intentional conversations with parents of children with low water comfort about how you safely plan to build that comfort and the steps you’re going to take to get them used to the water before they even step on a boat
  • Creatively allowing partial program participation (or adjusting hours completely) for those sailors who have religious obligations or family obligations at home
  • Providing gear, lifejackets, meals, water bottles, sunscreen – at least in the beginning while sailors get used to what is necessary to feel comfortable in this new environment

I could go on and on with this list, but you know the best way to support your new sailors? ASK THEM WHAT THEY NEED! Truly listen and be ready to adjust your approach and your program. If you’ve built trust with them, they’ll be honest. At the end of the day, it’s really all of us who need to learn from them, not the other way around.