School regatta program sails ahead

Unique activity attracts a different brand of athlete

Students from Greater Victoria secondary and middle schools take part in the inaugural Vancouver Island School Sailing League which attracted more than 200 participants this fall.

Perhaps the most innovative school sport program on Vancouver Island wound up its first season in November, and for participants, next season can’t come soon enough.

The creation of Royal Victoria Yacht Club sailing program coordinator, Steve McBride, the Vancouver Island School Sailing League attracted more than 200 youngsters in its innaugural year. It also won the Sail Canada Sail Training Program of the Year for 2012.

“I’d always wondered why there wasn’t a competitive school program,” McBride said. “After all, we’re surrounded by water and it just seemed natural. It was just luck that I ran into Gavin McKay and got to talking about it.”

McKay, a long time coach and the owner of an Island boat building business, was the founder of the high school rowing program in Victoria. He shared his experience with McBride and encouraged him to undertake the competitive sailing program.

McBride and his crew developed a program and got the support of the Lower Mainland Sport Association for the concept, after which McBride pitched the idea to schools all across the Island. He began registration in spring 2012 and by the time school started in September, more than 200 young people from grades 6 to 12 had signed on to represent their schools.

“The response was amazing,” McBride said. “We had schools from Oak Bay, but there were teams from Esquimalt, Maple Bay, Comox, Nanaimo, Salt Spring Island … from all over.”

The middle school entrants were trained on one-person Optimist Dinghies, while high school would-be mariners trained on larger two-person 420s. The boats were supplied by the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, the North Saanich Yacht Club and the Canadian Forces Sailing Association.

“Less than five per cent of the kids had ever sailed before,” sailing head coach Christine Williams said. “We spent the first four weeks of the nine-week season teaching them how to sail.”

The next four weeks saw the students learn to race, a task that Williams said was both exciting and fulfilling.

“It’s not often that a Grade 6 kid will be given control of a vessel and sent out to drive it,” Williams said. “There was a little bit of bumper cars going on out there in the beginning, and a few capsizes here and there, but the kids were incredible. They all learned how to race and when we had the regattas at the end of the season, it was very close.”

McBride said that one of the truly remarkable aspects of the program was how involved the parents of the young sailors were. “They were all given a boat rescue course and they were out there shepherding the kids around and getting right into it,” he said. “They got very involved, as did some of their teachers. Next year we’re thinking of having a fun regatta for the teachers, parents and coaches at the end of the season.”

McBride plans to expand the program by adding a nine-week spring regatta to the existing fall 2013 program.

“This is a program that’s unique in so many ways,” said Mark Shippers, Oak Bay High teacher and sailing coach. “The program is a great way to introduce the sport of sailing and attract students who do not participate in traditional school sports.”

“It is different,” echoed Williams. “It’s co-ed, so the guys and girls are competing at the same time, and you can enter a school team with as few as two people.”

The program could suffer from its own success. “We’re running out of boats,” said McBride. “We still have room for more people, but if it keeps growing, we’re going to need more boats.”

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