Building a youth windsurfing program

Published on April 9th, 2019 – Windsurfing is making a resurgence in areas around the USA. In Miami, the city of perpetual sunshine, foilers are taking to the water and youth windsurfing has found new life at Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, one of the unlikeliest of places.

After less than three years, the program has grown to more than twenty young sailors, a race team numbering thirteen, and a waitlist. What’s the secret to their success? Quality equipment designed for kids and coaches with a technical racing background who create a fun environment on and off the water for recreational windsurfers and racers alike.

Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, considered the most exclusive yacht club in the city, is a traditional men’s club that hosts classes like the Etchells and Star, not the type of place one would envision the rise of a youth windsurfing program.

However, in the fall of 2016, young Commodore Charles Munroe, concerned about the aging status of the club, sought to create a junior program to involve the younger membership and their families.

Munroe and his cousin, David Woolsey, are both avid windsurfers and didn’t want to compete with other area youth programs, so they decided to go a non-traditional route and promote windsurfing.

A few months later, Woolsey ran into Kathleen Tocke, an American RS:X sailor who had been sailing out of the club with her training partners before the World Cup Series in Miami. Not knowing Tocke’s boyfriend was a member of the club or that she had coaching experience, Woolsey asked if she was interested coaching the program for a couple days and the rest was history.

Tocke, who was well known as an Optimist, Laser, and 29er coach, was thrilled at the prospect of growing a new program in an Olympic discipline largely overlooked by the country. Tocke herself had been recruited by a US Team coach from dinghy sailing to windsurfing, and quickly learned how technical and difficult the sport was.

She realised that the US had no hope for medals unless kids started very young. In addition to creating a much needed racing program, she knew that windsurfing was one of the most affordable ways to get young people on the water, good for the club, and good for the sport of sailing.

Finding the right equipment was imperative. The club had already purchased six Bic Techno boards and some beginner rigs, but the sails and masts were too tall and heavy and the booms too big for little hands. The quality of the sails was also poor, making proper technique impossible.

Tocke spent countless hours shopping around for equipment, sails from England, tiny harnesses from Italy, and harness lines from Spain. Her friends Farrah Hall and Kristin Lane made some of the first donations, with Lane donating a JP Australia short board which the kids have affectionately come to call the ‘Juan Pablo,’ which has brought countless hours of fun on windy days.

The next step was finding more coaches. Even though the Techno is a kid’s board, it is very technical and requires proper set-up for every condition as on-water technique changes with just about every two knot increase in wind velocity.

Critical to windsurfing is pumping, but it’s about technique and not strength. Learning proper technique at the beginning is important so that kids can progress faster and don’t acquire bad habits.

Because the US hasn’t produced many racers in the past decade, finding appropriate coaches was not so easy, but given that many of the best international windsurfers come to train in Miami every January, Tocke recruited her friends to guest coach, including US Olympian Farrah Hall and 2018 World Cup Miami winner, Hélène Noesmoen from France.

Nicole Level, who grew up racing Technos and RS:X in Cancun, is now in her third year coaching the BBYC Team during Orange Bowl and summer camps. She coaches for the love of the sport and her smile is infectious, perfect for encouraging kids taking on such a difficult and demanding sport.

Having Olympic caliber sailors in Miami has proven invaluable. The kids witness the sport at the highest level, emulate what they see, and have mentors in many of the visiting sailors. Biscayne Bay Yacht Club now hosts an international RS:X Championship every year before the World Cup Series and sailors from the youth program serve as Race Committee. They see the race from the starting line, learn their race flags, racing rules, and other technical aspects of running regattas.

In addition to the RS:X event, the club launched in 2017 its own Orange Bowl International Youth Windsurfing Regatta with a clinic. Given that there were so few youth windsurfers racing in the US, the club decided to import more talent to race with their kids.

In its first year, the regatta reached close to 25 sailors, with competitors coming from Peru, Canada, Mexico, and a cohort from the Clearwater Sailing Center, a burgeoning program under the direction of Justin Ahearn.

By fall of 2018, the program had grown to a point where another year-round coach was necessary. The obvious choice was Alex Morales, a major promoter of windsurfing in Miami, seasoned regatta organizer, and builder of race boards and windsurfing foils.

With Alex came unbridled enthusiasm for the sport, a connection with the local adult windsurfing community, and a perfect demeanor for coaching kids.

While all the elements above attribute to the growth of the program at Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, what makes the program grow is the attention given to making the program fun on and off the water. Equal time is given to kids interested in recreational windsurfing and those that dream of going onto the Olympics. The program has balance.

Windy days are just as fun as no-wind days when kids get a dose of formal chalk talks, but also get to goof around on the water paddling, swimming, learning free-style moves, or cleaning garbage from the bay.

On days with fierce rain and too much wind, the kids trot over to program supporter, Augie Diaz’s house. They set up a rig in his living room with cathedral ceilings, watch and dissect windsurfing videos, eat pizzas, and even make cookies.

And last but not least, music is an important part of the program. The kids sing on the water and most play a stringed instrument, including all the coaches. For those that don’t play, there are kazoos, a triangle, and bongos. They perform at regattas, play a concert at Christmas, and just strum some tunes together at lunchtime.

While fun is the focus, most kids are serious students and their coaches know that studies come before sailing, so there is no pressure when kids miss practice to study or if they have important performance or other sporting event. It’s about creating well-rounded kids – less pressure, more balance.

Interestingly, many of the kids do not come from sailing families, but there are those that have sailed Optimists and other dinghies, but didn’t like the ultra-competitive atmosphere of Optimist sailing, or they just wanted to try something different. They love being on the water with their friends. That’s the key.

The program now runs three to four days a week with improv practices when the wind is up. Coach Kathleen looks at iWindsurf and sends out a text message to the kids to come and sail after school. It’s the equivalent of “Surfs up!” Some of them just can’t get enough.

In the fall and spring, the young sailors participate in Wednesday Night Races, run by BBYC coaches. Race nights bring together the youth and the local mutigenerational windsurfers. It’s a fun and special night. It makes the kids a part of the larger community and shows them that there are lots of windsurfing disciplines and boards to try.

While the kids will not all go to the Olympics, they know that they can make great friends, enjoy the water, and do an amazing sport for a lifetime.

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