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Sold On Sailing

Sports is attracting a younger crowd eager to learn the ropes

March 25, 2004|Amelia Neufeld | Special to The Times

Garrett Laudenback's introduction to sailing wasn't his idea. His father signed him up for a two-week sailing camp at Orange Coast College on something of a whim.

"He was just looking for something for me to do over the summer and thought I should try something different," said Laudenback, a 14-year-old freshman at Santa Ana Calvary Chapel. "Sailing was just another activity to keep me busy."

Yet, since those two weeks in July 2001, his ambivalence toward sailing has now become passion.

"Once I got out on the water I was hooked," he said. "I love the freedom out there. It's just you, the boat and the elements."

Three years after his first sailing experience, Laudenback now helps teach the class he took at Orange Coast. Last fall, he and a friend started a sailing team at school, making posters and handing out fliers to generate interest. In the team's first varsity-level regatta on Feb. 7, it took third place.

And his story is not that unusual.

Sailing, once construed as a pastime for the elite, is attracting a growing number of teenage participants, many of whom have never skippered a boat.

"High school sailing has really exploded in California over the last 20 years," said Tim Hogan, president of the Pacific Coast Interscholastic Sailing Association, the governing body for all levels of high school regattas in California and Hawaii. "Sailing used to be perceived as a rich man's sport, but high school sailing disproves that. We're opening up opportunities for these kids."

Eighty-four high school sailing teams are registered with PCISA this season, four more than last year and nine more than two years ago.

"We only had 10 schools when I first got involved with high school sailing 24 years ago," Hogan said. "It just keeps expanding."

Because of the sport's growing popularity, Hogan and PCISA members organized junior-varsity-level, or "silver fleet," regattas to accommodate novices. Typically, the competitions draw 30 to 40 students, Hogan said, yet a regatta at Newport Beach in January drew almost twice that.

While some of the teams in attendance were from high school sailing powerhouses such as Corona del Mar and Newport Harbor, others represented less-established programs at schools such as Los Alamitos, Irvine University and Santa Ana Calvary Chapel.

Most young sailors become attracted to the sport through friends or by enrolling in community sailing programs offered through city park and recreation departments, community college classes or aquatic centers, said Jim MacLeod, the program director at the U.S. Sailing Center in Long Beach, which provides coaches and practice facilities for high school sailing teams.

"If a kid puts his or her mind to it, they can go out on their own and practice, but there are a lot of programs around to help them," MacLeod said. "It's tough to start a team with no prior knowledge."

A high school team must have at least four members to compete in the regattas, but officials at some smaller competitions allow individual sailors from different schools to mix and match.

"It's a positive for the sport as this younger, less experienced demographic gets involved," said Mike Segerblom, the center's director, who has seen a rising interest in high school sailing from rookies and girls (sailing is traditionally 65% male).

"The best thing about high school sailing is that as soon as the team starts doing well, it generates publicity, and then more kids get interested."

Competitive youth sailing has always been popular among Southern California teenagers who belong to yacht clubs.

Now, as the sport is gaining appeal among their less experienced peers, these junior sailors are showing their friends the ropes.

"I recruited everyone I knew and took a bunch of my friends from the soccer team to come sail," said Allie Blecher, who, like Laudenback, started a sailing team at her high school, Fullerton Troy. "I want to bring those kids who live next to Disneyland, and maybe all they know about being out on the water is riding the log ride, and teach them how to sail."

Blecher, 16, is from a family of sailors and has been sailing competitively since she was 12. She recently returned from the U.S. Olympic trials for women's sailing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she placed sixth out of 20 competitors, surprising herself as well as some veteran sailors.

"All my friends asked me for my autograph," said Blecher, who was at least 10 years younger than any other competitor.

"The publicity has helped to get a few more people on the team. Someone came up to me today and wanted to know if we would get to go to Florida and sail too. I said, 'If we do well enough, maybe.' "

Despite its growing popularity, sailing is not sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports in the state. That's a situation sailors say has its pros and cons.

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