Article written by Dave Kneale and featured in Manx Life Magazine, Febnruary 2011. Reproduced here with permission.
Following an incredible series of results the eight youngsters of Manx Youth Sailing Squad are braving the elements and getting back on the water. The winter training programme marks the start of their 2011 campaign which will culminate in July at the RS Tera dinghy World Championship in Denmark.
During 2010 young Manx sailors James Kelly and Hannah Howitt were crowned World Champions after a triumphant performance at the RS Tera World Championship in France, while the whole team secured the Team Champions Trophy at the UK’s Inland Championship.
These are no small feats for a squad formed only three years ago to give children aged thirteen and under the chance to compete in high-level racing events both at home and overseas.
For Jen Kneale, proprietor of 7th Wave RYA Training Centre and founder of the MYSS, this is familiar territory. By the age of eighteen she had already competed in two world championships in the Laser dinghy after being spotted by the coaches and selected for Great Britain’s Laser team.
“Competitive sailing is an extraordinarily complicated business,” she explains, “it’s not just about who sails fastest on the day. There’s a huge amount of knowledge and experience involved: boat setup, complex rules, tides, weather, fitness, nutrition and strategy. It’s about being able to sail well in any weather, while constantly making all kinds of tactical decisions. It takes concentration, maturity and as much time on the water as you can get.”
Her idea of forming a racing squad began to take shape after teaching dozens of young sailors at 7th Wave. “I wanted to give our sailors a better chance than I’d had; I wanted them to go to a championship having had plenty of training beforehand, a coach on location and a team around them for support.”
Sailing instructors from around the island formed the coaching team and went about selecting the sailors. In the summer of 2008 the first team of youngsters were invited to join the squad: brothers James and Greg Kelly, Izzy Sharpe, Hannah Howitt, Nick Parkes and Amie Shute, with Ffinlo Wright joining the team the following year. Using Tera dinghies borrowed from 7th Wave, training began in preparation for the squad to compete at the 2008 Tera Inland Championship in the UK.
“Sailing in a big fleet for the first time, with 30 identical boats on a start line, is a big step up from our local dinghy racing. Even for adults it can be intimidating, so we put no pressure on them for results. We just wanted them to experience that kind of racing.”
It seems the young Manx sailors had other ideas. Greg Kelly, just ten years old at the time, won the first race and finished third overall, with older brother James finishing tenth.
“Getting two top ten results was more than we’d ever hoped for and a huge boost for the whole squad. They all came back believing they could do well.”
After a winter of coaching they returned to the UK for the Tera Nationals in 2009, which would prove to be a decisive moment for the squad. Their collective results secured them the National Team Champions trophy and all six youngsters were selected to compete for Great Britain at the 2010 Tera World Championship in France.
If the first year’s success had created ripples, this created tidal waves: “Bringing home the Team Trophy was a great achievement. But to have the entire team selected for the GBR squad was unbelievable.”
Donations from the Manx Lottery Trust, AM Limited and Skandia allowed the squad to buy six new Tera dinghies to replace the ageing training boats and the sailors were invited to four training weekends in the UK in preparation for the World Championship. Between the time out of school and the expense of travelling, however, it was obvious that regular attendance would be impractical.
From her teenage experiences attempting to participate in the GBR training programme while studying for her A-Levels on the Island, Jenni understood the challenges involved:
“For me it was a logistical nightmare; family and friends in the UK would get the boat from A to B, while I would travel from the Island on my own, getting there however I could. I could barely carry all the kit on my back,” she laughs, “one bag with a wetsuit, buoyancy aid and spare clothes, plus the sails, rudder and daggerboard, ropes, tackle and tools.”
This is a common problem for island-based athletes, so a plan was hatched to bring GBR Team coach Jonathan Lewis to the Island, supplementing the training offered by the core coaching team of Rob Cowell, Phil Hardisty, Donald Edwards and Jenni. “It made much more sense to bring the coach to the sailors. To have brand new racing boats and the undivided attention of a national coach took things to a new level”.
Jonathan ran four intensive training weekends before the squad headed to France to compete at the RS Tera World Championship in July 2010. Taking advantage of the strong winds throughout the week, James Kelly led the overall standings from day one and clinched the gold medal with a day to spare, a commanding performance which capped an outstanding week of results for the MYSS. Hannah Howitt and Izzy Sharpe were the top two girls in the fleet, crowning Hannah as the RS Tera World Ladies Champion.
“The results are down to the hard work and dedication of the whole squad and a huge volunteer effort behind the scenes. Training is tough, especially in winter, but the kids are always smiling, always happy and always pushing themselves to do better. When Jonathan came over for his first training weekend, he said ‘we could have a world champion in this room.’ It turns out we had two!”
As well as preparing the five youngsters who will contest the World Championship, 2011 will see new recruits Ben Batchelor and Matthew Petts make their UK debuts at the Tera National Championship in July and a new intake of youngsters will be invited to join the squad in the spring.
Jenni and the team are helping the squad’s older sailors make the move into bigger, faster boats and a chance at selection for the Island Games sailing team and the GBR Transition Squad, which helps young racers progress into Olympic classes like the Laser.
“It feels like we’re all part of a big family so it’s a little emotional seeing them outgrow the Tera dinghies and take the next step. It’s amazing what they’ve achieved, both as individuals and as part of a team. To me though, they’re simply here to learn, make friends and enjoy themselves, that’s my job as a coach. It’s a privilege to be there to help them grow in ability and confidence as they become young adults.”