The O’pen BIC World Championships will be starting at the end of December down-under in New Zealand, the home of Russell Coutts, legendary five-times Americas Cup winner. He will be present at the event, to oversee the organisation and to mentor the young sailors. This exceptional world sporting superstar is heavily involved at the grass roots level with his local club, as well as on the international stage, creating learning and training programmes for sailing that are very much based on the core principles of enjoyment and passion. These values are a perfect fit with the spirit of the O'pen BIC class since its creation. This latest interview gives an insight into his views on technique and training, a perfect illustration of why he's right behind the originality of the O'pen BIC concept.
Which boat did you start your sailing career on?
A New Zealand design called a P Class.
If the O’pen BIC class had existed when you were young, do you think you would have been tempted to do that?
Absolutely, I would have been attracted by the O’pen BIC! After all, it’s a pretty cool looking boat!
Would you advise a youngster to start their sailing on an O’pen BIC? Why?
The O’pen BIC is a perfect boat to begin your sailing. It’s very similar in look and feel to many of the classes sailors progress to. The transition to sail a RS Feva, 29er, or Laser 4.7 or Radial is relatively straight forward.
In fact, the techniques you learn in an O’pen BIC are immediately applicable to sailing a Laser and the responsiveness of an O’pen BIC is more similar to a 29er or a foiling boat like a Waszp or Moth than many of the other junior classes.
So, I believe it’s a very good choice as an initial boat to learn in.
"it’s absolutely vital to have fun if you wish to pursue racing seriously. Once you develop a true passion for sailing then you can go very far"
With the 3.8m2 training sail (or the smaller rig you developed), how young can you start in an O'pen BIC?
Once a young sailor has confidence in the water and is not intimidated by a capsize, then they are ready to start sailing an O’pen BIC. Eight or nine years old seems like a good age to begin. In our learn to sail program, the first two days of introduction is focused on getting the young sailors comfortable with a capsize (which is usually done with a group of sailors). Once they achieve this confidence, it’s then much easier to teach them the correct body position, the correct way to hold the tiller extension (rather than the tiller), the correct hiking technique and the basic maneuvers like tacking and gybing. For example, we've found that teaching kids to steer holding the tiller rather than the extension, makes the initial sessions easier, but then it’s much harder to get these same sailors to break those habits to then learn to steer with the tiller extension, which of course is essential in order to be able to sail in stronger winds. So, it takes longer to teach proper technique in the beginning, but the progression is much more rapid later on.
What kind of boats can you progress to after O’pen BIC?
There are a lot of boats or boards that O’pen BIC sailors can progress to. Some of our former O’pen BIC sailors are sailing RS Feva’s, 29ers, Laser 4.7 or Radial or even Waszp’s, Moths or foiling windsurfers! They could also sail an Aero or try kiteboarding. The O’pen BIC provides a fantastic tool to learn many of the skills needed to progress to other forms of sailing.
How did the children in your club end up choosing O’pen BIC rather than one of the other boats for young sailors?
We introduced the O’pen BIC to our sailors because we liked the simplicity and the fact that they are all the same and have longevity. The sails (being fully battened) last a long time and it’s a fact that some of our better sailors are sailing some of the oldest boats in our fleet. So, the O’pen BIC is almost a one time cost where once you buy your boat, foils and sail, you are set to go with no requirement to regularly have to buy new equipment in order to remain competitive. Our kids enjoy sailing the boats because they are fast and can capsize and right the boat without having to bail the boat out. In fact, once we introduced the O’pen BIC, almost all of the sailors preferred to sail them.
What will you advise them to move on to after the O’pen BIC?
Whatever boat or type of sailing that they are passionate about.
O’pen BIC regattas are always "fun spirit" events- is that compatible with a career in serious competitive sailing?
It’s not only compatible, it’s absolutely vital to have fun if you wish to pursue racing seriously. Once you develop a true passion for sailing then you can go very far. It is worth noting, that while there is often a lot of emphasis on winning at junior level, such early success rarely translates to winning at senior level. In my view, many programs and federations tend to judge kids much too early.
"The philosophy of the O’pen BIC class provides a nice balance between fun and competitive racing."
You have O'pen BIC at your home club, the Manly Sailing Club in NZL. How practical are O'pen BIC in a sailing program?
They are very easy to maintain and store. They are simple to rig and very easy to transport when we wish to take our sailors to an event or experience the sailing conditions at another club.
What would be the one element that is required to keep kids connected to sailing and how does the O’pen BIC help to achieve that?
Two elements, fun and passion. They should be the top priorities. The emphasis should be in helping young sailors develop their confidence and discover which part of the sport they are truly passionate about, all within a fun and safe environment. It’s important not to allow kids to become discouraged. At junior level, they are all of varying sizes, weights and maturity. Often kids perform better simply because they are the right size! The philosophy of the O’pen BIC class provides a nice balance between fun and competitive racing. I have observed that many junior events keep their kids on the water for too long, in too many races without allowing them time ashore to develop friendships and generally enjoy being kids!
Of course, it depends on the sailors' size, but how old are the older kids in NZL & AUS who are sailing the O'pen BIC?
Our ages in NZ usually range between 8 - 14 years old but we do have some 16 years old that are still enjoying the boat. Once our young sailors reach 52 kg’s, we are generally encouraging them to move into a bigger boat which in New Zealand, often happens when they reach 13 years old.
You featured O'pen BIC as "The Half Time Show" between Race #1 and Race #2 of the America's Cup Finals last summer in Bermuda. What was the reaction?
Both the sailors and the people observing loved it. The “Bridge of Doom” was a great addition and introduced a fun element to the sport.
Why do you think it is that some sailing instructors and senior figures from sailing are slow to accepting the O’pen BIC concept?
I think it’s mainly because they have an established sailing program (with established boats) and a set way of doing things. It’s understandable that it would be difficult to change. It's a bold move to set off on another course. In our case, it was necessary to do so because too many of the kids were dropping out or becoming disinterested (especially at the youth age). I believe the cost factor is also a huge barrier to parents with young families.
It’s important to let kids develop their own passion and find their own pathway and be encouraged and helped through that process. I enjoy seeing some of our teenage kids initiating their own sailing sessions (with their friends) after school. To me, when they are driving it themselves and when they are all busting to get on the water with their friends, that’s a true measure of success.
What do you think the O’pen BIC Class might improve or could add to the formula to encourage even more youngsters to the class?
I believe what we started with Endeavour was a good recipe to dramatically increase numbers in sailing. Sailing has such a great connection to education and the environment, it’s a natural fit. Think about maths, physics, engineering and environmental sciences and sailing has a close affinity to all those subjects. So, if we could use sailing to better connect with schools, by providing teaching material and experiential programs, then many more kids would get to experience sailing. From that, what we found in Bermuda, was that many of those kids that did the Endeavour program then wanted to join yacht club junior programs to continue sailing.