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Spreading the word - getting young people out sailing in Belize

by Major (Retd) George Tomlin MBE 27 Jun 2013 11:55 BST
Bruce and Shannon sailing in Belize © George Tomlin

I have recently returned from a holiday in Belize where I became a full member of the Belize Sailing Association (BzSA). While until now I knew nothing about sailing I was co-opted on to the Sailing Committee by a great friend of mine and one of the Association's founder members Brig Gen (Retd) Alan Usher.

The BzSA was started by a few like-minded persons in 2010 and quickly launched its Optimist programme for the benefit of young Belizeans aged from 9 to 15 years of age. It is run by sailing enthusiasts, parents and anyone else who is willing to help. People such as me!

There are now has four clubs in Belize based in Belize City and the towns of Placencia, Corozal and San Pedro Ambergris. Another club is currently being formed in Orange Walk Town and this will hopefully be followed by the creation of clubs in Punta Gorda and Dangriga.

The young people come from every possible background including orphans, those well off and the not so well off. At last count the Association had over 150 young people learning to sail from all over Belize. It is truly amazing to see these young enthusiasts developing their sailing skills at their weekly training sessions. One moment they are the complete novice and the next they are, under close supervision, expertly rigging their Optimist dinghies, jumping into them and competently handling them out to sea in what can be very testing conditions.

The BzSA now has 32 Far East Race Certified Optimists and have received training support from the International Optimist Dinghy Association (IODA) and 5 free boats under the IODA's "6 for 5" programme. See also: www.optiworld.org

The aims of the Association are not just to teach these young people how to sail but also to develop their confidence; their communication skills and belief in themselves as responsible citizens of Belize. In some cases it also keeps them off the streets and out of trouble and gives them a purpose in life with some now developing as sailing instructors in their own right. I am convinced that the young people who are participating in this project will reap the benefits from it for the rest of their lives.

Only days after my arrival in Belize I found myself officiating as the finishing line judge at a national ranking regatta at Honey Camp Lagoon (an inland lake 6 miles east of Orange Walk Town). I could have ruined the whole weekend having received only rudimentary instructions about my responsibilities. I got away with it by 'the skin of my teeth'. However, I was also able to observe these young sailors at close quarters from the novice to the expert. I was also able to observe the same sailors just one month later at the Placencia Regatta and in quite rough seas (18kts and 3 foot swells) note the improvement in many of their skills. A total of 18 young sailors competed at the Honey Camp Regatta and 24 at Placencia.

The Association currently holds 8 national regattas for ranking purposes each year at different locations in Belize waters. To encourage participation costs are kept to an absolute minimum and subsidised by Association fundraising. Sponsors have also helped either directly by purchasing dinghies for the Association or by providing funds in return for advertising on regatta programmes or on the dinghies themselves. Indeed one sponsor rewarded the winner of the Placencia Regatta with the financial backing for a four year academic secondary school scholarship!

As the young sailors out grow the Optimist or reach the age of 15 they are not abandoned. The Association has been able to extend the age limit by obtaining access to four privately owned Laser Picos and a gifted very much neglected Laser in need of a sail and some small pieces.

While time is running out for them the Association has the ambition to get two of the young sailors to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero to compete in the two Laser classes (Radial for female and Standard for male). At least three Lasers are need by the end of 2013 with a subsequent three per year leading up to 2016. The BzSA Olympic aspirations are extended in a twelve year plan to 2024.

If anyone is able to help achieve the BzSA's ambitions I am sure assistance on a voluntary basis in any form would be very much appreciated and may be like me co-opted into the Sailing Committee. If they achieve their goal to get to Rio I have said that I will meet them there!

Visit the Belize Sailing Association Facebook page for more information.