Courage, independence, resilience – put your child in an Optimist dinghy and launch her on the ocean, she’ll learn all of these values and have fun at the same time.

Watching young people manage their boats is an enlightening experience. Put water and people together and things aren’t always ideal. Tempestuous seas, inclement weather, wind changes, boat traffic – all have to be dealt with and the problem solving that has to be learnt to sail a boat is necessary and invaluable.

I have great admiration for young sailors, but I was never one myself.

About 30 years ago, I literally fell into a boat because its builder wanted a photo shoot to market the new fiberglass mould of a Sunburst yacht.

The resulting photo was great, a shocking pink two-man boat surfing down waves with its pink spinnaker flying, spray everywhere from a perfect ocean sail. Sea Spray magazine got its cover photo but I was hooked, by the sea and the freedom of being on it.

Marketing has a lot to answer for!

The Sunburst was my skipper’s boat (very inclusive man, chose the shocking pink himself), aptly named ‘Fast Forward’. We have sailed together competitively for over 30 years ever since, first on the Sunburst, which is close to the water … a bum-wetting boat and all the better for it. Now, age is a factor and sailing takes place in a 25 foot Noelex, no less exciting but warmer and mostly drier.

I’m crew. I do what I’m told (mainly) and leave the important decisions to the skipper. And trust him completely to bring the boat and crew home in all conditions. Bob Witham (the skipper) has the skills, sailing since he was a boy, nationally and internationally.

It is only proper that the real sailor Bob tells you himself.

“When I started sailing in 1962 in an old planked, gaff-rigged P class (my pride and joy) in Wellington, sailing was a challenge given the clothing we had, the lifejackets we used and the good old Wellington weather. We all started sailing like youngsters do today in single-handed yachts, which are a wonderful way of teaching you how to survive alone. 

“Mastering what the elements throw at you – and how you can use this to your advantage – continues to be a challenge, but what is learnt on the water also has an influence on many other areas in life. The sailors you meet and the people you sail with of all nationalities become special friends.” 

Being on the water has always had significance. It is a changing medium and for me, on a summer’s day out on the bay, my mind is concerned only with the wind, water and boat.

Competitive sailing has taken me around New Zealand for national competitions and regattas. The sea is such a different environment from that of our day-to-day lives. It throws up wonderful experiences, fascinating wildlife and challenges. The challenges can be extreme and sailing competitively is not for the faint-hearted. Bruises and bumps, breaks and unexpected swims are all part of the sport if, like me, a sailor isn’t attentive continually.

It does help in the times where waiting for wind is the name of the game to have interesting and entertaining crew on board with you. I’ve had that in spades.

I sailed throughout the 12 years I was mayor and political events had to have a high threshold to take me away from the water. It’s that addictive.

In Hawke’s Bay recreational sailors are hard pressed to find enough interest to keep them out on the water. It has been mooted that a couple of islands towed to the bay and moored would give a focus.

That said, our family’s best holidays have been on the water – the sea, the sun, the food, the wine, the fellowship, the fun, the freedom.

So, good sailing in Hawke’s Bay depends on competitive sailing and that needs a framework to exist and plenty of dedicated volunteers.

The Napier Sailing Club is one of the few clubs in New Zealand that can cope with international classes. This means hundreds of boats as in the Optimist Nationals or 1,000 people as in the Waka Ama Nationals in October. The club is a fantastic facility with a range of events, sailing classes and a good record of safety.

This year the club is going all out to maximize sailing for new sailors. Whether you’re eight or 48 there will be classes over summer available from an international coach and our coaches. My first sailing experience was about luck, but the summer classes offer a wonderful opportunity for children to have some competent coaching to give them confidence on the water – whether or not it becomes their sport.

I have much to be thankful for.

Sailing for me is joyous. It’s about the great people I sail with, and against … the excitement of a sport that takes me out of a comfort zone and into the environment … and the satisfaction of meeting whatever challenges the wind and sea throw up on the day.

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