I retired from running the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team last September. For a few months afterwards, I really wanted nothing to do with boats, or the water, or any part of our sport. I was burned out from the stress, the daily burden of fundraising, the constant battle of trying to keep lots of people happy, often with conflicting agendas. I actually spent a few months not caring a bit about getting anywhere near a sailboat. I wanted to avoid having too many “so what happened at the Olympics last summer” conversations. I was happy to stay far, far away.


On his first sail, 3 year old Zach got to take the helm, adjust some lines, and get excited about sailing. Photo: Emily Brenner

But then I went on vacation this summer and spent a month in Watch Hill, RI, where I grew up and my wife and I first met long ago. Emily and I both have family there, and our sailing roots are firmly planted at the Watch Hill Yacht Club.

At the beginning of this vacation, I started venturing down to the club a little at a time, sitting on the dock in the mornings with my coffee, and watching the junior program sailors rig up their Optis. Then I started bringing our three-year old Zach down with me. He quickly became interested in watching the kids put in their masts, centerboards, and rudders. Zach is an inquisitive kid and his most constant refrain is “tell me more about that.” He says it about twenty times per day.

He asked me how everything on a boat works, why do you do it one way vs. another, why do you need a mast, what does a tiller do, what is that called, etc, etc, etc. And as I had my morning coffee each day and watched Zach absorbing it all, I started to remember the things that made me love sailing in the first place. Over the last eight years, I was running a professional sports team. It was exciting. But when the stakes are high, the stress is often high as well. Eventually I got tired of all of it.

But this was different.

Watching Zach soak in sailing this summer, at the beautiful young age of three, made me realize once again how special sailing is. The things that make a sailboat move, while mundane to the person who does it all the time, are fascinating to the young mind. Zach was amazed watching the boats move with the wind, and he wanted to know everything.

After a couple of weeks of whetting his appetite, Emily and I decided it was time to take Zach for a sail. We went out with a dear friend on his Watch Hill 15, the class of boat I learned to race on as a 20-year old. Zach got to steer (with a little help), he pulled lines, he climbed underneath the deck… and then after about an hour, his young mind wandered and it was time to call it a day. Perfect.

Zach is still three years away from the junior program at WHYC, so our goal this summer was to get him excited about boats. Mission accomplished. And between now and then, we will continue to make sure he is just as excited as a little boy can be.

And now I’m excited again too. Sailing isn’t about fundraising and sponsorship and cut-throat international competition. Sailing, at its best, is about little kids and their love of the wind, the water and a sail.