Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Last Saturday was the final day on the fall sailing season for the high school team I coach. Actually Thursday was the last official day, but four of them wanted to drive two hours to get in one last day and one last regatta. You gotta love those people who can’t get enough of the things they are passionate about, and respond to each last time or last day with a plea for “just one more.”

Maybe a coach shouldn’t be happy after his team finishes seventh in an eight boat regatta, but after silencing the Vince Lombari voice in my head, it occurred to me I was proud of my very young freshman and sophomore sailors who thought nothing of going head to head with the best varsity junior and seniors from other schools. It took me a while to really pinpoint why I was so proud of them, but out of the blue, despite years since I have heard, read, or spoken the word, the perfect word came to me – gumption. Gumption is a word that seems to be out of fashion, but it sounds great and is enthusiastically positive without being syrupy or trite.

Dictionaries offer many definitions for gumption – initiative, resourcefulness, courage, spunk, guts, common sense – but the definition I like best comes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.”

It took gumption just to get to this regatta. When the event was first discussed, it was explained that it was two hours away, that the school would not provide transportation, that the school prohibited the coach from driving students in his own car, and that kids therefore had to provide their own transportation. None of the varsity skippers was prepared to hurdle those obstacles, but the future star freshman, and head gumption-eer immediately responded with “I’ll go. My mom will drive.”
“Has she agreed to that?”
“Not yet, but she will.”
The very talented out of town sophomore who sails with us, but is usually prohibited from competing in official school competitions, said he “would clear his schedule” for some outside competition. The freshman’s regular crew, our team captain, responded with her usual “I have no life outside sailing; I’m available.” And a few days later the volunteer for everything sophomore who always wants to go “even if I’m not sailing” offered to crew. The plan was hatched. We committed to the regatta.

It took a little more gumption to stick to that commitment after a series of setbacks. Future star freshman sprained her ankle the weekend before the regatta. She couldn’t sail all week, but swore she would heal enough and tape up the ankle sufficiently to sail on Saturday. On Wednesday the very talented (best kid on our team) out of town kid thanked me for a great season and said he now had a family obligation on regatta day. A call for a volunteer replacement elicited only one sophomore who was a crew and not a skipper. The only solution was to elevate the volunteer for everything sophomore from crew to skipper, and although he just started to drive the boat this year, and is about ninth on our depth chart, he was our man. None of the kids thought of any of this as an obstacle; it was just an adjustment in the plan.

When it came to the racing, there were six races in the A fleet for future star freshman and her crew, and six races in B fleet for volunteer for everything sophomore and his crew. In the first five races, future star freshman was averaging sixth place out of eight and volunteer for everything sophomore was averaging seventh. But in the final race for each, things started to fall into place. Future star freshman advanced from sixth at the windward mark to first on the last leg and then lost one boat to finish second. Volunteer for everything sophomore put together a good first leg to be fourth at the windward mark and gained one boat to finish third.

In our own gumption based scoring system, we threw out the first five races, counted only the last race in each fleet, and won the regatta by one point.

My sailors impressed themselves with what they accomplished in those final races, but they really impressed me with the gumption that it took to get them that opportunity for success.

As I think about it, maybe one of the things I like most about sailing is the gumption of the sailors. High schoolers are frequently willing to risk repeated capsizing and challenge themselves to sail in strong wind that the coaches know they can’t handle. Blue water sailors, long distance ocean racers, and solo single handed round the world racers all possess incredible knowledge and skill, but they are all the more admirable because of the gumption they demonstrate in pursuing their challenges.

And a final shout out goes to a couple of my friends who had the gumption to fly to England, compete with world class sailors, push the limits of their aging (and in one case, sick) bodies, and test the limits of their small boat sailing abilities in overpowering wind and massive waves. You have my admiration.


  1. Those kids sound terrific. It must be a real pleasure to coach such motivated sailors.

    And thanks for that last paragraph (even if undeserved in my case.)

  2. Gerald's team also faced obstacles this term; the rubber dam had broken, emptying their usual practice venue, and the student government managed to lose most of their (already very modest) funding. But in spite of that they presevered and did very well at a regatta in Mission Bay, San Diego and have lots of enthusiasm. Gerald had eight different team members crew for him on his boat, swapping crew every two races. And, another boat had three bullets. One difference: The Arizona State season only started in late September and has only just hit its stride.