My first mentor, my father.

In 2002, President George W. Bush proclaimed January as National Mentoring month – did you know? Although the campaign was started originally to encourage adult mentors to work with at-risk youth, I believe we can all join in with this campaign, by remembering our own mentors and the ways in which they changed our lives, and by looking for ways to become mentors in our own right.

What, exactly, does a mentor look like? We all probably have in our minds an image of a wise, old expert looking for the perfect protegé, but let’s not forget that a mentor can also be someone just a few steps ahead of us, naturally well-poised to help us benefit from their recent experiences of successes and setbacks. Perhaps a combination of the two perspectives is necessary as we try to navigate in this fast-paced and ever-changing world?

And how do mentoring relationships unfold? In my experience, it’s an organic thing, unfolding naturally, the bonds strengthened as each person leans in and commits to working together. It’s not something that can be “manufactured,” as the evolution of a mentoring relationship depends heavily on such things as personal chemistry, mutual trust, and motivation. Both people have to be open to it. Sometimes it evolves as one person reaches out and a relationship unfolds. And sometimes it evolves as the relationship forms between individuals within a community of like-minded people, and who can recognize their common interest and enthusiasm for a particular endeavor. Assigning a mentor and a mentee to each other isn’t likely to work, at least in my opinion, but there are always exceptions.

So, in looking at sailing, how do mentoring relationships unfold between sailors? More often than not, it happens between parent and child sailing together, which is obviously the most natural mentoring relationship that exists, but also these relationships can occur within the context of a sailing community, where there is real “glue,” specifically within the relationships that are built over time around a shared goal. Racing comes immediately to mind as a natural way for this to happen. For example, if you have a gifted skipper who can empower the crew by sharing knowledge and encouraging learning, it’s a natural progression that some kind of mentoring relationship will happen. And the best part is that it will feel authentic and it will be beneficial to everyone as they look ahead together for ways to develop their team. It takes a lot of work but can be extremely rewarding for everyone involved.

In Yacht Clubs, the fleet captains are most naturally situated to help begin the welcoming process that can lead to engagement, and, hopefully, mentoring relationships, since they are the “point person” for the fleet and can best identify who is enthusiastic about becoming involved, and who is most likely to be able to help. They can set the tone for the fleet’s culture and community, and with their leadership can influence the mentoring possibilities in this more subtle of ways, as well. Every new sailor needs to start somewhere! And wouldn’t it be much easier to take the first step if you knew there was someone there to hold open the door for you? It does take considerable time and commitment, but growing the fleet and helping people connect are the things that will ensure that everyone will have fun on the race course and will want to come back again next week.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have had mentors in all “eras” of my life: first, and foremost, my father, who taught me the ways of the ocean from my earliest years, then a dedicated voice teacher who guided me through the demanding training of an opera singer, several colleagues in my career as a fundraiser and philanthropist, and now, in my sailing journey, a gifted sailor and teacher who inspired me to take the tiller, and to not be afraid to sail my own course.

So what’s the moral of this story?  Each one of us has the ability to help another person on their sailing journey, and that encouragement, however small, can make a real difference in that person’s life.  I believe that Clubs and Sailing Centers should help provide ways for these mentoring opportunities to develop, because that is the most genuine way to build enthusiasm among newer sailors, and, as a result, grow our fleets and our sport.  What a powerful thing!

Take the Tiller | LogoKeep current with my blog posts by having them automatically delivered right to your inbox.  I won't spam you or share your email address with anyone, and by signing up you will make my day!

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

Latest posts by Deborah Bennett Elfers (see all)

Pin It on Pinterest