It’s back to the future for Youth Programme

 In Member Interest, Youth Training Programme

Article from ‘BREEZE SPRING 2023’

As part of an exciting rebuild for the future, the Mastercard Youth Training Programme is circling back 35 years to the foundations that made it a formidable force in New Zealand yachting.

“It is a bit like a new beginning,” confirms coach Zak Merton, who adds that the current intake of students is highly motivated and working really well.

“They are buzzing about it, even organising their own extra training sessions and asking me to come out and help where possible.”

As part of this rebuild, Harold Bennett – who established the programme with Past Commodore Richard Endean in 1987 following New Zealand’s first foray into the America’s Cup – has agreed to return in a mentoring role.

“We are lucky with the strength and reputation the programme has built over the years,” says Merton. “This provides a lot of good people we can lean on, but Harold is obviously the guy who established it in the first place and had the initial ideas of what it should look like.

“It is great that I can use him as a sounding board to bounce ideas off. He can provide clarity and back-up for what I am doing on shore and on the water, and help give direction.”

Following an approach from Vice Commodore Gillian Williams and her husband, Nathan, who is a programme graduate, Bennett agreed to meet with Merton.

“We had a long conversation,” Bennett confirms. “I told Zak about the whole thought process behind the programme when it was originally set up and also passed on a lot of data I had accumulated.

“It is definitely not about me standing over Zak all the time. It is about working alongside him and being a sounding board.”

Bennett believes there has been a drift away from the core role of producing high performance sailors and more towards a learn-to-sail school.

“Right from the beginning we set goals for what we wanted to

achieve in international racing and we succeeded within the first couple of years,” he recalls.

“It was about the fundamentals of educating young sailors about the whole process of campaigning. It is not about just stepping on the boat, sailing from 9 to 4 and heading off to the pub.

“It is about discipline, preparation, checking and maintaining every part of the boat and equipment, debriefing after every session, figuring out what worked and what didn’t, how to do better.

“Those were the reasons why international teams snapped up people who had come through the Squadron programme. They were not just good sailors. They knew their way around boats and how to look after them and had learned the disciplines of campaigning.”

Post Covid, the programme saw a significant decline in participation, but Merton says it is building back. “We are noticing good retention. Students are getting their friends to come along and join, so we are back in a growth phase,” he says.

And he is expecting the new fleet of Elliott 7s donated by Emirates Team New Zealand will add to the momentum. The boats are being built by McConaghy in China, with whom ETNZ has an existing relationship through the AC40 project.

“Since we launched the first fleet of E7s, about 10 other clubs have followed suit,” Merton says. “There has been a bit of refinement over the years. Our new boats will incorporate all those changes, plus a couple of details we have added, so they will be the very latest version.

“They will start arriving early next year and we expect to move through the commissioning phase quite quickly.”

Meanwhile, the existing fleet will be taken over by Bucklands Beach Yacht Club. “That is great,” says Merton, “because it opens up the possibility of bigger youth events in Auckand in future.

“We could have 20 boats competing in a gold and silver fleet situation, moving through to a 10-boat final.”

The replacement of the Elliott 7 fleet, courtesy of Emirates Team New Zealand, is expected to add impetus to a rebuild of the Mastercard Youth Programme which includes founding coach Harold Bennett returning in a mentoring role.

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