Friday night lights without football

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The goal of FNL is to get kids on the water and create lifelong sailors. 

The goal of FNL is to get kids on the water and create lifelong sailors. 

No one heard the cork pop, but everyone on the floats witnessed the enthusiasm, rising like bubbles in a flute of freshly poured champagne. Sixty Rhode Island students from Rogers High School, Prout School, Middletown High School and Portsmouth High School gathered at Sail Newport for an evening of round-robin team and fleet racing, which they call Friday Night Lights.

Kate Wilson, the founder of this high school sailing program and the principal race officer, issues instructions from the deck of a RIB. “The substitution rule — the goal is to get as many kids racing, so coaches feel free to substitute as much as you like between races,” Wilson says. “The starting and finishing line is right here, right off the dock.”

FNL alternates between the Newport Yacht Club on Long Wharf, a short distance up the street from America’s Cup Avenue, and Sail Newport at Fort Adams. Weather often determines which venue is used, and on Day 1 of the 2017 series, the gods frown on Newport, issuing gray skies, a southerly wind and rain. Everyone is dressed in foul-weather gear fit for rounding Cape Horn.

“When a hard southerly comes in,” says Joe Cooper, sailing coach at Prout, “we have to use Sail Newport.”

The fleet of 420s — one-design dinghies sailed by a crew of two — is on chocks secured to the floats, sterns to the water and poised for launching. “They’ve got two flights going at the same time,” Cooper says. “They rotate off the dock.”

A feisty southerly batters the floats, making launching and retrieving difficult. On the other hand, the kids really don’t mind the weather. “We’ve sailed in sleet and 34-degree temperatures,” Cooper says, “and the kids are laughing and hauling up the sails.”

Wilson continues: “The course is a windward-leeward twice around.” She points out the marks. “If any of you have a question, don’t hesitate to sail by and ask me.” Wilson and the coaches are in RIBs and monitoring the racing.

Wilson started FNL in the spring of 2014. Her goal is to create lifelong sailors, so she invited all of the local schools to participate in weekly low-pressure racing. “We’d have cookouts, and parents could come and watch,” Wilson said in her speech when she accepted the Rhode Island Boater of the Year award, presented by the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association earlier this year. “For me, the most gratifying part … is seeing the huge smiles on the kids’ faces at the end of the day.”

The racing is always close, but perhaps the most intriguing statistic is that most of the students who come to FNL have little or no sailing experience. “They come in cold-turkey,” Cooper says.

All students from grade 9 through 12 are welcome, and many of the kids get into the series because one or two of their friends want to try it. In Cooper’s experience, when at least two friends join, both likely will stay with it.

Sailing is not part of the scholastic athletic curriculum, which includes football, soccer, lacrosse, track and other traditional sports. The FNL schools consider sailing a club sport, leaving funding up to the participants and coaches. “We all have fund-raisers,” Cooper says, such as pizza nights and car washes. Sail Newport gives the series a discount on rentals of the 420s, and donates food and support when the series sails out of its venue. Prout has started a club store.

So far, FNL has generated its own energy. “It’s just a really, really, really good thing,” Cooper says. The series has grown, and a few of the participants have landed a berth on big boats. Two girls from Prout have been invited to race in this year’s M32 catamaran pro match-race tour. How cool is that?

FNL’s racing schedule is over for the season, but you can check out the action on its Facebook page (search Facebook.com for “Friday Night Lights at NYC & Sail Newport”).

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.

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