Photo by Bill Shea
The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association (RIMTA) presented the John H. Chafee Boater of the Year Award to Kate Wilson of North Kingstown (R.I.) at a marine-trades industry breakfast that stood as the official opening of the 24th Annual Providence Boat Show. The Providence show, one of New England’s largest indoor boat shows, was held February 3-5 at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
The Boater of the Year award recognizes an individual who has contributed to the success of the recreational boating industry in Rhode Island or championed the cause of bringing recreational boating to the public. Wilson was recognized for the important grassroots work she has done to grow the sport and find new ways of getting local youth more engaged with being on the water and going boating.
“We applaud Kate Wilson for embracing the challenge of getting more young people engaged in our sport and approaching that task from a new and inventive angle,” said Wendy Mackie, CEO of RIMTA. “Clearly, her approach is working to get more Newport-area youth excited about being on the water.”
The award was presented to Wilson by Neal Harrell, president of Brooks Marine Group in Newport and last year’s Boater of the Year, and Governor Gina Raimondo.
In accepting the award, Wilson redirected the limelight toward all the individuals who work to get more young people engaged in boating.
“This award is really for all the volunteers who are getting kids on the water,” said Wilson, in accepting the award. “To create life-long sailors we need to start with our youth.”
A Sailor Who Understands the Pressures on Today’s Youth
As a former sailing coach at Rogers High School in Newport, Kate Wilson was challenged by one common situation all too often: local students who had the racing skill and experience to join the school’s sailing team were opting for other sports. After years of competing on the water, these young sailors were simply burnt out.
It was disheartening to Wilson that a sailing mecca like Newport was not able to field a thriving High School sailing team — but the students’ feelings toward the sport were ones she understood all too well.
The daughter of a Navy officer, Wilson grew up sailing in different junior programs around the world — and she was all about getting on the water as much as possible. But as is the case with many junior sailing programs, the emphasis was placed on competing. “The competition was important,” says Wilson, “but definitely secondary to the camaraderie and fun of sailing.”
Wilson sailed and raced throughout High School and college, and her teammates remain some of her closest friends. But after graduating from college, she took a break from the sport. “I just wasn’t having fun anymore. The competition had zapped it from me.”
Taking a New Look at a Common Problem
Kate Wilson continued to stay engaged in the sailing world, however, and she even left her home in Rhode Island to work for an America’s Cup syndicate. But when she returned to the Ocean State, she started looking at the problem from a new angle.
As a member of Newport Yacht Club, she led the effort to revitalize the club’s junior sailing program — and in order to do that, she started from square one. The club’s program was renamed the Marine Adventure Camp, larger boats beyond the competitive sailing dinghies juniors typically race were introduced, and the emphasis was placed on having fun adventures on the water with friends.
“We’d have the kids go out and set their anchor, or sail over to Jamestown to get ice cream…We focused on fun, not competing,” says Wilson. The strategy worked, and the program that had dwindled to about a dozen kids grew to 120 young sailors after only two summers.
Wilson tried the same approach with High School sailors when she created an event called Friday Night Lights in the spring of 2014. “All the local schools were invited to do some fun round-robin sailboat racing. We’d have cookouts, and the parents could come and watch too. It was just like a Friday night football game!” And again, young sailors got energized about being on the water.
Wilson is quick to point out that her approach is not meant to denigrate competitive sailing, but only to give kids who are not motivated by competition other ways to develop a passion for the sport.
A Challenge to Our Industry
Kate Wilson accepted this award just as some 150 members of the marine trades were getting ready to head out to the boat show floor and sell boats and other products to consumers. So she gave the audience an important reminder, and a challenge.
“I challenge you to go back to the reason why you got involved in this industry in the first place,” said Wilson. “Remember, boating is all about the fun! And I guarantee that if you focus on that, you will be successful.”
Kate Wilson makes her home in North Kingstown, where she runs a marketing and web design company called Rising T, which services marine clients. With this award, she joins a group of boating luminaries from Rhode Island who are past winners of this award — including the late Ted Hood Sr., Halsey Herreshoff, Ken Read, and Rome Kirby.