Just 18 months ago, sisters Laragh and Niamh Epstein didn't sail. But now the pair, aged 10 and 8 respectively, have been selected for South & West Wales Regional Optimist Squad.

This in its own right is impressive, but when you hear the sisters are two of eight girls in the 12-strong regional squad, with another four girls in the North Wales Regional Optimist Squad, it becomes even more notable. In total, in Welsh Regional Optimist Squad squads totalling 16 sailors, 12 - or three-quarters - are girls.

After doing their RYA Stage 1 at Llangorse SC in May 2017, the sisters - with brother Cian already hooked after an introduction to sailing on holiday in Lanzarote the year before - threw themselves into the club's OnBoard activities and junior club racing, including alongside inaugural Panerai Challenger Trophy finalist, Béa Sparks.

Very soon they were taking part in the RYA Cymru regional Club Youth Racing Circuit (CYRC) events and the Acorn South West Wales OnBoard Festival Regattas hosted at Llangorse. This year, Laragh won the Regatta Coached Fleet out of 40 boats at the Optimist British and Open Championship in Pwllheli.

Winning has definitely helped fuel the fire, but as girls who balance their time with lots of other interests, including swim training, mum Ruth believes their friendships are the secret to them continuing to sail.

She said: "I think Laragh in particular has been encouraged to keep sailing because of her friendship group. She picks up sports quickly so it's got to be something else that makes her want to stay involved and she gets really excited by the camaraderie with her sailing friends.

"There are lots of girls in South West Wales coming through, including from Llangorse, Pembrokeshire YC, Mumbles YC, Cardiff Bay YC and Tata Steel, and they have all got to know each other through the CYRC and OnBoard events. To now be in the Regional Optimist Squad together is just the natural progression."

The big picture

When it comes to girls, evidence tells us friends and the social side is a really big driver for participation.

This is backed up by national studies, which have shown that while all females share many of the same motivations for participation, including fitness, having fun and social engagement, girls place a greater emphasis on having fun with their friends (Women In Sport, 2013). The Outdoor Industries Association (2015) also found having fun with friends was the top motivator for under 18s to take part in outdoor activities.

Not all girls will have the same motivations to participate, and those
with an innate drive to compete and excel will sail regardless of social
set-up. But fundamentally, when it comes to girls, friends matter.

Laragh said: "I've made lots of friends from different clubs I've met at competitions. It's great to see them when we go squad training
together now. When I go to events my friends are there and it gives me more confidence. 

"We all try to help each other by doing things like holding our boats for each other while we get our trolleys and helping each other pull the
boats up the beach. If sailing is cancelled, like it was in Weymouth,
it was great fun to just go to the cinema with all my friends."

Niamh added: "I love seeing my friends at sailing because we
encourage each other and it's fun because we can play about in our boats and do funny things. We play tag and sometimes tell jokes to each other. Because we encourage each other and I look forward to seeing my friends, it stops me feeling nervous at events. 

"I enjoy chatting about sailing in school too. My teaching assistant, Mrs Willett's family sail a lot so it's great to talk to her about my sailing and see her at some of the events. My school friends think it's pretty amazing I'm in my own boat sailing by myself too and all congratulate me when I bring trophies or medals into school."

Social foundations

Last year, the International Topper Class Association (ITCA) and RYA launched a Girls Sail initiative to inspire more girls to stay in sailing for longer. Its aim was to grow the social network within the fleet so whether girls are sailing just at their clubs or have started going to events, they will know more people and be motivated to go because they want to spend that time with their friends

Meanwhile, with so many girls featuring in the Welsh Regional Optimist Squads this year, Paul Simes, RYA Cymru High Performance Manager, has made sure there is a female coach with both of the squads so the girls all have someone to relate to. Ruth admits her girls have really taken to their coach, Sarah Jarman.

Paul is delighted to see the Welsh grassroots programmes starting to feed through to the regional and national racing squads. He said: "My personal pledge on becoming HPM was to get more girls transitioning across to Youth sailing and it certainly helps to do that when we have quite large numbers in the Junior pathway."

So whether you've got OnBoard girls progressing into racing or you have youngsters who simply enjoy messing about in boats, creating a safe and social environment for girls to enjoy sailing is key.

Give them the chance to build their social and friendship base while at the same time empowering them by learning new boat handling skills and their confidence will grow and confident sailors who think sailing is fun will want to sail more.

Oh by the way Wales, there's another Epstein sister just waiting until she's old enough to learn the ropes too...