Sailing Lessons Teach More Than the Ropes     by Lupe Tucker

I wish that when I was a kid I could have learned how to sail. There is a certain spiritual joy in being out on the water, the spray in your face, eyes squinting in the sun, feeling the rope in your hands that guides the sail and knowing, with a definite thrill, that your actions, in harmony with the forces of nature, will guide your vessel to your desired destination. As an adult I can appreciate the basic pleasures of sailing, but how I wish that when I was a child I could have experienced all the other things that sailing helps build in a persons character. I am certain that if I had had the opportunity to learn to sail as a child, I would be a much better person today.

Sailing is not hard. Sailing demands discipline and alertness, qualities that few schools or after school activities can really teach children today. When sailing, a child learns to appreciate and respect the forces of nature and see how the earth really works, and understand how we, as humans, must protect it. They learn to rely on and cultivate their common sense, and immediately draw upon skills that they learned along the way: how to calculate distance, how to read the weather, how a sailboat works, how to identify landmarks and sea life. The best part about this learning process is that it is so natural, a child hardly realizes she is learning; she thought she was only going out for a ride on a sailboat to enjoy the day.

Ashley Sullivan, Head Youth Instructor at Shake-A-Leg Miami, a water sports facility in Coconut Grove, sees this process happen in children everyday. She is in charge of Shake-A-Leg’s year round sailing instruction and summer sailing school, and has contact with children from a spectrum of economic backgrounds, and physical and mental abilities, from all corners of Miami-Dade county.

“Children come out on the water and they are allowed to explore the freedom of the bay, feel the wind in their hair, the salt in their face, decide when they want to tack, when they want to gybe, when they want to come back,” says Sullivan, who also teaches at-risk children in an after school program. 

“This is a freedom that they don’t have in their everyday life. I think that showing them through sailing the world of possibilities enables them to take that experience [and apply it] to their everyday life, the way they interact with people and the ambitions that they have in life.”

Shake-A-Leg is one of the five sailing schools in Miami-Dade County that offers summer sailing camps for children on Biscayne Bay. Each school has a slightly different program, which varies by the type of boats used, costs to parents, instructional approach, and minimum age they allow, however Shake-A-Leg is the only program which has facilities for disabled children wanting to experience the joys of sailing. At Shake-A-Leg the boats used are Independence Freedoms, which were designed by Shake-A-Leg’s founder, Harry Horgan, himself a paraplegic sailor. The boats are unsinkable, and because they have 800 pounds of ballast in the keel, they are almost impossible to capsize. There are four children per boat with two adults on board, and the minimum age for program participants is five years old.

An example of a different instructional approach is Coconut Grove Sailing Club’s summer sailing camp, where children are each individually assigned to their own boat. According to Patrick Downey, an instructor in charge of the program, the children learn to single handedly sail Sunfishes, Optimists and Prams, which are boats used for pleasure sailing as well as competition. 

“[The best thing about teaching kids to sail] is when the kids realize that they can do it,” Downey explains. “Watching a kid go from being totally unsure and scared even, to having a big smile on their face as they cruise across the bay on their own boat, and begging their parents to come back for more.”

“We do single handed sailing. It’s not like if you were to sail a keelboat, where there’s several people on the boat. There it’s kind of like a baseball team or football team, where people can just as easily not participate as much, and the ones that usually rise to the top will,” says Downey. “Each kid is in charge of their own boat, and they definitely can do it.” This type of program demands that children know how to swim and requires a certain amount of maturity, which is why the minimum age for children to participate in Coconut Grove Sailing Club’s program is nine.

“On the first day of class we will go out just one at a time right off the dock, that gets them over their fear of sailing, and the very next day they get their own boat and they go out sailing.” The main objective is to deal with safety issues in the most straightforward, pragmatic way. “One of the first things they learn is how to right their boat after it capsizes. We do some capsize drills just so we can get over the fear of it.” Like Coconut Grove Sailing Club, all the summer programs put a major emphasis on safe boating, including wearing a life jacket at all times and being prepared for emergencies.

The Miami Sailing Club has offered summer sailing for children for the past eighteen years, and like the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, has turned out some World Class sailors from its children’s sailing programs. Miami Sailing Club uses larger 30-foot sailboats for their courses, which accommodate six children and one instructor.

“We use the largest Olympic class boats, called SOLING. It’s a very high tech racing boat, but that is not the reason why we use them. They are unusually sensitive. That is if you barely touch the tiller, the boat responds. For children this is very logical,” explains George Horak, the clubs Commodore. “The boats are extremely light, so if they would run aground on a sandbar or something, they jump out and push it. It’s very light.”

Horak’s beliefs coincide with Sullivan and Downey, “Almost the first time they go out, they come back, and they already have this glow on their faces.” He believes that sailing is a time-honored method for teaching children how to be better people.

“At this point, if we have a problem in our society, it’s because our role models are questionable. We try to pose the best we can as a role model of an honorable, honest person. We demand that they behave that way.”

Apart from the technical aspects of sailing and the positive influences it has on children’s personalities, one of the best things about being out on the water is experiencing nature with all five senses. The waters off the coast of South Florida are perfect for learning how to sail. Biscayne Bay, for example, is shallow in many places and has abundant opportunities for learning about the ocean and its flora and fauna.

“We go out to the sandbars just to the east of the islands (off Dinner Key Marina),” says Sullivan.  We anchor, we look at marine life, and we play on the sandbar at low tide.”

I stopped by Shake-A-Leg on a Thursday afternoon, which gave me a chance to talk to some children and hear their views on the sailing experience.

The children, fourth graders from Crestview Elementary in Miami, had just returned from a sail. When asked how they felt after going sailing, Jacory Harris answered breathlessly, “Fantastic. We get to go in the Atlantic Ocean.” When asked how the sailing was, Harris explained, “Its just like Luke Skywalker, may the force be with you. But the force was with the wind today.”

“My favorite part is when we go out into the bay and channels, and the boat is one half in the water and one half is standing up. When it heels over,” said Shannon Henry, another boy from the Crestview crew.

“It was fun, we drove the boat, and we had to clean it after we were done. Sailing makes you learn more. It makes you experienced and independent,” said Zekia Hodge. She and three other friends brought back some seaweed to show Sullivan, who used it to give the girls an impromptu lesson on marine life.

            “It’s a totally new environment for most of them,” says Downey, who expresses his admiration for the Biscayne Bay area. “Our water front is our biggest natural resource. This is one of those places where members of our community can come and learn about the water and become familiar with it. I have sailed all around the country and the world and this is definitely one of the best places to sail.”

Obviously there are different approaches to teaching children how to sail, but all schools seem to agree that the emotional, physical and social benefits of this type of summer experience for a child are unequalled. Parents should find out what kind of training the instructors have, what the instructor to child ratio is and visit the facilities themselves in order to make the best choice. Going to a sailing camp can turn a typical ho-hum summer into a personal growth experience for your child, one that he will look back on with fondness and appreciation for years down the road.