On course forever
New innovative program teaches underprivileged sailors skills to cope with life’s challenges
BY ALISON O’LEARY
The sport of sailing has always been dominated by wealthy white males but the US Sailing Center in Jensen Beach has all hands on deck to shake up the status quo.
“Looking out from the center I see 10 girls out there, rigging boats right now,” says Alan Jenkinson, executive director of the US Sailing Center of Martin County.
He’s the one plotting the course for change, starting with local kids.
It has always been a place where kids learned to haul on a halyard, sheet in a jib and recover from a capsizing, but now they’re looking to help youth navigate the choppy waters of life as well.
The organization received a major grant from a national sailing organization aimed at expanding programs to reach disadvantaged kids. Paired with a Martin County Commission $345,000 tourism grant that recognizes the center’s strong influence on visitors to the area, the center has been growing in size and numbers.
According to tourism statistics, the US Sailing Center at Jensen Beach draws close to 30,000 visitors a year for lessons, regattas, leisure sailing and kids camps. That’s a far cry from its humble beginnings in 1992 when there was nothing more than a tent, a camper and some donated boats on the side of the causeway.
A recent capital campaign allowed the center to expand its footprint at Indian Riverside Park, where it’s been since 2002. That project in 2019-2020 added classrooms, an office and a spot for serving coffee and snacks during events. There’s also a great upper-level deck where spectators can watch sailors ply the waters of the Indian River Lagoon.
Through the national organization, US Sailing, the Siebel Foundation made a significant investment in the Jensen Beach facility, one that has everyone excited: they’ve delivered six new boats that are just right for teaching beginning sailors as well as funding the salary of an instructor who will be shared by three southeast Florida sailing centers. The goal is to attract a more diverse group of young sailors so that skills learned here will translate to the rest of life. They are in the third year of the three-year grant.
“Sailing is seen to be a rich kid’s sport and this grant was designed to bust that ceiling wide open,” Jenkinson says.
It was just one of five sailing centers nationwide to receive the targeted grant, and if they meet all of the goals set by the Seibel Foundation, the boats become theirs forever. Jenkinson is hoping for more than that – he wants to see local kids becoming sailors forever, too.
“Rather than just teaching sailing, the grant and the program are designed to go into the community and teach a broader stroke of life skills through sailing, how to become leaders,” Jenkinson says.
There’s plenty of evidence that the organization is already on the right track.
“My mom put us in all these random summer camps and sailing happened to be the most amazing experience for me,” says Chandler Scott, a 22-year-old from Jensen Beach. “The people were so welcoming and really wanted you to learn, so I asked to do racing the next fall, even though I was really bad.”
She was 8 years old but knew she had found a place she could flourish.
The experience ignited a sense of adventure that hasn’t abated. When she aged out of summer camps, Scott bothered Jenkinson to let her volunteer, then got her instructor’s certificate at age 16 and began teaching a new crop of young kids to sail while also helping in the office. In the meantime, she raced sailboats for her high school team and the sailing team at her college.
“My longevity at the sailing center shows how great the program is,” she says.
Yet she recognizes the unique start that the public-oriented sailing program offered to her and other kids.
“Other clubs are hard to get into without a member behind you,” she says of the old-school practice of yacht club memberships relying on sponsors who are members. “Here it doesn’t matter as long as you put in the effort and show your dedication.”
According to Ryan Clark, the center’s sailing director and high school sailing coach, Scott’s embrace of sailing is what the new Siebel grant seeks to inspire in more local kids.
“The biggest shift happens when a young sailor goes from ‘I’m someone who sails’ to ‘I’m a sailor,'” he says. “That’s when their skills and commitment go up a thousand percent.”
He’s enthusiastic about the center’s new challenge and expanded mission.
“I really love the premise of it, the Siebel program has a unified curriculum and a pretty cool culture that’s super positive,” including classroom time that helps kids to understand what they’ve learned and plan for the next steps in advancing their skills. Clark notes that there’s a significant challenge as well: retaining the kids from economically disadvantaged families when parents may not have the ability or time to transport them to lessons.
Fortunately the sailing center has a head start on engaging the community, including hosting families of fallen soldiers through Operation 300, reaching out to kids living at Hibiscus House, a school and residence for children in state custody, and providing free visits for individuals bringing a mentee through the Big Brother Big Sister program. It also worked with boys from the Samaritan behavioral health facility, which is now closed.
A recent Volunteer of the Year, retiree and longtime sailor John Francis, says engaging kids from the community is so much fun that the volunteers compete to participate.
“We fight over who gets to go,” he says, always enthusiastic to share his passion for the sport. “I found my niche. We affect lives through sailing. There’s nothing better.”
Project provides thrills and challenges for future Special Olympics sailors
Despite the wildly busy regatta weekends, sailing lessons and jam-packed kids’ camps at the sailing center there is always room for more: Success Sailing is among the latest new directions the center has taken to truly embrace the principle of inclusion.
This program allows those with intellectual and developmental disabilities to experience the thrills and challenges of sailing. Thus far there are about 10 individuals involved but there’s potential for a much larger group, says its co-founder, Doug Campbell.
It all began with Campbell looking for new opportunities for his son, Andy, 46, an accomplished athlete and Special Olympian prior to moving from Miami to Sailfish Point.
“People with IDD must be continually challenged to optimize their potential,” Campbell says.
Sailing, he points out, is a good exercise in decision making and measured opportunity for independence while on the water. Socialization with other people at the center is icing on the cake.
Thus far, Success Sailing has purchased six stable Hobe Wave catamarans, finagled twice weekly time slots at the center and hired a sailing instructor, Kathryn Thorsen, but its objectives are not modest.
They’re hoping to someday get sailors into the Special Olympics. They’re off to a good start: after a year of one-on-one instruction, Andy and another student, Henry Hayden, are able to sail solo on calm days.
“I believe sailing amplifies the effect of participating in the Special Olympics because of the opportunity and diversity it gives the athletes,” Thorsen says.
“With there being five levels of participation, ranging from single-handed to a three-person crew, sailing adds rigor and excitement.”