Community Sailing Center Puts Kids At The Helm

Aug 20, 2018

In Burlington, one of the surest signs of summer are the small white sailboats messing around on Lake Champlain. The boats belong to the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, which offers lessons, youth camps, and special programs all summer.

On a humid afternoon last week, dozens of kids in bathing suits and bright life jackets were hanging out on the dock at the Sailing Center, which just moved into a new building on the Burlington waterfront.

While the kids were swimming and playing around on stand up paddle boards, Jason Field, one of the instructors, was getting a sailboat ready for the afternoon lesson.

Field is one of many college and high school-aged instructors who work at the  Sailing Center during the summer.

The nonprofit Center was founded over 20 years ago. Today it offers sailing classes to people of all ages, as well as boat rentals and racing programs.

The Center maintains a fleet of about 100 vessels, ranging from small dinghies to fixed keel sailboats.

On the day I visited, the summer camp for kids ages 8 to 10 was in full swing. That may seem like a young age to set kids out in their own boats. But Mary Dowd, the program director at the Sailing Center, says it’s important to get kids started early.

"I think it’s crucial to the sailing world to give them that sort of independence at such a young age," Dowd said. "It teaches them how to react on their own. It gives them confidence in their ability out on the water because it’s just them."

Of course, there are always instructors nearby, but the kids really are in charge of their own boats.

"They love the empowerment, they love that it is their vessel," Dowd said. "And that they are the captain of their ship even if that ship is, you know, only 7 feet long."

But not all kids are so confident when they take the tiller for the first time.

"Sometimes you get that initial reaction of a little bit of fear, because they’ve never had that type of freedom. They’ve never had that type of independence. And it can be really scary at first," Dowd said.

The results of sticking with it, even if it is scary in the beginning, can be worth it. Sarah Lavoie, of Burlington, remembers dropping her daughter off at the sailing center for the first time when she was 11 years old.

"Dropped her off and she was very nervous," Levoie said. "When I picked her up, huge smiles. And I was like 'How was it?' And she was like 'It was awesome.'"

Levoie’s daughter, Darcy, came back to the Sailing Center year after year. Now, Darcy is an instructor, helping the next round of youngsters get their sea legs. She also sails competitively at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Levoie says sailing has been a really important part of her daughter’s life.

"She’s taken me out on a couple of the races where she’s been on the crew, and they’ve asked her to skipper and it’s been fun to just to be out there and see her in her element." Levoie said. "And to see her, you know, commanding the wind and harnessing the power of the wind, it’s amazing!"

The Sailing Center offers lessons to people of all ages throughout the summer. Dowd says the wide age range of students is reflected in the Sailing Center staff.

"I’ve counted it once, I believe we have five different generations present on our staff," Dowd said. "So youngest being a 16-year-old all the way up to our oldest staff member [who] is 80 years old."

Dowd says she feels the multigenerational staff helps make sure the Sailing Center has something to offer for anyone who wants to learn how to sail.

Back on the dock, it looks like an afternoon thunderstorm is rolling in, so the kids start pulling the boats out of the water and wheeling them up to the yard.

Once the weather passes, though, they’ll get right back out onto the lake.

Many of us share a connection with a river, lake, stream or pond. Throughout the summer, listen to VPR to hear personal stories from Vermonters about how bodies of water around the state affect their lives, and how they've seen them change over time. Tweet @vprnet to share your favorite bodies of water in Vermont.