MOUNTAIN DESERT ISLAND — The art of sailing can seem like an elusive mastery to newcomers. Navigating the sea while grappling with seamanship in ever-changing conditions, plus learning a catalog of new jargon, can keep some inexperienced seafarers at bay. But embarking on a journey with the wind through your hair, sun on your skin and the occasional spray on your face is the most fun adventure a child can have, says Nick Steenberg, executive director of Northeast Harbor Sailing School.
That’s why the MDI Community Sailing Center and Northeast Harbor Sailing School are calling on all interested young sailors to enroll in their summer courses and experience first-hand the magical moment when a ship is brought to life by an ocean breeze.
“The door is open to anyone curious to learn more about boating and sailing,” said Glenn Squires, Managing Director of MDI Sailing. “It’s really about making kids feel comfortable and safe on the water and having fun.”
And after two years of shortened programming at MDI Sailing due to COVID-19 restrictions, this season’s classes are fully open and already filling. To date, 185 children have registered and the trend is rising, but there are still many vacancies.
Squires encourages those who haven’t quite found their niche to join. Lessons learned while sailing, such as decision-making, confidence, leadership and teamwork, can also be applied on the high seas and last a lifetime, he said.
“I always say you can see the kids walking a little bigger when they come to the dock after sailing the boat alone for the first time. It’s a tremendous confidence builder,” Squires said. “We’ve had kids who don’t play traditional sports, so they get a chance to be part of a team and make friends in high school that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Young beginners can get started with AM Introduction to Sailing 1 at MDI Sailing Monday-Friday 9-11:45am. This course focuses on teaching the fundamentals of sailing through fun activities for beginners ages 6+. Students will learn the basic parts of the boat and the points of sail, and learn about terms such as oars and rigging, as well as various knot skills.
“One of the most important things we do is try to be in the classroom as little as possible,” said Squires, who has a brand new fleet of 10 RS Teras. “We like to be on the water and have practical training on the boats.”
Certified US sailing instructors hop on individual strollers, RS Teras or signature Bullseye group boats to teach their novices the basics with a sail directly overhead. Classroom ratings are saved for post-water activities.
Steenberg said interest in youth programs has exploded over the past year, with one of the highest — if not the highest — enrollments the fleet has ever seen, with 250 enrollments.
“It was like the COVID-safest sport you can ever do. They have single sailors on Teras; They are spread out on the water. It was sort of a perfect scenario,” Steenberg said. “So I think people saw it as the safest way to get outside and still have social experiences.”
NEHSS is expected to host another record-breaking 300-student season this summer, with a brand new fleet to boot.
“With sailing comes confidence,” said Steenberg. “Once they’re out there on their boats, they have a freedom that I think is second to none.”
Although the morning programs are full, there are enough places available for afternoon courses to learn to sail. Monday to Friday from 12:30pm to 3:30pm, novice boaters climb aboard RS Ventures – a larger, stable fleet that’s impossible to capsize – to learn the basics of sailing in a fun and safe environment.
“In fact, I would say that sailing might not be the most important part of what we do here. It’s more the camaraderie,” Steenberg said. “It’s more about creating a community for kids and bringing people from different backgrounds together. And we just do it on the water.”
Steenberg, who has been coaching sailing for nearly 12 years, said the sport was in decline before COVID-19. Fewer youngsters signed up for a sailing school or showed general interest at all.
Even after overcoming some of the above sea fears, another obstacle may slow the simmering port enthusiasm – namely finances. Sailing is a notoriously expensive sport; The cost of courses and membership fees, not to mention the boat price tags, are enough to discourage new members from joining.
Thanks to the efforts of NEHSS President David Schoeder, and in partnership with donations from fleet members, the NEMO Fund allows islanders of all backgrounds to participate in Maine’s long-standing tradition at both the MDI Community Sailing Center and the Northeast Harbor Sailing School. The program, in its second year, has already given away thousands of dollars in scholarships to local residents and reduced registration costs by 75 percent.
According to Schoeder, the idea for the fund grew out of the Great Harbor Dream, initiated by David Rockefeller Jr. to save the youth of sailing by bringing together the Bar Harbor, Little Cranberry, MDI Community, Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor sailing clubs .
“We had to bring all the sailing clubs on the island together to work together,” Schoeder said. “[The Great Harbor Dream] was to give all of MDI’s youth – both residents and summer visitors – the opportunity to get their children on the water.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised over the course of 10 years to add a new, co-op owned fleet of 21 redesigned 420 Turbos. These boats will be stored on a floating dock system off Greenings Island for use by all youth sailors in the area.
When various summer camps reduced their capacity by 50 percent last year, Schoeder realized it would be safer for students to interact on the water. Through the same fundraising mechanisms, scholarships were awarded to give eager MDI students who otherwise would not have the means the opportunity to sail.
“I firmly believe that sailing should be for everyone,” said Steenberg. “Fortunately we are moving towards that because ultimately this sport will die if we don’t get everyone to do it.
“The only goal I have in mind is to break down whatever barriers there are to getting anyone here who wants to get on the water and learn,” Steenberg said. “I just want to see this youth community grow and grow on the water.”
For more information or to register for classes, visit the MDI Community Sailing Center website at www.mdisailing.org or www.nehss.org for the Northeast Harbor Sailing School. Steenberg asks those interested in programming to send him an e-mail at [email protected].