Into the wind

Teenage students independently experience the power of wind while maintaining control over their Sunfish boats during sailing class. Photo by Megan Tan.

Dedicated instructors help young sailors take wind week after week

Patrick Hosken | Staff Writer

It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny Monday, and Chautauqua Lake is spotted with tiny sailboats. Freshly launched from the waterfront of the John R. Turney Sailing Center, white-sailed Optimist Dinghies and multicolored Sunfish float a few hundred feet down the water from each other.

No, these aren’t professional sailors by any means — they’re kids.

Children from ages 8 to 12 occupy the 8-foot Optimist boats, called “Opties” for short, while teenagers tackle the blue-and-yellow striped Sunfish. Both groups are enrolled in weeklong classes, run by the sailing center’s 17-person staff and designed to get kids comfortable and efficient in a sailboat.

The young sailors begin the week in the classroom, where instructors teach them the anatomy of their boats, rigging and information about wind direction, mechanics, steering and more.

But about an hour later, they set sail, instructors keeping close watch in chase boats nearby.

Instructor Will Scanlon said daily classroom time during the weeklong sessions keeps kids informed on how to deal with problems they may encounter while out on the lake.

“We give them the instruction they need so they’re practicing what they learn, not just trying to figure out what’s going on,” Scanlon said.

Sailing center Director Gary Snyder stood at the edge of the docks, watching over and encouraging the trainees.

“Hold that tiller straight! Look forward!” he shouted to a beginner on a struggling Optie. As the boat straightened out, Snyder yelled back, “Excellent! You’re a pro already.”

Around noon, sailing center staffers helped the young students dock their boats and come back onto land. Some had a traumatic morning, according to instructor David Beeson. They capsized, they got stuck facing the wrong direction and they bumped into each other.

These initial rocky experiences tend to scare some kids away from the programs, Beeson said. A few dropped out after Monday’s class. Beeson said he spent practically all of Monday helping one teenage girl overcome her worries about her first time sailing.

On Tuesday, that girl returned with confidence and was able to steer her Sunfish around the buoys without incident. Beeson motored by her on a chase boat to compliment her improved performance.

“Way to go!” he exclaimed.

For about an hour, Beeson scooted around the lake, telling others in the teen class to tighten up their sails and turn their tillers. Overall, the students improved greatly from Monday to Tuesday, Beeson said.

“Having a few good sailors out here helps the other ones, so they can look and see if their sail’s out correctly,” he said. “That’s how you learn.”

While the teens steered their Sunfish around the buoys, learning how to change directions in the wind, the Optie sailors took their tiny boats about a mile to the other side of the lake — and it was only Tuesday.

A rainy Wednesday had the kids from both classes stuck in the classroom going over knot-tying and watching a movie. But by mid-morning, the rain let up, and the young students took off into the gray scene, practicing more upwind sailing.

Instructor Freddie Gibbs said the students learn by building upon what they learned the previous day.

“Each day is a progression,” Gibbs said. “You start off exploring how the boat works; then, as that progresses, you want them to be more comfortable with handling (the boat).”

The young Optie sailors spent part of their Thursday practicing how to capsize, while the Sunfish teens took a long sail to the Miller Bell Tower. Even on the fourth day, some still had difficulty sailing back to shore to dock.

Two teens got jammed up with their backs to the wind just feet away from the sailing center. Staffers patiently explained to them how to turn around.

“Turn your tiller toward you! Put your daggerboard down a bit!” they called.

The sailors listened, and the boats gently glided to the docks, then slid neatly back into place.

By Friday’s class, the boats were hard to see from the sailing center’s docks. The teens took the Sunfish south across the lake, while the young Optie sailors did a loop to the Bell Tower.

Snyder said it’s always nice to see how much the students grow in just five days.

“They’re having an absolute blast this week, and they’re good,” he said. “They learned how to sail.”

Friday also brought a weekly sailing center celebration: a pirate-themed party. Once the boats came in, eye-patched instructors dueled with students using foam swords while others wreaked playful havoc with squirt guns. After all the hard work and determination the kids show all week, the party is a chance for them to have some fun, the instructors said.

Snyder said he has his hard-working staff to thank for the positive outcome of the classes.

“Every day, we talk,” Snyder said. “This might be the kids’ only chance to experience sailing, so (the instructors) have to give 100 percent. They know I expect a lot out of them, and they deliver.”

Beeson said the kids will remember this as an important accomplishment in their young lives.

“They’ll go home and talk about how they sailed across the lake,” he said. “It’s a big deal!”