Free sailing program draws crowds
Aims to get more people involved in sport
By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer, Annapolis Capital
Photo by Paul W. Gillespie - The Capital
Participants must sign up in advance, and on their appointed Sunday, they are trained in knot-tying, safety and sailing basics on land before going out on the water for hands-on training.
At first the words were foreign: jib, spinnaker, mainsail, windward, leeward, tack, keel.
But after three hours on the water, the rookies were speaking fluent sailor-ese, even helping trim the sails and guide a large and fast J/105 sailboat down the Severn River.
"I feel like I've been on an adventure today," said Maureen Mitchell of Curtis Bay, who was among the latest group of sailing newbies who took part in a free sailing program in Annapolis.
That's right: Free.
A confederation of sailing-related organizations, working together under the banner of Annapolis Community Boating, has been offering free beginner sailing lessons on Sunday afternoons for about two months.
The FreeSails have been popular, spurring a waiting list and forcing organizers to put out a call for more boats and more volunteers.
A recent Sunday featured a full range of sailing vessels, from the Team Tsunami J/105 donated by the Chessie Jr. Racing group down to small, inexpensive Topaz sailboats donated by the manufacturer.
FreeSail participants can get as much or as little sailing action as they like - they can help steer and trim the sails, or they can just sit back and watch the action, said organizer Lorie Stout.
The program is designed for the ultimate beginner, someone who's never been on a boat before. Last Sunday's group included several people who had done a bit of sailing years ago and wanted to try it again.
"I did it 30 years ago and I loved it. I loved the water," said Patty Butner of Odenton, who came along with Joy Stow of Severna Park.
But Butner has no sailboat and forgotten most of her sailing skills. So she signed up for FreeSail as a chance to brush up on her skills.
Virginia McLaughlin had been interested in sailing ever since moving from Pittsburgh to Eastport two years ago. A friend steered her to the FreeSail program.
The kindergarten teacher said she hoped to "feel comfortable and get the basic skills."
"It's kind of overwhelming, you don't know where to start," she said.
Butner, Stow and McLaughlin ended up on the Team Tsunami sailboat.
Members of the group giggled as they scrambled from side to side as the boom swung across. They let their feet dangle over the side and participants on the bow were splashed with the bay's cool waters.
At one point, the sailboat's keel got stuck in the mud at a shallow spot in the Severn, resulting in a sharp jolt, then a nerve-wracking attempt to heel the boat over far enough to loosen it up.
Once the crew was sailing again, Butner joked: "This feels almost boring now."
Bruce Huntley, a physician's assistant from Cape St. Claire, had blisters to show for his hard work on the sailboat. Volunteers Susan Taylor and Wilson Stout enlisted him as a jib trimmer, having him adjust the lines that control the jib, which is one of the sails.
"I'm glad I got a chance to touch stuff," Huntley joked.
Huntley's wife had participated in FreeSail a few weeks earlier and he couldn't wait for his turn. (Someone had to stay home with the three kids, he said.)
"I hadn't done anything on the water since I was a teenager and I'm thinking about getting back into it," Huntley said.
Now he said he thinks his family might start looking into formal lessons or buying a sailboat.
That's exactly the kind of reaction organizers are hoping for.
Taylor, a former world-class sailor who skippered the Team Tsunami boat, said the program's aim is to introduce people to sailing and then offer them resources if they want to pursue the sport further.
Lee Tawney of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, which hosts FreeSail at its site on Annapolis City Dock, said organizers weren't sure how popular the program would be. They were thrilled that the Sunday afternoon slots booked up so quickly.
"Ninety-eight percent of the people had never been on a sailboat," he said.
Sailing can be a difficult sport to join if you don't have a friend or relative who's into it, he said. Yacht clubs can be intimidating.
"It's daunting," he said. "How are you going to get out on a sailboat if you don't own one?"
Already, Annapolis is home to several programs that aim to get people out on the water: Chessie Jr. Racing is for teens who want to race, Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating focuses on people with disabilities, Box of Rain is primarily for at-risk kids, Brendain Sail Training Program is for kids with learning disabilities.
But none were focused on the general public. That's the void that the FreeSail program aims to fill.
Those other groups, as well as local sailing schools and the hall of fame, have participated in FreeSail, lending boats, volunteers or both.
Annapolis Community Boating is looking for more volunteers and boats in order to extend FreeSail further into the summer.
"Our only limiting factor is boats," Tawney said.
Peter Cook from Topper Sailboats said he was happy to lend use of three of his company's plastic sailboats for FreeSail. He said his company is able to help out the sailing community while, at the same time, getting some exposure for its products.
"I think it's a fantastic cause in Annapolis," he said. "So many people live here and never get out on the water."