A quick, fresh breeze blows across the lake, sending ripples towards the dock. The warm, bright sun casts an inviting glow across the water as a boy pushes his small boat off the dock. He maneuvers a bit with the tiller, feeling his way to catch the breeze, and sets the sail. It doesn’t take much wind to get the boat moving steadily across the lake, and the boy can’t help but smile as he squints up at the sun.
Glancing occasionally at his sail, he takes a deep breath of fresh lake air. A seagull swoops down and flies alongside the boat for a few moments, then swoops off as the wind shifts, making the sail flutter and flap noisily. Adjusting the sheets, and moving the tiller across the stern, the young sailor turns the boat and switches his course to adjust to the change in wind. Looking back, towards the dock, he sees other children launching their boats, one by one. Some days the children sail together in larger boats, built for two, or four, sailors, but today, in the single-handed dinghy, it feels as if he has the entire lake to himself.
Sailing is one of the most challenging, exciting, enriching, and satisfying activities that a child can safely enjoy outdoors. If your child can swim, they can learn to sail. Sailing does not discriminate on physical prowess – children of all heights, sizes, and even mental abilities can excel equally at sailing. Best part is, that by learning to sail, you put your child in direct contact with nature, and instantly their minds are opened to a whole new world.
Children benefit greatly from participating in sailing: it sharpens their senses, gives them confidence, and it brings to life the sciences and mathematics in a fun and exciting way. From a homeschooling perspective, sailing serves as a perfect springboard to study everything from creative writing and literature, to history, physics, geometry, economics, geography, and art.
For children, one inevitable outcome of being out on the water is becoming aware of the environment around them. Justin Harper, a 10-year-old boy who learned to sail at a community sailing center in Eustis, FL, agrees. “I’ve seen fish jump out of the water,” says Justin, “and you have to find where the wind is, so you have to learn about that.”
“It’s really fun, you can control things, you’re the person in charge of your boat,” he says. “You can stop it, make it go faster. If you don’t like going fast you can go slow.”
Learning to sail can open a child’s eyes to the world around them, and it teaches them to respect the elements, while they are having a blast. Sailing parents, including Justin’s mom, Connie, agree, “I think they gain a lot of confidence,” she explains. “They learn how to deal with situations on their own, because they are by themselves on the boat. I think they learn how to be brave, not to depend on their parents and teachers for every little thing.”
Sailing can be done solo, which teaches children self-confidence, discipline, and gives them an awareness of their environment that few other activities can achieve. However, it can also be done as a family, which helps reinforce teamwork, and teaches the fundamentals of communication. On a boat, everyone has a role, and each role is important, no matter how young the person doing it is.
Francesca Kennedy homeschools her 8-year-old son Chase, and with her husband they sail together as a family. “Sailing is a cooperative venture when you are on a larger boat. You can’t have a child drive a car, but on a boat you can teach them to take the helm. You can always give a child something to do.”
“You can always make a concrete goal, so there is something to strive for,” she says. “Best of all, it’s something we can do all together, and that’s a good thing.”
One misconception is that sailing is an elite sport, and therefore expensive, but in reality, at the entry level, the costs are the same as any other sport. The biggest investment is sun protection, a PFD, and some sunglasses, but the take-aways are great compared to other sports. There are sailing clubs and organizations all around the country whose aim is to make sailing accessible to all (see the sidebar for info on finding an organization). Sailing can be enjoyed as a casual hobby or as a lifestyle, but you don’t have to own a boat, you can rent sailboats and get lessons inexpensively.
Sailing connects people to the environment around them in a way that very few other activities can, because when you are sailing, you are not just a passive observer of the forces of nature, you actually have the ability to interact with the wind, harness it, and use it to go places. Since sailing can be learned at a very young age, it provides the ability for children to become familiar with forces of nature long before they study them.
“Every time a student steps into a boat, pulls the tiller, or trims a sail they are experiencing powerful lessons. The weather above, the water below, and everything on the boat in-between can provide daily, real-world science lessons,” says John O’Flaherty, Executive Director of Community Boating Center in Providence, RI. “Connecting these hands-on, experiential learning experiences to educational objectives can open up a whole new world of learning and opportunity.” O’ Flaherty’s organization, in partnership with US Sailing (a national organization dedicated to the advancement of sailing), is at the forefront of a nationwide trend, where sailing organizations are using learn-to-sail programs to facilitate the teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in their communities. The time is ripe for homeschoolers to jump on board and take advantage of the educational opportunities that this trend provides.
For a homeschooler, sailing is undoubtedly the ultimate theme unit. You can start in any subject, and at any age. Tanya Hackney, a homeschooling mother of five, explains her approach, “Sailors are observers. It’s by necessity. So, we don’t just read Carry On, Mr. Bowditch and stop there. We look at the phases of the moon, and how they relate to the tides. We study the wind, we learn about currents and waves. We go check out the American Practical Navigator, which is essentially Nathaniel Bowditch’s life work, and see how it still applies today. We observe what is already in our environment, and take it one step further.”
Throughout the ages, and across all cultures, the relationship between man, sea, wind, and tide has the distinction of singlehandedly facilitating global exploration, the start of international commerce, cross-cultural communications, and world economic development. Maritime history is world history, since sailing has been the main mode of transportation for centuries. A young sailor doesn’t need to stretch her imagination too far to realize that she has a lot in common with the great explorers of the world, and that all those famous explorers sailed around the world with far less information and technology available to them, than we have at our fingertips today.
This centuries-old relationship with the sea has also made its impact in the arts, in literature, music, painting, and poetry. Not surprisingly, being in contact with God’s creation touches the human spirit in a lasting way, and it can be just the thing that your child needs to stir their creative gifts, or interest them in reading with books about sailors and life on the sea.
All too often we hear children complain, “This is boring. When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Unless they see a relevance to their own lives or the world as a whole, many times we are stuck “making” them learn things because it’s necessary, although potentially hard or boring to learn from a book. Using a hands-on vehicle for learning, such as the practical experience of sailing, adds a dynamic dimension to education where the children don’t even realize they are learning concepts and applying them. Sailing is one of those unique pastimes that incorporates academic benefits, on a multitude of levels, and is accessible for people of all ages and abilities.
“I started sailing when I was eight, and I’ve been sailing for a couple of years,” says Justin. “I like it,” Justin adds. “It’s fun and exciting. You can do lots of things. You can go wherever you want on the water. In a car you can’t do that.”
A typical first class for any sailing program is spent teaching the children safety procedures and drills, such as how to flip a boat that has turtled, back over. “The teacher taught us how to flip it over, how to bring it back up, right it,” explains Justin’s sister, Leah, 14, “and basically how to sail it in the pool. Then, she took us out on the lake and taught us all the basics.”
For the children, one major benefit of being out on the water is the direct contact with nature. “I’ve seen fish jump out of the water,” says Justin, “and you have to find where the wind is, so you have to learn about that.”
Both Justin and Leah enjoyed sailing so much, they now sail for sport. Every Saturday they drive to Lake Eustis, along with many other youngsters from around Central Florida. Because Florida is surrounded by water and blessed with good weather, there are many opportunities for young sailors to compete in friendly races around the state.
After a year of sailing Optimists Leah decided to try a larger dinghy, the Laser. “I like going fast, and Lasers are so much faster,” she says. “Just a few weeks ago there was a regatta at Lake Eustis, and I raced in that. I got 4th place overall. There were like 20 boats. I was really happy.”
“What’s cool about sailing,” says Leah, “Is you get to meet a lot of really cool people. You get to travel to different places for regattas … it’s really fun – it’s really rewarding. I’m on the Lake Eustis sailing team, but I don’t sail with them, I’m sailing by myself,” But, Leah adds, “There’s always other people around you. Nothing on the boat can really hurt you.”
Connie Harper, agrees. “The coaches are always out there with a safety boat, so I think it’s very safe, and they always have their life jackets on.”
The unique thing about sailing is that no other sport puts children in charge of their own boat, where they have to “engage the brain” and adapt to the shifting winds to navigate themselves around a lake.
If you want to give your child an adventure, and potentially instill a positive change in their lives, try sailing. You will not only be giving your child something to do this summer, you will be embarking them on an adventure of a lifetime. Lake Eustis Sailing Club offers sailing in the spring, summer and fall, with Learn to Sail summer camps from July 9th – 19th (352-357-5976, www.lakeeustissailingclub.org). Rollins College offers a beginning and advanced sailing camp on Lake Virginia in Winter Park during the summer, in two-week sessions from June 12 – August 3rd (407-646-2576 or www.rollins.edu). U-SAIL of Central Florida offers one-on-one and parent-child sailing instruction year-round on Lake Monroe, in Sanford (407-330-0633, www.usailflorida.com).
For a list of sailing camps and programs around Florida, visit Kids Aboard Sailing Camp Directory.
Lupe Tucker and her husband, Curtis, homeschool their five children in Florida. Former classroom teachers, they publish www.HomeschoolingFlorida.com and www.Homeschool-Evaluations.com, a portfolio review & standardized testing service. They conduct academic workshops across the country with the non-profit organization www.KidsAboardWorkshops.org. Lupe married into sailing, and the Tucker family lived aboard their 36-foot catamaran Fellowship for five years, sailing from Florida to Long Island Sound.