The sleek 50-foot racing sloop slices through whitecaps on the Chesapeake as the steeples and domes dotting the Annapolis skyline disappear in a morning haze.
Out here aboard the Gem, it's easy to forgetthe city William Ray knows so well -- not Camelot on the Bay, not America's sailing capital, but another Annapolis altogether.
In the 10-year-old's neighborhood, the Newtowne 20 public housingcomplex, drug dealers, many with knives or guns, ply their trade on the streets.
Today, William is glad to escape the neighborhood.
"I like to get out of there as much as I can 'cause people can't getalong or anything," William said. "They're fighting or shooting, andthey destroy my neighborhood. Sometimes, they even try to get kids to help them, to carry their stuff for them."
This summer, though, William sailed away from all that and savored a taste of the good life -- practice, he said, for when he grows up and steers his own yachtto the Bahamas.
William, along with 14 other children from city public housing developments, has set sail from Eastport on Wednesdays since June, learning the finer points of sailing a racing sloop from some of the best teachers around.
The youths, most of whom had never even been on a sailboat before, began training in March as part ofa new program called "Sail Into Life," sponsored St. Mary's College,the Annapolis Housing Authority and the Marine Trades Association ofMaryland.
The program, which ended its first summer last Wednesday, is designed to give children hands-on boating experience while building a bridge between the radically different worlds of sailors and poor residents of public housing developments.
By last week, underthe guidance of Capt. Mike Ironmonger and volunteers from the St. Mary's sailing team, the children not only knew the jargon -- tacking, winching, jibing, tailing, skirting, grinding -- but proved they had mastered all the tasks.
As the blue-and-white St. Mary's boat coursed through the choppy waters, Ironmonger shouted, "OK, let's see what you got!"
With that, the youths -- ages 9 to 16 -- sprung into action, unfurling the sail and hoisting it in minutes without a hitch.
Ironmonger and the four St. Mary's crew members watched the youths and smiled.
On this day, the teachers could afford to relax during most of the trip, as their charges, decked out in blue-and-gold sailing suits, pulled at ropes, wound the winch and adjusted the sails.
During tacking, the boat at times listed at a 45-degree angle, the boom sweeping across the deck. It's enough to leave the uninitiateda bit queasy, but not the little sailors.
To them, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. The few cases of seasickness had faded into a distant memory from the June day when they first hit the water after visits to boatyards and courses in swimming, sailing and water safety.
Felicia Murray, an 11-year-old from the Robinwood public housing complex, took a break from the endless chores to dream.
"I had never even been on a sailboat before this summer," she said. "I sure never thought I'd be on a boat like this. But now I think I'mgoing to own one and take it to the islands somewhere far away."
A summer on the water inspires such fanciful notions. Just about all the kids decreed they, too, would one day sail away -- on a sloop or a yacht or a speedboat.
But that's not to say the voyages meant mere vacations.
"Whew, this is hard work," said Ericka Chapman, 15. "My favorite part's after we get the work done, when I can sit down with the water splashing on me and the wind blowing.
"But you can only do that when the work's done, and the work's what teaches you about teamwork, about working together."
Which is essential to keeping a racing sloop afloat.
"This boat itself is just completely overpowering," Ironmonger said. "You got to know what you're doing, and work with the other crew members, or somebody'll get hurt."
So you do your share, like a good sailor. Black or white, rich or poor meansnothing out here, Ironmonger said.
"All these barriers that may or may not exist on the land, they just disappear on the water," he said. "There's no disturbances, no music blaring -- just sun, water, breeze. It's pure and old-fashioned, and it works."
Soon, housing officials throughout the nation will see just how well.
As part of aseparate housing authority effort to teach youths video production, the kids filmed the outings. Tapes will be distributed to other housing authorities as a model of what the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has called "empowering residents in public housing."
"We're starting to open doors, bringing the two cultures together while giving these kids a chance to explore different lifestyles," said Veta-J. Covert, the housing authority's programs director.
Covert said organizers hope to expand the program next year to open it to more of the estimated 70 youngsters who applied. She said thosechosen this year -- based on economic hardship and enthusiasm -- exceeded all expectations. Eight of them competed as crew members in theAnnapolis Yacht Club's Wednesday night races, and a handful have received offers to work on boats part-time.
It's about time, Covert said.
"After all, they come from an area that proclaims to be the sailing capital of the nation," she said. "They certainly should have some exposure to boating as a livelihood rather than just seeing boats and never getting a chance to get on them."
To expand next year,the program needs private donations to help pay for kids' outfits, sailing instruction materials and other costs. Tax-free contributions may be sent to Sail Into Life, St. Mary's College of Maryland Foundation, St. Mary's City, 20686.