A club with no airs puts wind in its sails

Yachting: The Downtown Sailing Center, one of 620 North American community sailing programs, is all about teaching.

Sailing

August 21, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

This is not Cornelius Vanderbilt's yacht club. Or Ted Turner's, for that matter.

No nautical-themed cocktail lounge. No valet parking. No commodore's dinner dances.

Truth be told, the Downtown Sailing Center is the anti-yacht club, where activities center on two docks and the open-sided pavilion behind the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

"It's not fancy. It's back to the essence," says member Matthew Sturr, who's been coming for 10 years. "There's no airs."

That's not to say these sailors don't like a hard-fought regatta or wrapping their hands around a cold one. Many evenings, spring through fall, there's a fleet of boats dueling in the Inner Harbor. And there's a social sail and cookout the first or second Friday of each month.

The bare-bones surroundings don't mean the members are any less passionate about their sport, either. Folks show up right from work and change in their cars from their khakis to their grubbies.

"I get off at 4 and I'm on the dock by 5," says Marc Pentino, a lawyer with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington who lives in Catonsville. "It's a great way to get away. Most of us have stopped watching TV and we keep our sailing clothes in our cars."

Six hundred sailors, most of whom live or work in the city, belong to the center.

"We provide great access to the water. Instead of driving after work an hour to Annapolis to sail 15 minutes, you can drive 15 minutes and sail for an hour," president Steve Gross says.

Karen Schardt, who moved to Baltimore in May and joined the sailing center, says it's a great way to meet people and take in the Inner Harbor sights. The former member of the Manhattan Yacht Club praised the center's atmosphere.

"Compared to New York, it's a lot more fun and casual." says Schardt, a professional fund raiser. "The people were all very nice, but it was all very regimented. Here they do their best to get you out in a boat. In New York, all their members are lawyers, so they were a lot more careful, like `Here, sign this four-page waiver.' "

Each Thursday night, members can either take part in informal racing to practice skills and teamwork or participate in no-holds-barred competition aboard J/22s and Sonar 23s on a closed course in the Bay Cafe Basin in Canton.

The Downtown Sailing Center is one of more than 620 community sailing programs in North America, according to the U.S. Sailing Association.

"They're great grass-roots programs to get people out on the water and show them that, no, it's not a sport for a guy in a blue blazer and a tie," says Pam Benjamin, the association's liaison to community sailing centers. "Yacht clubs teach, but on a much smaller scale."

Teaching and outreach are what the Baltimore center is all about, says Andy Herbick, the center's education director.

"For a city that's right on the water, sailing isn't an Everyman thing and it should be," Herbick says. "We're working on making it an Everyman thing."

Of the 46 boats owned by the center, 10 are specifically designed for beginners, youngsters and the disabled.

The Access 10 dinghies from Australia are virtually indestructible, practically unflippable 10-foot-long scooters that are a perfect match for the Inner Harbor. In April, when the Volvo Ocean Race yachts were in port, the sailing center sent 1,100 first-timers out for a spin in the easy-to-steer boats.

Buy a $150 annual membership ($75 for students), and take part in Tuesday evening racing and Wednesday evening recreational sailing. Add $100 and a little more experience, and become a member of a race crew. For $375, $575 and $675 membership levels and with the proper training, members can advance to race boat skipper.

"If you came here twice, it's paid for itself," says member John Rolfes of Towson. "It's cheaper than renting a boat."

Don't know how to sail? Not to worry, says Gross. Most folks - including the president - didn't know Jibe-Ho from Don Ho when they joined.

Four lessons in basic sailing taught by certified instructors cost $225. Nearly 400 people took basic or advanced courses this summer.

"That's more homegrown skippers," Gross says, beaming.

The ratio of three students to one instructor helps speed learning, say students.

"It's informal and it's casual, but it's serious, too," says Daniela Noll of Baltimore. "The instructors make sure you learn."

That knowledge came in handy last year, when center assistant director Scott Livingston and three students practicing a man-overboard drill had to put their skills to a real-life test.

Their by-the-book rescue of a man and his 8-year-old daughter from a sinking powerboat in 15-18 knot winds earned them U.S. Sailing's "Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal."

The center hopes to grow younger, too.

This summer, hundreds of city youngsters sailed for a week in the SuperKids Camp or took part in a Baltimore Housing Authority program.

"You sail kids out to Fort McHenry and tell them they're right on top of I-95 and their eyes get big. You point to an Utz bag in the water and tell them that's litter from the street washing into their harbor," says Gross.

"The water is a great way to see your city from a different perspective."

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