Taking sailing skills to regatta

Race: Participants in a summer program for low-income youths will compete against adults today.

October 08, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

On the first day, they're scared.

As the kids walk the long, narrow Canton pier, they stay as close to the middle as possible. Anywhere near the water is the last place they want to be.

But today, just weeks after coming face to face with their first boats, some of these kids, who have spent their summer with a new Baltimore program that introduces low-income young people to the traditionally posh pastime of sailing, will race one.

This afternoon the most talented graduates from Destination Bright Future's inaugural summer sailing program will man a boat in the Baltimore Leukemia Cup Regatta at the Inner Harbor. They'll be competing against adults - some of them very experienced sailors.

Though winning the regatta is something of a long shot, Destination Bright Future's founder, Richard Mead, is feeling victorious, having just wrapped up the program's first five-week camp. There, 60 children - ages 7 to 16, from some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods - got a chance to spend a summer on the water.

And 13-year-old Coty Stevenson, one of the five youths who will be racing, said win or lose, he will just be having fun out there - like he did all summer. "I learned about the parts of the boat, how to rig up a boat and de-rig a boat," the Highlandtown teen said. "It was fun and hard at the same time. It was something new."

Something new is just what Mead, a former physics professor, wanted to give Baltimore's disadvantaged youths.

After retiring in 1998 as academic dean of the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Mead moved to Baltimore to tend to his small sailing business, Getaway Sailing, which he started in the 1980s. As Mead, 72, came to know Baltimore and its boating community, it didn't take him long to realize that the world along the docks was a far cry from what he'd see elsewhere in the city.

"There wasn't a black face anywhere to be seen," Mead said.

He vowed to change that.

Working with a number of the city's programs for troubled youths, Mead started inviting kids down to the water for informal, weeklong sailing camps, paying for it mostly out of his pocket. This year he decided to formalize those efforts, creating the nonprofit Destination Bright Future.

The camp kicked off in late July.

There, the youths spent half their time learning to sail, the rest studying nautical applications for school subjects - the math of plotting a course, the science behind the bay's water life, the physics of what propels a sailboat.

They record their experiences in "ship's logs," or daily journals.

Rob Bader - Destination Bright Future's executive director and a former attorney for nonprofits hired by Mead after a two-year stint in West Africa with the Peace Corps - said his goal was having the youths feel how he felt learning to sail at 14.

"It was the excitement as much as anything," Bader said. "The self-reliance, the self-confidence."

Jeffrey King, 11 and a fifth-grader from Highlandtown, said he was scared of the boat his first time, especially the way the waves were slapping against it, rocking it.

But, he said, he was brave: "My teacher said I'd get used to it. And I did. ... I started feeling good in the middle."

Jeffrey and about a dozen of his fifth-grade classmates at Commodore John Rogers Elementary School in East Baltimore have been participating in Destination Bright Future's after-school program, where they learn about the academics of sailing in school, then head out on boats one afternoon a week.

Jeffrey's teacher, Wade Tomlinson, said that besides all that his pupils have learned about boats, they've benefited just by being on the water.

"It's peaceful out there," Tomlinson said. "A lot of these kids don't know about peaceful, what with loud motors and gunshots and shouting. There's usually very little peace for these kids."

Though the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation has long offered Baltimore's troubled youths similar learning opportunities on the water, Mead said there's no shortage of need.

"There are so many kids up there that need this type of program, there could be a dozen Destination Bright Futures and we still wouldn't make a dent in it," he said.

Though most Destination Bright Future youths will spend just after-school time or a summer on the water, Mead and Bader want them to know that becoming a sailor or making boats their livelihood is just as real an opportunity for them as it is for other youths.

"We want this to be a place where if you're African-American or Latino or Hispanic, you can come and feel welcome and be part of the group," Mead said, "just to give them a different view of life."

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