Sailing: an unusual mountain pastime |

Sailing: an unusual mountain pastime

Audrey Harnagel, The Park Record

An unlikely sport is winning converts in our high-elevation mountain town. Sailing, a popular East Coast, West Coast and Great Lakes pastime has made its way into the summer sports scene of more and Parkites. Park City Sailing is responsible for a rapidly growing junior sailing program that will teach a newbie how to skipper a sailboat.

"In less than a week, a seven year old can sail that boat by themselves," said Ken Block, vice president of Park City Sailing.

The program is young but growing quickly. Park City Sailing was founded just five years ago by two neighbors who discovered that they owned the same type of sailboat, a Laser. They started off by organizing informal races at the Jordanelle Reservoir. The activity attracted people like Block who had given up sailing to live in the mountains.

"It was like magic," Block said. Within two years there were twenty or more Lasers racing on Tuesday nights.

As the popularity of sailing grew, Park City Sailing was born. In 2010 they started a junior sailing program designed for beginners. In 2010, 68 kids enrolled in the program. The summer of 2011 brought over double the participants. This year, Block estimates, more than 175 kids will participate throughout the summer.

Park City Sailing has radically changed the teaching model for sailing by offering one-week programs. In a traditional program, sailing is a summer-long commitment. To accommodate the many other summer activities available in Park City, the junior program is organized into one-week sessions available to sailors ages seven and up. Special programs are even customized to fit into other youth summer camps. This summer Park City Sailing has hosted members of Utah Olympic Park, Basin Recreation and Park City Adventure camps.

"The feedback that we’re getting from the camp directors is the kids are loving it," Block said.

By the end of the week, students are proficient in sailing a small, one-man sailboat called an Optimist, or as it is affectionately called, an "Opti."

"An Opti is quite literally a bathtub with a sail," instructor Karsten Gillwald said.

Gillwald went on to explain that Optis are ideal for beginners to learn the basics of sail maneuvering and steering because they are very simple and easy to set up.

The club currently owns 11 Optis and four 420s — which are larger boats that are used for more experienced sailors. Optis are raced around the world, and a big Opti regatta can attract up to 400 competitors. College-level races frequently use 420s.

The typical one-week program is taught by instructors certified by U.S. Sailing and trained in first aid and CPR. The first day begins with learning basic boat skills like steering. Since steering is reversed in a sailboat (when you push the tiller one way, the boat goes the opposite way), it can be tricky for a beginner.

"For a seven year old, that’s kind of a hard concept to grasp," said Gillwald.

The instructors will set a course that is easy to sail. Each student skippers his or her own boat while the instructors follow alongside in a power boat, giving directions. As the week progresses, routes get more tactical and advanced. By Thursday or Friday, students will be exposed to the concept of racing and even attempt a practice course or two.

"[Racing] takes strategy, to a degree, like chess. Except everything’s moving around and it’s wet and windy," Block said.

Despite the club’s short history, Park City Sailing has generated quite a buzz in the sailing world. Buster Pike, the Junior Sailing Committee’s co-chair, was awarded Outstanding Director of a New Sailing Program by U.S. Sailing in 2010. Its junior sailing program is already in the middle of the national pack in terms of size.

"We’re raising the game of our kids," said Block.

Just this past week, several members of the program traveled to Dillon, Colo., to compete in the Junior Sailing Olympics.

Some of the program’s most promising racers only recently took up sailing. Sammy and Alix Wilkinson, ages 10 and 11, began sailing last summer. Both are also avid ski racers and figure skaters who took up sailing as their summer activity.

"These are two sisters who have blossomed," Block said.

The sisters explained that they started sailing by spending a few weeks in the program last summer. Junior racing on Monday nights seemed like a natural step after learning the basics. The competitiveness and athleticism of the girls has made them rising stars in Park City’s program.

"My favorite part is when you get going fast on a really windy day, and you’re about to capsize but then you hike out," said Alix Wilkinson.

The Wilkinsons, like many other students in the program, are first-generation sailors. In other words, their parents have no sailing experience.

"The kids are having such a good time that the parents are saying, ‘I want to give it a try,’" said Block. Park City Sailing will be launching its new adult sailing program early this week.

The next steps for Park City Sailing include a combination of continued growth and fundraising to create a community sailing program.

"Sailing is not inexpensive, and we want to make it affordable to all," said Block.

Check out the website at to register your child for the junior sailing program. Week-long camps are offered through August 17. Contact Ken Block at 435-655-2890 for more information about the adult sailing program.

A Sailor’s Dictionary

Impress your friends with nautical jargon

  • Tack to turn upwind
  • Jibe to turn downwind
  • Fall off to angle the boat so the sail fills with wind
  • No go zone When the sail is flopping around (also known as "luffing") because it is angled too close to the direction of the winds.

    Adult sailing program

    This week Park City Sailing is launching its first adult sailing program, which will run through the end of the summer season. Lessons will take place on larger 22-foot keelboats called J22s. The program is open to beginners and intermediate sailors throughout the week (see schedule below). Group lessons and private lessons are available. Group lessons (up to four students) will be held Mondays 5-8 p.m. and Wednesdays 1-4 p.m. ($60 per person). Private lessons can be scheduled Monday through Friday for $70 per hour. Contact Chad Miller for scheduling, (802) 373-5663.

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