Testing the water: PCSC gives youth a chance to sail the Jordanelle
As with ducklings in a pond, imitation can be a bane or a boon to young sailors.
"Sometimes you’ll see the lead boat (veer off) and then they all follow," said Park City Sailing Association (PCSA) vice president Ken Block on a sunny Thursday morning with a gentle breeze – ideal conditions for the 16 juniors guiding small sailboats around the Jordanelle.
The group featured some sailors who began when the PCSA junior program kicked off on July 14, while others had only sailed for just three days, yet the nautical novices exhibited enough skill to maneuver their crafts from point to point amid shouted reminders to "duck!" the swinging booms.
Geared toward ages 8 to 15, it’s the first junior sailing program to grace the Jordanelle and the only one currently in Utah (although Salt Lake has tried to start them, Block said). First-time head instructor Scott VerMerris said the biggest trick has been working through children’s initial fear of sailing. Boats are unstable and the boom – a metal bar that bears the bottom edge of the sail – swings from side to side as the direction of the boat and the winds change. Almost all students hit their heads at some point, learning the instinct to duck the bar through sheer conditioning.
"For them to be able to trust themselves to have their head up or trust their skipper or their crew is a big step," VerMerris said. The learning curve is slow at first, but sailing eventually becomes instinctive. When the program launched, his struggling fleet was far from what VerMerris had envisioned when he took the job. But by the end of the second week, all of the children had far surpassed expectations.
To cater to the kids’ short attention spans, each lesson plan is designed to teach a simple concept in periods of less than 10 minutes. The results of this approach are striking, with children responding on command to tighten their sprit tension at the bow, or to execute a tack or a jibe turn.
"You’ve got to incorporate fun and games into everything," VerMerris said. "It’s really rewarding to see where they’re at right now."
Life is busy for the instructor and his two assistants – all certified by U.S. Sailing in the last month. Between rigging boats, teaching knots and making sure nobody’s fallen off the dock, there’s a lot to balance before they even hit the water.
The experience marks a return to sailing roots for VerMerris, who sailed on his parents’ boat as a child in Ohio. At age 8, he began sailing smaller boats like the Optimists his students use.
"Sailing’s always been really fun and meaningful for me, and I feel fortunate because I did junior sailing all the way up until age 14," he said.
VerMerris worked on larger boats in the British Virgin Islands after his junior years, gaining a greater appreciation for racing. He set sailing aside for college in Colorado, but that left a hole in his life. After moving to Park City two years ago to work with at-risk youth for a wilderness therapy program, he heard a group of locals was racing in Laser Class boats on the Jordanelle, so he changed his work schedule to free up Tuesday nights for PCSA races (sailing is a thorny business on Saturdays or Sundays, when the reservoir is heavily populated by wakeboarders and jet skiers).
The association had hoped to begin teaching junior classes last year, and VerMerris offered his services as head instructor. When it finally came to fruition this year, he called again.
"For me, it means a lot because when I was young, this was how it all started for me," VerMerris said. "I love working with kids and I love being on the water every day. I really couldn’t ask for much more."
Block, who used his own money to buy many of the boats, spent 30 years sailing in Boston after growing up in Long Island, N.Y., and finding a love for the non-traditional sport. He saw his first sailboat and instantly knew he wanted to be on it, so he became a dock rat and begged for rides. He was expecting a major lifestyle change after a move to Park City five years ago, but he found himself right back on the water.
"I’d lived on the ocean for 40 years, I’d always had a passion – as did my wife – to live in a mountain town," he said. "I figured Park City was the best place to do that. I had no idea that in less than a handful of years we’d be right up to our noses in building a sailing program."
An article in the Park Record about the PCSA – started in 2008 and led by Geoff Hurwitch – caught Block’s rapt attention. When he first came out, there were eight boats on the Tuesday night races. Now, they average 20-25.
The program has drawn national attention for its growth, which is generally unusual in the sport of sailing. Hurwitch has even been asked to speak at a national symposium for sailing programs, and was awarded the One Design Leadership Award by the U.S. Sailing Association. Word of mouth has throughout the ski community, Block said, accounting for much of the expansion.
The junior program required more infrastructure than adult racing, in which many of the participants own their boats and can be held liable for their own actions. All eight of the boats for the juniors are association-bought and owned.
"We so strongly believe in what junior sailing can do for the community that we’re covering the debt," Block said. PCSA has also held fundraisers – like the April 24 "rain-gutter regatta," in which juniors blew on inflatable rafts in a race.
The juniors sail Optimists, of which there are about 400,000 in the world. They range in price from about $1,000 for a fair used boat to $5,000 for a brand-new, top-of-the-line boat.
"This is a really efficient boat," VerMerris said. "Young kids who aren’t really experienced, it’s incredible what they can do."
Block said the junior program priced itself against other local sporting camps within the Park City community, as well as programs around the nation. Most junior sailing programs last four or eight weeks, he said, but the PCSA offered one-week increments to make the classes more accessible for parents wary of sinking too much into something their kids might not enjoy. The cost per week is $225.
"I come over here and my eyes get teary, because I’m seeing something so amazing that we’re going to be able to create for kids," Block said. "There are lots of kids who don’t fit into the traditional environment and sailing becomes the perfect outlet."
For more information, to join the Park City Sailing Association, or to sign up your child for one of the afternoon or evening junior sessions, visit sailparkcity.org.
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