Learning the ropes

Juneau Youth Sailing Foundation helps kids feel comfortable on the water

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2003

As soon as Juneau Youth Sailing Foundation instructor Fritz Funk gave the OK for his class of sailors to suit up, the Yacht Club Graham Room was a jumble of loose shoes and black florescent dry suits. Arms of the rubbery suits flapped about as kids pulled the hermetic material over their ankles and heads.

One boy on his knees proceeded to "burp" his suit by stretching the collar out and bowing.

"This pushes the extra air out," Funk said.

Once suited, kids walked down to the Juneau Yacht Club dock, putting on gloves. Some were holding radios. One boy said to another, "Hey, dude, don't you need a lifejacket?" The boy ran back to grab one.

"Our motto is 'Safety, Fun and Learning,' " said JYSF coordinator Chris Miller. "The kids really have to be aware of their environments."

On the dock, the wind shook the sails of the eight racing dinghies JYSF purchased in November 1997 and the two Club dinghies bought last year.

Juneau Youth Sailing Foundation

Phone number: 789-3546

Web site: www.juneauyouthsailing.org.

Classes: One- and two-week classes for youths and four-day classes for adults are available. Costs range from $110 to $250.

As they sail into Gastineau Channel, the young sailors seem comfortable in the dinghies, showing off by leaning the boat back almost horizontally, with their shoulders just a foot from the water's surface.

"The first day they are inside, and before lunch they are in the water," said Steve Turner, founding member, instructor and trustee for JYSF. Foundation board members agree hands-on is the best way to learn the sport.

The kids grow more comfortable with sailing equipment and weather conditions through the U.S. Sailing curriculum that JYSF uses.

JYSF board members said sailing is something that appeals to many kinds of children.

"Those kids who maybe could not play football or basketball, they can excel in sailing," Miller said.

Turner has seen many participants blossom in maturity and strength.

"Kids go home with muscles aching that they have never even felt before," he said.

According to JYSF registrar Louise Miller, JYSF has about 60 youth sailors returning to its program this summer. JYSF credits much of its success to the city youth activities program, the Yacht Club and the many volunteers over the years.

"When we first started (in June 1998), we had all adult volunteer instructors," said Turner.

Volunteer instructor Funk, who started sailing at a summer camp when he was 11, said his sailing inspiration was Irving Johnson, known for sailing around the world seven times in his series of Yankee sailboats.

"Sailing meant a lot me, and I want to pass some of that to other kids," Funk said.

As a parent, Funk also appreciates what the program has offered his son.

"I had watched him go through it, and decided it was a good program," he said.

JYSF assistant instructor training is composed of four days of theory - about 40 hours in all.

"The assistant instructors go through intensive training," Miller said.

JYSF classes have one lead instructor and three paid assistants per class.

"I just got certified last spring," said paid assistant Eamon Conheady.

In his sixth year of sailing, Conheady knows the more stressful parts of teaching younger kids. Despite the weak sailing experience many of the younger students have, Conheady does not worry about their safety.

"It's not really 'worried.' It's more frustrated when they don't understand the directions you give them," Conheady said.

"We're always out there with them, whether we're in the safety boat or in the sail boats," said assistant Matt Callahan, who has sailed for four years.

JYSF also has uncertified sailing assistants - kids who have taken at least one JYSF course before.

"They are mentors," said Funk. "It is always nice to have someone the kids can relate to who is younger than us."

JYSF students also are given an official U.S. Sailing "Little Red Book" to record the sailing skills they have mastered in different wind conditions. The book is a nationally recognized representation of their skill level, much as a passport shows where you have traveled.

Three-year JYSF sailor Lia Heifetz said she heard about the sailing program through a friend. When asked what her favorite part of sailing was, she said quickly, "capsizing."

In dinghy terms, capsizing occurs when the boat has overturned enough to be totally horizontal in the water. Turtling is when the boat is completely upside down, with the sails under water.

JYSF wants onlookers to know that capsizing and turtling are routine exercises that students are taught to do on purpose, to learn how to resurface the boats.

"I try to save (capsizing) for last, because I know the kids really like it," Funk said.

"Sailing is great for any age, income or athletic ability," said Turner.

Miller agreed. "The kids experience a lot of personal growth, something that will be with them for life."

"It's really relaxing when you are out there," Conheady said. "It comes natural, you just know where everything is, and you focus on whatever you want."

"Derigging gets faster the more you do it," said third-year sailor and paid assistant Becky Clover, while helping a student unhitch and stow the sails to one of the dinghies.

Sailing "is so cool," Clover said. "There are no motor sounds, just the wind."

Kim Andree can be reached at nrclerk@juneauempire.com.

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