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On the Right Tack 

click to enlarge A summer day on Lake Champlain - COURTESY OF SHAYNE LYNN
  • Courtesy of Shayne Lynn
  • A summer day on Lake Champlain

Barely a breath of wind blows across Lake Champlain, but that doesn't keep kids from messing around in boats at Burlington's Community Sailing Center on a recent Thursday morning. Vessels with black and white sails bob near the breakwater, while a group of preteens practices capsizing 420 dinghies and perfects cannonballs near the dock.

Tucked inside a white tent on land, meanwhile, a few 6- and 7-year-olds — "Little Guppies" have just returned from an excursion to Oakledge Park. What's the right age to introduce kids to sailing? "The earlier the better," says the center's associate director Jen Guimaraes. "At this age, the most important thing is making the kids feel comfortable on the water and on a boat."

The Community Sailing Center has offered a boatload of kids' summer classes and camps for two decades; today, choices range from Little Guppies half- and full-day options to SCUBA & Sailing for 12- to 16-year-olds. The only thing kids really should know before sailing lessons is how to swim, even though the Sailing Center mandates personal flotation devices for all participants.

What sailing camp teaches, says Guimaraes, goes beyond rigging a keelboat or reading the wind. "When kids learn new things and do them correctly, it's very rewarding for them," she says. "And sailing helps with confidence, leadership, communication skills, teamwork and problem solving."

They also receive lessons in maritime and Lake Champlain history.

"I want to sail around the world in a 15th-century navy ship!" says 6-year-old Ronan of Burlington of his aquatic ambitions.

"I would sail to where the Titanic sunk," says Nathan, a 7-year-old from Williston.

My own sailing lessons as a child in Rhode Island were about as terrifying as being on the Titantic, so last summer, I was a bit hesitant to sign up my then-6-year-old daughter for Little Guppies classes. But she was excited about learning a lifelong skill that many of her cousins had already mastered, and was beaming every day at pickup time, gleefully describing capsizing the boats and learning about the nearby sunken horse ferry.

I also appreciated how the Sailing Center aims its programs at the greater Burlington community — not just those who can afford the pricey dues of a yacht club. It's part of a nationwide push by U.S. Sailing to reach all populations. The $365 tuition for a full week of day camp is in line with the cost of other local summer programs.

"It's incredible to be part of this powerful shift in a sport that can provide so much for so many people, especially here in Burlington with a resource like Lake Champlain," says Guimaraes. "Being out on the water is a transformational experience. You are able to relax, take in your surroundings and return to land with a renewed energy and perspective, ready to tackle anything that comes your way."

Even if that includes, say, animated aliens? "What I like about sailing is that I'm often pooped at the end of the day," says Ronan. "And when I come home and say 'I'm pooped,' Dad lets me play video games."

Want to set sail?

The Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center has camps and classes for kids ages 6-16. Find more information at communitysailingcenter.org.

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