Water Power

Water Power

Winds are steady at about 10 knots with gusts to 13, a pleasant breeze for experienced sailors. But most of the 9- to 14-year-old mariners in the New Haven Land Trust’s Schooner Camp have only two days of sailing experience. That doesn’t stop them from donning their life vests and wading into the harbor off the Sound School’s City Point beach with their little Pico and 420 sailboats, just big enough for four.

These kids already know the words “jib” and “tack” from classroom instruction. They know how to operate the tiller and tighten the mainsail. But their bodies haven’t always caught up with their brains or their brains with the whims of the wind and the mechanisms of their craft.

Seven boats are out this sunny afternoon, as well as three motorboats driven by experienced counselors who are there to instruct the kids, support them and keep them safe. Among the counselors is waterfront director Enoc Escobar, a Sound School alumnus with about seven years of sailing experience, including a spot on UConn’s competitive sailing team.

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Escobar may have the toughest summer job in New Haven. Sure, it sounds great to be zipping around the harbor in a motorboat, but helping keep campers’ little boats afloat and getting their crews to follow directions requires fast thinking and a whole lot of patience. Escobar deftly juggles both, pulling up alongside the boats and calling out commands to help the young sailors manage their crafts, trying again with different wording when they don’t get it and shouting out encouragement even after a frustrating string of mishaps.

First he chases after a sailboat that’s drifting too far to the west. Its sole pilot is a 14-year-old named Jake (pictured first), who actually has some sailing experience. Still, the winds are unpredictable, and he can’t seem to make his way back to Schooner’s sailing grounds. “I’ll be right here with you,” Escobar calls out, keeping abreast of the sailboat. “It’s gonna be hard work,” he adds, both a warning and a pep talk. Tighten the sail, switch the jib, watch the boom, shift forward, lean out. Jake follows each command as best he can and eventually manages to turn his little ship around and sail back into the flotilla.

Now another boat is in trouble, this one carrying four novices 10 and 11 years old. They’re taking on water, and they’re trying to simultaneously sail and bail. Escobar wants to know if they’re nervous, and two of them admit they are. They’re slower to respond to his instructions, less sure of how to do what he’s asking. In the process, one girl slips overboard, and a crewmate helps her back up by the shoulders of her life vest.

There’s a big difference, Escobar says, between learning the rudiments of sailing in the classroom and applying them out here in the harbor. The only way to really learn is to try, make mistakes and try again. Somebody’s going to capsize, he says, and sure enough, at least two boats do. One is Jake’s, but he swiftly rights it himself and climbs back in. A couple of newbies need a tow back, but most of them manage—amid false moves, unexpected tacks, empty sails and confusion—to make it back to the beach of their own volition on what, for most of them, is only their third day of sailing.

The difference between what they can do on their first day and their third is “incredible,” says Justin Elicker, executive director of the Land Trust. The day before, he notes, when several boats capsized, “a bunch of them came back saying they were scared when it happened. But then they realized that they had their life vests on, and next time it happens they won’t be as scared,” he says. They’re not just learning to sail. They’re learning to have confidence “in themselves and their ability to handle an unexpected situation.”

Both Elicker and Escobar cite safety as the number one lesson. But beyond that, young sailors are also learning to work as teams—no small feat with four kids to a tiny boat. Sailing camp also gives them a connection with the water that many of them have never experienced before. Escobar knows from his own experience how valuable this is. “When I head out, personally, on the water, I gain more of a respect for it: nature and the harbor, the wildlife, the environment.”

After 35 years of “different iterations,” Elicker says, Schooner Camp was on a recent two-year hiatus. The longtime New Haven non-profit Schooner Inc. was struggling financially and has since transitioned into a “signature program” under the aegis of the Land Trust. Now in its second year, the new incarnation of Schooner Camp is run in partnership with the Sound School, which is loaning its facilities indoors and out, including their cafeteria, where New Haven Public Schools provides free lunches for campers. Programs are offered for kids ages four to eight that explore the shoreline and nearby Long Wharf Nature Preserve. While nine- to 12-year-olds learn to sail, 13- to 14-year-olds can become Leaders in Training, and teens aged 15 and up can come to camp as Junior Counselor Volunteers.

Elicker reports the camp has doubled in size from its first year, now serving 80 kids each week for eight weeks. No one may attend for more than two weeks, in order to give the most kids exposure to camp. The Land Trust raised more than $80,000 in scholarships, Elicker says, which more than half of campers are using to cover all or part of the fee ($250 per week for ages 4-8; $350 per week for ages 9-14). “We want it to be available to anyone who wants to participate,” he says. A few spots are still available for campers to join this summer.

After about an hour on the water, it’s clear the young sailors are tiring and it’s time to get them in. This final roundup is a lot like herding cats, but Escobar and the other counselors corral, instruct and cheerlead the kids in to the beach, where their work isn’t done. Campers have to haul the boats in, take down the rigging, roll up the sails and store the boats for tomorrow. About half of them are soaking wet from unintended dunks, which they’re happy to report.

The wind is calmer here in the shelter of the shore, but the sun keeps beating down. As Escobar docks his motorboat, he reflects on his own sailing experience. He almost gave it up, he says. Competing made him forget what sailing is really about—that feeling of solitude out on the water, rocking with the waves. Watching these kids, he says, makes him remember.

Schooner Camp 2018
City Point, New Haven
sessions through 8/17
(203) 506-0254 | cori.merchant@newhavenlandtrust.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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