Youth sailing program offers unique summer alternative

Holly Block decided to venture away from traditional sports last summer and try something new.

Oak Harbor Youth Sailing provided her with the perfect alternative.

“Neither of my parents sailed, it just sounded like a lot of fun,” Block said.

Now, entering her second year of the program, the 13-year-old Coupeville resident is hooked. In one year she has progressed through the beginner and intermediate programs and has advanced to a level where she can teach this summer’s newcomers.

Block recently acquired her own 21-foot sailboat and hopes her parents will soon share her passion for the open sea.

“I’m kind of teaching them, which can be hard,” she said, smiling.

Block’s enthusiasm is just what OHYS instructor Helen Cline hopes to see from all her students.

“It’s just so fun to watch them when they get that big smile on their face, when they go ‘I’m doing it,’” Cline said.

OHYS is in its third summer of operation. The non-profit organization started in 2004 behind the efforts of Dave French, Scott Cline, Helen Cline and the help of numerous volunteers and donors.

“We have the most perfect place in the whole Northwest to sail, but there was no junior program, so we said let’s start one,” French said.

Cline joked that the program was started for a different reason. In particular, helping out with the famed Whidbey Island Race Week.

“It’s really hard to find crew so we thought we’d grow our own,” she said.

OHYS is offered to kids 10-18, but allows adults to take courses on a space-available basis. Classes run every Saturday and Sunday for two months, in June and August, and teach all the fine points of sailing.

Students spend time in a classroom environment where they learn sailing terminology, what to do in case of an emergency, right of way rules and knot tying. Safety has the largest emphasis put on it.

“We’re real safety-oriented,” Cline said. “You’ve got to wear your life vest all the time, even on the dock.”

After students are schooled in the basics, they are allowed to take to the water at the Oak Harbor Marina. Beginners start in 8-foot El Toros, which have only one sail and are designed to be controlled single-handed. The boats stay within the marina and sailors are instructed through various drills and games. In case of an emergency, there are two rescue boats in the water at all times.

Once a student has mastered the smaller boat, they are allowed to move up to an intermediate level and sail the 14-foot Lido. The boat, which is popular for racing, is designed for two or three people and has a mainsail and a headsail.

OHYS received most of its boats through donation and makes it clear they would not be able to function without the support of the community, The city of Oak Harbor continues to be instrumental, covering insurance costs every year so far.

“We’ve just got a lot of people who like doing things like this for the kids,” Cline said.

Eighteen students were registered for June classes, which is about the maximum that can be accepted.

“It just keeps gaining momentum,” Cline said.

Classes will take a break in July for Whidbey Island Race Week, but start back up every weekend in August.

And for most students, like newcomer Madison Shipley, 13, there’s no question of whether or not she will return.

“I really like it,” she said. “It’s my new favorite sport.”

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