By Donald Wittkowski
Propelled by a gentle breeze, tiny sailboats smoothly crisscrossed the channel next to the Yacht Club of Sea Isle City on a recent day when the water was as calm as a pond.
This idyllic scene, repeated countless times during the nearly 80 years the yacht club has been in existence, remains special because some of the sailors are as tiny as their boats.
Ever since the yacht club was founded in 1940, it has taught generations of young people, from ages 8 to 18, the art of sailing in a summer camp at the Jersey Shore.
While the words “yacht club” might conjure up images of hoity-toity aristocrats sipping champagne on their palatial pleasure craft, this sailing program is unique because it is affordable, organizers stressed.
“It is an opportunity to learn sailing in a very affordable way. It is very affordable, especially when compared to other yacht clubs in the area,” said Kate Donato, a member of the YCSIC’s sailing club committee who has her sons, Billy, 13, and Nick, 11, enrolled in the camp.
General Manager Jim Collins said YCSIC is the only yacht club in the area that opens up its sailing lessons to nonmembers. It also supplies the sailboats, making the camp even more affordable for families.
“Since no other yacht club in the area offers weekly lessons to nonmember students, we get kids from surrounding towns participating,” Collins said. “Parents will enroll their kids in a weekly beginner class before making the investment in their own boat or the big expense of becoming a member of another yacht club.”
Lessons are given at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. The cost per week is $150 for club members and $225 for nonmembers. A 25 percent discount is given if students sign up for the program for four weeks or more. Further discounts are given if students own their sailboats.
There are still openings for the camp, which runs through the week of Aug. 14. More information is available by calling (609) 263-7282, ext. 14 or emailing SAILINGYCSIC@gmail.com.
According to a promotional brochure for the camp, the Yacht Club of Sea Isle City has “kept sailing and recreation for young people as its main focus” since its inception.
“The goal of our sailing program is to help our campers become proficient sailors, or, if desired, award-winning competitive sailors,” the brochure says. “Teaching sound basic seamanship skills with an emphasis on safety does this. We hope to instill the excitement of the sport of sailing in all of our campers.”
Students in the YCSIC camp race against sailors at other yacht clubs. In addition, the YCSIC is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Yacht Racing Association and hosts a regatta each summer.
Collins said 90 students participated in the camp last summer, about a 20 percent increase compared to the previous three years.
He noted that sailing among young people peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, then began to decline as personal watercraft such as Jet Skis and Wave Runners became popular and surfing continued its appeal at the Jersey Shore. But sailing appears to be making a comeback in recent years.
“I think sailing, in general, was on the decline compared with other sports, especially when you consider the expense of getting your own boat. But it’s definitely on the incline now,” Collins said.
Julia Portland, 17, one of the instructors at the YCSIC camp, said sailing has opened up new opportunities for her in college. She will sail competitively on the varsity team at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., when she begins her freshman year in the fall.
Portland, of Collingswood, Camden County, visits with her grandparents over the summer at their Sea Isle home. She began taking sailing lessons at the YCSIC camp when she was just 9 or 10. She recalled with a laugh how many times the boat tipped over the first time she ventured out on the water with her sailing friend.
“I was not really a fan of sailing then,” Portland said. “But eventually it got to the point where I loved the sport.”
Zach Jones, 14, of Berwyn, Pa., started taking beginner lessons at YCSIC last year and now envisions himself becoming a competitive sailor at an advanced level.
“What’s cool about it is, not only is it just racing, but it’s about doing your best and trying and learning,” said Jones, who will be a high school freshman in the fall.
Billy Donato, the 13-year-old son of Kate Donato, a member of the YCSIC sailing club committee, has been sailing for five years and racing for three. He described the feeling of winning a race as “awesome.”
“When you win, you know that it’s something that you accomplished on your own,” he said.
Donato, an eighth-grader, said it was his father, himself a sailor, who originally got him interested in the sport.
“My dad sailed and always told me how cool it was,” he said.
Although learning how to sail and winning races are certainly exciting, both Jones and Donato said perhaps the best part of the camp is the friendships they make with other kids. Jones and Donato became friends through the camp.
“We’re helping each other do better,” Jones said.