“The great thing about community sailing centers is that we provide a pathway to sailing,” said Traci Mead, executive director of DC Sail. “It’s very affordable and you don’t need to own a boat.”
These organizations get people out on the water and educate students of all ages in watercraft, safety, science and environmental stewardship. Their programs are open to the public and by emphasizing equality, they bring the benefits of sailing to people who have historically faced exclusion from recreation on the water.
The nonprofit US Sailing provides leadership, national standards, and education for the sport, including accreditation and support for community sailing centers. While the exact number is difficult to estimate, more than 130 of US Sailing’s member organizations have identified themselves as community sailing centers, and 42 of them are accredited. In all, there are probably a few hundred across the country.
A community sailing center has been offering affordable, accessible sailing since 1946. Community Boating Inc. (CBI) in Boston is the oldest public sailing organization in the country, with a fleet of more than 120 sailboats. The programs teach people of all abilities to sail, paddle and windsurf on the Charles River – and encourage volunteerism. As nonprofit organizations, centers rely on community involvement, program revenues, and donations to support operations.
A Bucket List Sailing Trip in Panama’s San Blas Islands
Many centers similar to CBI opened in the 1980s and 1990s as community members created alternatives to expensive boat ownership and yacht clubs. Today, many offer classes and activities even in the country’s most spectacular urban environments; if you’ve ever dreamed of taking in the New York skyline from a sailboat, Hudson River Community Sailing offers access from Chelsea and Inwood. Centers allow participants to learn and explore on all types of waterways, including large and small lakes, rivers, bays, and coastlines. And they are an increasingly popular way to get public access to the water, according to US Sailing.
“Community sailing is a big part of the future of sailing,” said Jen Guimaraes, youth education manager for US Sailing. “It gives so many more people the chance to try it out.”
Community Sailing New Orleans (CSNO) is one such newcomer. The center began programming in 2021 and expects to serve approximately 1,200 adults and children this year. To help create a more accessible West End waterfront post Katrina, everything was built with the aim of removing economic, physical and social barriers to sailing.
CSNO’s cornerstone programs, many of which are free, include sailing and maritime career courses for younger children and high school students, adaptive sailing for people with disabilities, and instruction for veterans and service personnel. The center also offers sailing lessons for adults, clinics for women, boat rentals and social sailing.
“You’d be surprised how many people have lived here all their lives but never enjoyed Lake Pontchartrain,” said Khari Parrish, CSNO’s director of operations. “I love helping people in New Orleans get out on the water and experience a different perspective of their city.”
In Washington, DC Sail operates out of two marinas and hosts programs for youth and adults. At Diamond Teague Park’s piers, children ages 7 to 15 take 7 to 15-year-olds from dock-side safety training to rigging and hands-on instruction aboard the center’s forgiving 18-foot boats.
The organization also provides more than $20,000 in scholarships each year and participates in U.S. Sailing’s donor-funded Siebel Sailors Program, a free opportunity that has taught approximately 1,500 children across the country to start and continue sailing. .
“Our goal is to get as many children as possible out on the water and learn about safety and the importance of our waterways and the human impact on them,” Mead said.
Like other centers, DC Sail dives deep and helps students build their skills and confidence. The vibrant high school racing program has brought young sailors to national competitions.
The offer for adults includes refresher lessons, learning to sail and racing classes. Participants come to the organization for a variety of reasons: some sailed during childhood summer camps and want to take formal lessons, and others have sailing goals on a bucket list. Some Washingtonians take weekend lessons, but they sail in the Chesapeake Bay. Still others plan charters in more distant locations, learning the basics so they can better relate to their captain.
Docked in the Gangplank Marina near the Wharf, the 65-foot American Spirit schooner is a source of fundraising and an opportunity for the public to participate in sailing, private charters and events.
Community sailing centers can be both stopovers and final destinations on anyone’s sea voyage. For example, some participants may earn their small boat certification and then take cruise courses elsewhere that will allow them to travel and charter their own boat. And earning your small boat license will equip you with the knowledge to look for boat rentals at other facilities as you travel, so you can explore new waterways.
On the Greek Islands, a ‘slow travel’ sailing trip to the distant Ionians
“You can jump in a kayak or rent a boat, so if you’re traveling now, you can choose to go somewhere where you can get out on the water,” Guimaraes said. “It can inspire you to seek new destinations after you’ve had the life-changing experience of learning to sail.”
The growth of community sailing centers has made it possible to sail at a reasonable cost – and join a community that meets everyone where they are, from landlubbers to ancient salts. Children can learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts that form the basis of sailing curricula. And everyone can cultivate the teamwork skills, leadership, confidence and appreciation for maritime activities and the environment that sailing brings.
“It’s a great way to get out on the water with a supportive group of people, whether you’re there for a day and want a private lesson, rent a boat, or take your child to an exciting summer camp,” Guimaraes said.
Operating in San Diego for 51 years, Mission Bay Aquatic Center (MBAC) is one of the world’s largest aquatic educational facilities, with a fleet of more than 50 sailboats, 15 windsurfers, 90 kayaks, 100 surfboards, 70 paddleboards, and more. By 2021, the center served more than 30,000 members of the public with a variety of classes, programs, and rentals.
Sailing programs allow participants – most of whom have never sailed before – to move from dry land to advanced sailing. That said, most people don’t aim for certification as an end goal, but choose to simply enjoy the water.
“What we do here is about much more than sailing,” said Paul Lang, MBAC instruction and maintenance manager. “Sailing is a tool to keep people active outside. We are the first step in providing access for people who see sailboats from the shore and think, ‘How could I ever do that?’ †
Williams is an Oregon writer. Her website is erinewilliams.com†
Small boat programs are located at the piers of Diamond Teague Park, 99 Potomac Ave. SE. The American Spirit schooner is docked at the Wharf, 650 Wharf St. SW.
Sunset Sails on the American Spirit are $50 for non-members. With a $225 annual membership, members can purchase up to four Sunset Sail tickets for $25 each, as well as other benefits. Sailing refresher courses cost $75 for members. An adult learn to sail course at the basic membership level costs $515. Set Sail summer camps for kids cost $350 per week, and the high school race program costs $550 per spring or fall season. Youth program scholarships are available. Open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm
Community Sailing in New Orleans
101 N. Roadway St., New Orleans
Many of CSNO’s youth, adaptive and experienced sailing programs are free to participants. An adult keelboat course for beginners costs $375 and a custom Women in the Wind clinic costs $32 per person. Youth sailing camps are $325. CSNO operates seven days a week; hours depend on the season.
Mission Bay Aquatic Center
1001 Santa Clara Pl., San Diego
MBAC has a variety of classes, youth programs, and rentals. An adult basic sailing course costs $180, a basic adult sailing course costs $180. Private lessons are $150 for two hours, $75 each additional hour. Sailboat rental for qualified sailors is $40 for 2½ hours. Youth basic sailing and multisport camps are $465. Financial aid is available. Open from Monday to Sunday, from 9am to 7pm
21 David G. Mugar Way, Boston
CBI, the nation’s oldest public sailing organization, offers adult and children’s programs, as well as offering accessible programs. The adult and youth classes include an introduction to advanced sailing, racing, windsurfing and paddling. There are also STEM lessons for youth, a two-week sailing course for beginners, and sliding costs from $1 to $395. CBI’s Universal Access Program provides adaptive instruction and equipment, also on a sliding scale. One-day keelboat rental for experienced sailors from $85. Two-hour kayak rental from $34 per person. CBI works daily; hours depending on the season.
Potential travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines related to the pandemic before planning any travel. Information about health declarations for travel can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map with travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s health declarations webpage.