This summer, get the kids to put down their phones and go to camp where they'll learn not only how to boat safely but critical life skills — all while having a blast!
When I think back to my own summer boating-camp experiences, it evokes many fun-filled childhood memories: sunny afternoons perched atop a capsized dinghy, treasure hunts on pirate-infested islands, and epic fleet water battles that would have made even Jack Aubrey wince.
Collecting summer-camp stories from boaters across America, I was regaled with similar tales of sibling shenanigans, goofy races and awards, and pure fun, but also the lasting impact that boating camp has had on many people's lives. One mother told me that after her daughter joined Sea Scouts, it was like having "a different person in my house. I had a more confident, more compassionate child."
When Gary Fretz, owner of Castle Harbor Boating School, is asked why parents should sign up their kids for camp, he says, "Because it's fun, number one. And because it builds valuable life skills that keep them safe. In our area, which is South Florida and Miami, we have boating weather year-round. Lots of kids will get invitations to go out, and sometimes it's with another kid and no adults. If they don't know what they're doing, they can get in trouble."
Fretz knows this firsthand. When he was a teenager, he had a friend who rode on the bow of a boat (illegal in Florida) and fell off. He was run over and seriously injured. A little bit of training at a summer camp can go a long way in preventing these types of accidents.
Fretz's school offers powerboating and sailing. Campers learn about everything from fueling and docking to signage and navigation to reading wind, weather, and currents. In addition, there's a long list of safety exercises including man-overboard drills, making distress signals, and what to do in the event of a grounding. Some campers have had these skills tested in the real world. Fretz recounts how one summer, a group of 10- to 12-year-olds came to the rescue of a boater in distress. "We emphasize the importance of always having a line ready to deploy. So when we were out on the water and came upon a boater drifting toward a reef, the kids assisted in towing the boat to safety."
Stories like this are common. Cassie Johnson, group leader for the national Sea Scout Program Committee, explains that Sea Scouts trains 14- to 21-year-old boys and girls in safety and seamanship in sailboats, powerboats, kayaks, paddleboards, and scuba, and have been involved in several rescues. Last August, a few Sea Scout kids were transiting San Francisco Bay during their Summer Long Cruise (an annual camp) when they heard a Coast Guard alert advising mariners to look out for a missing kayaker. The Scouts found him at 2:30 a.m., brought him onto their boat, and administered emergency first-aid. "Sea Scouts often seem to be in the right place at the right time," she says.
In addition to life-saving training and practical skills like tying knots, reading weather, trimming sails, and maneuvering a boat, boating camp teaches kids leadership, teamwork, responsibility, and gives them a greater sense of confidence.
Fretz says, in camp "we appoint one person to be the skipper. They're the leader and must direct the crew in the operation of the vessel, such as docking or doing a man-overboard drill. Everybody rotates into that position and learns how to work as a team, because everybody gets a chance to do every job."
Great Lakes sailor, Para-Olympic sailing coach, and Ontario Sailing board member David Zeni describes boating camp as "an environment where children have to learn an incredible amount of responsibility." Zeni worked at a camp that had an end-of-day routine: The kids had to pull their boats out of the water, remove the rigs, load and transport the boats on dollies, then lift them into storage racks to make space for other school boats. "One year," Zeni says, "there was this kid who'd never take his boat off its dolly, blocking the school dinghies. One day, we had 50 kids trying to move around this kid's boat. So, together, they took his boat and dolly and put it on the roof of the sailing school. Lesson learned."
Cassie Johnson says skills that kids learn at Sea Scouts give them confidence. "When you have a young person on the boat and give them the helm, suddenly it hits them. Everybody's life is in their hands. It's empowering, it builds maturity. It's something a lot of adults don't experience until they start driving a car."
While some campers are born into boating families, many kids introduce their landlubbing parents to the sport.
"I still remember the time my son did his first solo sail when he was 8," Eric Willis says. "I remember thinking that everything he's done in life — riding a bike or doing sports — I could help him. Watching him sail away from the dock, I realized he was on his own."
Tip: Many sailing programs offer scholarships. Inquire at your local boating school or yacht club.
Willis is a volunteer program director at the Santa Cruz Yacht Club El Toro Sailing Program winter program. "He's 13 now and loves it. It's our father-son thing most Sundays. Last year we started doing more double-handed stuff, and it's really special to me to see my son grow up to be my teammate."
Paul Bollinger Jr., executive director of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), a nonprofit that provides sailing opportunities to people with disabilities, recovering warriors, and youth from at-risk communities, says, "Last year we had twin brothers. About two weeks after the camp, a woman called and said, ‘I'm the mother of the twins in your camp, and I want to see about sailing with you. I'm blind and want to show them I know how to sail.'" Bollinger sees sailing as a great family activity. "Someone's on the tiller, someone's on the jib sheet, and they're all working together to make the boat go."
Flavors Of Fun
There are many types of boating camps. While all cover basic safety and seamanship, some specialize in racing and others are more exploration- and adventure-oriented. Some programs include projects like sailmaking or building underwater robots (see "Not Your Average Summer Camp!" below). Still others offer up a boating buffet, where kids have the opportunity to experience a range of fun on-the-water activities. Ricky Nelson, now camp director of the Annapolis Sailing School, shared his own camp memories. "Like all camp regattas, mine had trophies and one that was arguably the most exclusive to get your name on, but least desirable: the ‘Oops-I-Goofed' award for the student who messed up in the most dramatic and entertaining way of the summer.
"One incident involved my boat slowly moving away from the dock in front of a crowd, my feet staying on the two separate surfaces, my split increasing until I fell in." My name remains on that plaque 20 years later."
Nelson laughs now but also believes he would have benefited from a less race-oriented camp. "I started when I was 7, and it took three years before I enjoyed sailing because it was so competitive. The primary focus of our KidShip camp is kids having fun and enjoying being on a boat. We want to make it something they have fond memories of and enjoy, so they learn and are happy to go out with their parents for a sail."
Sea Scouts also prides itself on exposing kids to career paths in the marine industry with many going on to attend maritime academies. Johnson, whose own daughter worked for a company archiving offshore exploration data, has seen many Sea Scouts pursue nautical careers. "One of our scouts is now an attorney specializing in maritime law. That came from her love of what we do at Sea Scouts. It's really wide open. A career in the maritime industry can be anything."
For kids who spend a lot of time on their electronic devices, boating camp is a great way to get reacquainted with the outdoors. "You don't see any phones out on our boats," Bollinger says. "We have so many children here who live within blocks or a mile of Chesapeake Bay and never get out on it," says Bollinger. "It's common to hear a child say at the end of camp that they don't want it to end. That really tugs at my heart."
Fretz agrees. "We tell them to put their phones away and give them adventure. Every day we take them somewhere where they can interact with nature — to a sandbar where the water is clear, to deserted islands. There's a park nearby where there's an island, some beaches, a harbor, a hiking trail, and an old lighthouse to climb. We'll go explore that."
Friends For Life
Boating camp leaves kids with lifelong skills and forged friendships. Zeni says, "I was an awkward, academically focused kid, so sailing school was always the best part of my summer. One of the ways my brother made his best friends when he went to medical school in Australia was through the kiting and boating community there. Today, I have five boating friends who I could call who'd help me move my house tomorrow."
Boating camp was where, at 7 years old, I fell in love with the water and became completely comfortable in and around it. Boating has since brought me closer to my family, given me community, provided a career path, and carried me to distant shores. I'll always be grateful that my parents signed me up.
Not Your Average Summer Camp!
Powerboating camps. The Castle Harbor Boating School (Miami, Florida) offers one-week powerboating programs where 10- to 16-year-olds can earn their Florida BOATSmart card and (if they're 15 or older) Florida boating certification. Owner Gary Fretz says there's lots of value for powerboating families in signing up their kids for sailing camp, "It teaches you seamanship, safety, wind awareness, weather, and a lot of valuable practical things you can use on any kind of boat."
Overnight camps. The Stockton Sail Camp (Stockton, California) is a weeklong overnight camp where kids ages 8 to 14 sail, camp, barbecue, and learn crafts like sail-making.
Year-round fun. Sea Scouts (national), a program of the Boy Scouts of America, offers 14- to 21-year-olds year-round training including safety-at-sea courses, multi-day cruises, and certification in scuba and boating.
Tall ship camps. Kids set sail on a historic ship, immersing themselves in maritime history, seamanship, and community-building. Tall Ships Adventure runs the five-day Black Jack summer camp for 12- to 14-year-olds, where campers learn to sail a 100-year-old tall ship while exploring the Thousand Islands along the St. Lawrence River.
Adaptive sailing. Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB) "provides the thrill, freedom, and therapeutic value of sailing to those with disabilities." Like CRAB, many sailing schools and centers across North America are equipped with a Hoyer lift, transfer box slide, and an adaptive fleet.
Boatbuilding camps. The Center for Wooden Boats (Seattle, Washington) offers youth sailing and boatbuilding camps, including a STEM SAIL program for girls in grades 6 through 8. Projects include studying a 100-year-old steam engine and building and launching underwater robots.
Family camps. Premier Sailing (Irvington, Virginia) offers the option of learning to sail as a family on dinghies or a keelboat.