Sun Paper, July 2003

Teens set sail toward hope

Incentive: A summer program trains youths to become sailing instructors and offers them a chance to earn funds for college.

By Jessica Valdez
Sun Staff
Originally published July 25, 2003

Gliding about a mile offshore, 10 Baltimore-area youths see their city from a far different vantage point. From a sailboat, they can't hear the gunshots or see the abandoned houses that are all too common in some of their neighborhoods. This Baltimore, seen from the harbor, is a skyline of gleaming office towers where the wind carries the cawing of seagulls.

"It's beautiful out here," said Marcus Pettiford, 18, of Northeast Baltimore. "Sailing is a way you can escape a lot of trouble."

For teen-agers growing up in Baltimore and its suburbs, sailing in the bay helps them view themselves and their city from another perspective - one with hope. And a new program, being sponsored by the nonprofit Downtown Sailing Center, is giving a handful of youths the chance to spend the summer on the water.

A recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Peter Hegel, 23, an instructor at the sailing center, heads the program that is training the teens to not only sail, but also to eventually become instructors.

"By the end of the summer, they have to be able to safely sail, teach sailing and know how to swim," Hegel said.

For eight weeks this summer, the high school students and recent graduates are learning sailing and leadership skills. Next year, they will serve as instructors for the center, teaching elementary school children how to sail.

Many of the students had never been on a dock before this summer.

"I never sailed a boat in my life," Pettiford said. "And I could sail the boat the third day I was here."

Besides teaching the high school students sailing and leadership skills, the program is designed to help them earn money for college. Plus, they'll provide the sailing center, near the Baltimore Museum of Industry at the Inner Harbor, with a pool of new instructors.

"It makes [the students] see themselves in a whole different light," said Doug Silber, president and founder of the center. "They realize if they stick with something, they can make a difference."

Already, the youths have begun working with second- and third-graders under Hegel's supervision. At times, it strains the teen-agers' patience - still another life lesson.

"Sometimes you don't get the best-behaved little kids," Pettiford said.

Adjusting the boat's sail, Darrell Greene 18, of Park Heights, who is headed for Allegany College of Maryland, added that the children often give them trouble.

"They'll put their hands in the water," he said, sighing.

Hegel is a role model for the young sailors, and in turn, they are expected to be examples for the elementary school children.

"These kids see the older guys stayed in school and graduated to continue to college," Silber said. "It gives kids hope."

The teens sail a variety of watercraft, including access dinghies, small noncapsizable boats, as well as Sonar 23 sailboats, 23-foot keelboats that seat five to six people. The sailboats can't tip over, with a keel attached to their undersides. But that doesn't stop Greene from anxiously grasping the boat's sides when Pettiford turns the boat too abruptly.

Greene is still learning to swim as part of his overall training. And he is not alone - many of the youths could not swim when they first arrived at the center.

Besides valuable training, the teen-agers are also getting paid through a city youth employment program. And even though the hourly wage is modest, it will help toward college costs.

Pettiford's brother Derrell Jacobs, 17, is saving for when he enrolls into the University of Tennessee in the fall. This summer, the youths earn $5.50 per hour and next year as instructors that will increase to $8.50 an hour.

Steven Manson, 18, of Randallstown commutes an hour to sail each day, riding the subway and biking from Baltimore County.

"I'm loving it right now," he said of the program. "You're getting paid to have fun."

More importantly, he is learning people skills and patience, he said.

"They need to be able to teach," Hegel said. "You have to learn how to communicate effectively and know yourself. You have to be a leader and inspirational."

Hegel helps the teens develop those skills through public speaking activities.

Yesterday, they clustered around a picnic table outside the Baltimore Museum of Industry and discussed how to react if a part of the boat is damaged.

Other skills the teens learn include saving someone who has fallen overboard - flinging flotation devices into the bay and then working together to pull them back in.

"They learn teamwork," said Steve Gross, a former president of the center. "If you don't work together you can't sail the boat."

Trusting others is one of the key lessons Jacobs said he learned in the program.

"When you're on the boat," he said, "you have to have people look out for each other."

The Downtown Sailing Center is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit community sailing center.
Located at The Baltimore Museum of Industry
Photography donated by Andy Herbick Photography, and others.