It may come as a surprise to some that growing up on an Island does not always ensure access to sailing. The water is always within reach, but there have long been socio-economic barriers to Island kids interested in learning the sport.
In the early 1990s, a group of Edgartown residents teamed up to tackle the problem. Nancy Hoffman and the late Nancy Haskell spearheaded the effort to found Sail Martha’s Vineyard (now known as Sail MV), a program dedicated to helping Island kids gain access to affordable sailing instruction.
“Not many generations ago, everybody had access to the water,” said Sail MV board president Peggy Schwier this week. But slowly, sailing became an elite sport enjoyed mostly by people able to afford expensive yacht club memberships, while Islanders with more modest means were unable to participate.
“To get kids out into the water, for free,” explained Mrs. Schwier. “That was the whole premise.”
The nonprofit organization incorporated in 1992 and began its first sailing program two years later. Today, Hope and Brock Callan run the program as administrative director and program director respectively. Islanders pay a $40 membership fee, which is used mainly for insurance purposes, to enroll in a four-week session during the summer. Classes are held for sailors at all levels of experience and expertise, including adult sailing and windsurfing classes. The majority of the money used to keep the program running is obtained through fundraisers.
On Saturday, Sail MV will hold its 18th annual Seafood Buffet and Auction at the Tisbury Wharf. “This was originally our only fundraiser,” said Mrs. Schwier. “It has traditionally been about eighty per cent of our operational funds.” The money raised has helped finance additional boats and instructors, allowing Sail MV to expand into a program with over 300 members.
“It’s a really fun night because it’s such a cross section of the Vineyard,” said Mrs. Schwier of the fundraiser. “It kind of kicks off the summer, in a way. It’s one of the first fundraisers.”
The event is organized almost entirely by volunteers. It will be catered by Jaime Hamlin, and the Beetlebung Steel Band will provide the musical entertainment. Television journalist Barry Nolan will return for his second year as auctioneer. “He’s a really fun guy, so that sets the tone for a fun evening,” said Mrs. Schwier.
And almost as soon as the Sail MV crew puts the finishing touches on this first fundraiser of the season, they will begin preparations for the second. The Vineyard Cup, the group’s annual regatta event, will run from Friday through Sunday next weekend.
“It’s three days of racing and competition,” explained Mrs. Schwier. Anyone is welcome to compete, as long as their boats meet certain length requirements. Most of the racing will take place in Vineyard Sound. And throughout the event, the public is invited to the Sail MV tent in Owen Park in Vineyard Haven for food, drinks and entertainment. Catering will be provided by the Black Dog, with musical performances by the Beetlebung Steel Band on Friday, and vocalist Gordon Healy on Saturday. Tickets, sold for $15, will be available at the door.
“Where some regattas get really expensive, we’re trying to have it be really affordable and fun for everyone. Sort of friendly competition,” said Mrs. Schwier.
Though the summer sailing program is not designed specifically to prepare kids for competition, Sail MV does support children interested in racing. The Vineyard Cup acts as a good representation of the friendly, affordable nature of the program, and the profits help to keep the sailing classes going. And the program has continued to expand.
Sail MV also manages the Chilmark Community Center sailing program, which has about 100 participants, and policy was recently changed to allow seasonal Island children participate in the regular program.
“That’s new in the last couple of years,” explained Mrs. Callan. “And I personally like the seasonal kids to be able to hang out with the Islander kids because that’s going to enrich their experience too, by being with seasonal groups,” added Mrs. Schwier.
Maggie Lumkes, head instructor for the sailing program, is spending her first summer on the Island working for the camp. Though she is originally from Chicago, she has been sailing since she was eight years old. She left a job in public relations to spend the summer on the Vineyard.
“I just wanted to do some more sailing stuff for the summer,” she said in an interview at the camp yesterday morning, headquartered at the Oak Bluffs Sailing Camp Park on Lagoon Pond. “And Sail MV I knew about. I thought it was just a really good program, nonprofit, for helping the kids on the Island,” she said.
As a group of children prepared to set sail on the pond in their small Optimist Pram sailboats, Ms. Lumkes offered a final helping hand where needed. The camp provides lessons in sailing and windsurfing, but according to Ms. Lumkes, “they do an awful lot of swimming as well.” She made sure everyone was prepared with a bailer, a laundry detergent container or plastic milk container with the bottom cut out to bail water out of the boat if it flipped over.
Year-round Islander Paula Peters’ triplets are in their third year of the sailing program. “They did two years of messing around with boats, with Gretchen Snyder. So they do that first and learn all about tying knots, and the wind. They get used to the water and putting their life jackets on. And then they move up to [sailing on the water],” she explained. “They love it, they look forward to it,” she added.
Ms. Lumkes said many of the smaller children with less experience will partner up in boats until they get more comfortable with the vessels. As they advance, they have the opportunity to sail alone, and sail in larger boats.
“Our program is more learning to sail and being comfortable with boats and kind of moving on in that direction instead of feeding into racing only. A lot of us grew up in programs where you learn to sail and then you start racing and then you only race. A lot of kids don’t want to race. They just want to go sailing and have fun and be with their friends all day, and learn a skill,” Ms. Lumkes said.
The training program has paid off for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School sailing team, which recently has been gaining standing among other teams in New England. It has also inspired Sail MV to take its program in yet another direction.
“This year we created a maritime studies program at the high school. We created the curriculum, and we basically fund it with the help of the Permanent Endowment Fund,” said Mrs. Schwier.
“It’s a vocational track course within the high school, so kids can get jobs on the waterfront and through waterfront businesses,” added Mrs. Callan.
“I think it’s so important to connect people to the Island now, and I don’t think that happens anymore,” said Mrs. Schwier.
“And connect everybody with the water that surrounds us whether it’s on boats or with history or books or art. We try to be all things maritime to everybody here,” continued Mrs. Callan.
“Anything we can do to promote maritime heritage,” concluded Mrs. Schwier.
The Sail MV Seafood Buffet and Auction starts at 5 p.m. on July 11 at the Tisbury Wharf in Vineyard Haven. Tickets cost $125. Call 508-696-7644 for availability. The opening party for the Vineyard Cup is at 5 p.m. Friday, July 17 in Owen Park. To register for the competition, visit sailmv.com.