Part IV in a series of outstanding volunteer run assets in the Capital City
“JYS changed my life. The caliber and manner of people and activities I was exposed to in this program-or as a direct result-had no end of positive impact on my well-being and future. It is the sort of thing that helps kids at an awkward, drifting stage of life discover who they are, what they can do, and just how, exactly, things in life are done.” Carl Broderson on Juneau Youth Sailing
A sure sign of summer in the capital city is a neat row of small sailboat masts in place just north of the Juneau Yacht Club. Every spring on a big high tide a group of kids, parents and sailing enthusiasts convenes in the Yacht Club parking lot to move sections of the floating dock and eight Vanguard 420 sailboats to the water. Two hours later another season is ready to begin.
Carl Broderson goes to these launchings with the easy enthusiasm of a man whose years of effort in the program have paid off in the form of a younger cadre able to take over and put docks together, carry the masts and sails and rig the boats pretty much on their own. Twenty-somethings and teenagers direct younger kids and older people like myself who show up offering brute force and awkwardness. Carl is Chairman of the Board for Juneau Youth Sailing. Everyone takes his advice when the docks go in but mostly he just keeps an eye on what’s happening. Letting people have responsibility is a core element of Juneau Youth Sailing. Safety and fun, in that order, are JYS’ top criteria followed variously by life skills, cooperation and looking cool. When he talks about what the program gives to people and gives back to the community, Carl is speaking from experience. He began sailing with JYS when he was fourteen and has sailed and volunteered for ten of its twenty years. Speaking about the moment when everything clicks and someone realizes they are sailing for the first time he says, “Not many of them are old enough to drive a car so a sailboat is the largest thing they’ve ever been in control of. It feels like magic. And that moment, especially for the kids, is incredibly empowering.”
JYS is Alaska’s only program whose entire mission is teaching young people to sail. Each year about one hundred kids cast off from the dock which means about two-thousand students have sailed since 1997 when local sailors Sam Skaggs, Chris Stockard and Steve Turner recruited seven other people to become the plank holders of Juneau Youth Sailing. These ten wrote and received a twenty thousand dollar youth grant from the City and Borough. Through community donations, the Skaggs Foundation and Pete Bernstein at Alaska Ship Chandlers they raised another twenty-thousand for start-up gear. Shopping around for affordable boats they found eight used, two-person Vanguard 420’s for sale at half price from the Seattle Yacht Club. All ten became certified U.S. Sailing instructors and, for two summers, used their leave time from work to teach local kids to sail. Sam Skaggs still lights up when he reminisces about those days. “The instructors got as much out of it as the kids.” he says, “We all learned how people learn: auditory, visually and by doing. A kid’s eyes can glaze over after thirty minutes of lecture but the minute you hand them the tiller, they get it. I enjoyed every day I was out there. Success is pretty compelling.”
Today, in addition to it’s own floating dock that ties up to the city transient float, JYS has six newer 420’s plus seven of the original eight boats. There are two Boston whaler outboards used for support boats while the kids are sailing, dry suits for every kid from small to extra large, life jackets, hand held radios, and a DVD player and television for classroom instruction. This year’s head instructor Ben McNaughton and his three assistant instructors, who have the program’s four paid positions, all started with JYS. Junior instructors, sailors over thirteen who have taken sailing levels I and II, work for love of the game and increased sailing time.
Classroom lessons include basic seamanship, knots, learning parts of the boat etc. Before kids sail they don dry suits and life jackets then jump in the water. That’s a big deal because we have cold water here and it helps them to know their suits and life jackets will keep them dry and upright. Next the kids learn how to right the boats by capsize drills–tipping over then righting them. Knowing they can right the boat gives kids the confidence to push the boats and themselves to find that sweet spot between sailing fast and being in the water. When it’s very hot the kids cool off with capsize drills. JYS gives the local authorities a heads-up when they’re sailing because sometimes tourists, or even locals, see boats laying on their sides and immediately call 911 or the Coast Guard for a rescue.
420’s are said to be “the world’s top youth training boat.” They’re 420 centimeters (13.8 feet) long with a 620 cm (20.5 foot) mast and are designed to be really safe and really fun to sail. Fast and maneuverable, the boats are ISAF (International Sailing Foundation) class, two-person racing dinghies with built in buoyancy tanks that keep them afloat even if they turtle (go totally upside down). 420’s are good for beginners because they’re simple to operate. In a week kids can go from, “What do I do?” to executing smooth tacks and jibes trying to capture the flag. More experienced kids in advanced classes can fly a spinnaker or hike out on a trapeze.
JYS sailors have gone on to compete in college racing and Junior Olympics. Several have bought their own boats to sail locally and crew in events like the Around Admiralty Race. Some years JYS does weekend adult classes as fundraisers and two couples in town who attended those later bought cruisers and sailed to the South Pacific and back. Wonderful as these affirmations are, both Sam and Carl emphasize that the program all about local kids learning to be comfortable on the water. To that end sailors have to be at least ten years old and there are max and minimum weight limits due to the size of the boats and dry suits.
The Juneau Yacht Club donates classroom space and arranges their building rentals around sailing class times which makes the whole thing possible and financially accessible. Thanks to this kind of community support sailing classes cost about one quarter of what comparable courses down south do. The organization also offers some scholarships in memory of the amazing sailor, humanitarian and longtime JYS board member, Jay Ginter. So, a big shout-out to the Juneau Yacht Club, CBJ Youth Activity Grants, Juneau Community Foundation, Douglas Dornan Foundation, Broken Rudder (which keeps the chase boat motors running), Under Sea Industrial Apparel (for discounted dry suits, )the Scuba Tank (for dry suit repair—you’d be surprised at the number of dry suits a group of kids can tear in a season), Rasmuson Foundation, DreamHost (free web-host), Douglas Island Fire Hall, Alaska Marine Lines, Elgee Rehfild Merts, Faulkner Banfield, Juneau Physical Therapy, and many other friends.
Sailing is one of those life skills you can improve on into a ripe old age. It’s egalitarian, too. Adjusting the sails matters. Race, religion, gender or sexual orientation do not. Your socio-economic bracket doesn’t matter either. Not everyone who is rich sails but everyone who sails is rich. If you think about it, the Kennedys, Ted Turner and David Rockefeller Jr. have enough money to do any activity they want. And what do they do? They go sailing like millions of others. So, if you ever hang out with them, you guys are sympatico.
Juneau Youth Sailing class dates, prices, registrations, FAQ’s and hero shots are on their easy to use website: www.juneauyouthsailing.org . To volunteer or get on the mailing list contact email@example.com . People interested in being on the board are always welcome. Board members commit for at least a season and some stay on for years. The program needs are well-structured and you’ll have help. If you don’t sail no worries. There are non-sailing things like answering emails and contacting people which have to be done in any organization. There are also volunteer items like patching a fiberglass boat, fundraising or supplying ideas and good energy. Heading into town on Egan Drive during the summer, you can look out at those white sails and kids in colorful dry suits zipping around the channel and say, “Yeah! I help make that happen.”