Discover Summer Sailing Adventures: Dive in at the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center05/26/2021 01:00PM ● By Bart Beeson
Photos courtesy of Lake Champlain Sailing Center
The story of Burlington’s Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center starts in the early 1990s, when a couple of sailing enthusiasts noticed that sailing had started to become something of an elite sport. They felt strongly that sailing was something that everyone should be able to enjoy, like going to a baseball game. In order to make getting out on Lake Champlain accessible to anyone who had a desire to go, regardless of whether they owned a boat, they started the Sailing Center.
Since that time, the Center has expanded to provide much more than just boat rentals. “As we started to unlock this pastime for more and more people, we came to realize other benefits to participation—things like life lessons and leadership skills that are cultivated by the sport of sailing that you don’t get on a basketball court or soccer field,” says Executive Director Owen Milne.
Developing “Leader Ship”
The Center has developed various programs to advance those ideas, including their “Leader Ship” program, which enables kids who don’t normally have opportunities to experience the lake to do so. This sailing education course focuses on overcoming obstacles and the importance of failing and trying again.
“There are so many different things that happen in sailing. You’re constantly failing and constantly adjusting,” says Owen. For example, he points out that on their first day, students are told to capsize their boat. They then have to learn how to work with their co-sailor to right it. As for leadership skills, the Center makes sure that all the students have the chance to captain the boat, even those that might normally shy away from the opportunity. “Not every child experiences that feeling in life—the feeling of being the one who has their hand on the tiller,” reflects Owen.
The Sailing Center, located on Burlington’s waterfront, is a home to a wide range of activities during the sailing season. They offer floating classrooms, partnering with local teachers who want to integrate hands-on learning into their curriculum, such as studying water quality, invasive species, or the physics of sailing. The Center also runs adaptive sailing programs, and their building is home to an office of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports. And for early risers, the Center opens its dock for a local yoga studio to hold morning classes. They are also highly focused on working to promote environmental conservation and protecting the lake. Owen notes that as water quality of the lake has diminished over the past 27 years, they have realized that access and recreation is an important part of the conservation effort. “In forest conservation they say if you want to save a forest, build a trail,” he notes. “Similarly, if you want to save the lake, teach people to sail.”
Riding Out the Pandemic Storm
As with many organizations, the Center had to make some big adjustments when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring. With schools closed, they noticed many parents were having a hard time figuring out what to do about childcare, so they started a camp, ultimately serving over 55 families. That experience put them in a great position to open their regular summer camps, which they were able to run at 90 percent capacity. For the 2021 season, they will continue to conduct their summer camps and adult classes on separate schedules from their rental program, but they hope to eventually transition towards normal operations as restrictions are lifted.
With all the different programs they offer, it’s easy to forget that the Center has a thriving rental business, and they currently rent a variety of sailboats, kayaks, and canoes. One of the unique aspects of the Sailing Center, compared to others like it around the country, is that they make it very easy for people to try their hand at sailing. Guests just have to pass a rudimentary test, rig their boat, and they’re off—with no need for a special license or any advanced skills. To ensure the safety of the renters, the Center keeps numerous “chase boats” on the water with staff ready to serve and support the nautical adventurers.
A Great Family Activity
For anyone wondering why they should try sailing, Owen, who had never sailed before taking the job as the Center’s executive director, cites several reasons. First, he notes that it’s a great family activity: “It’s not like other team sports where parents are on the sidelines; this is one of those things that families can actually do together.” In addition, he adds, sailing is perhaps the ultimate way to clear your mind. “Because you’ve got all those things you have to be focused on, there’s no space for anything else. All your problems stay on the dock and you leave those behind. And then you catch just the right gust, at just the right time, and it propels you forward. You’re out there on the water just taking in the experience of being on Lake Champlain.”