Sailing program teaches kids to keep an even keel

South Whidbey Yacht Club commodore Don McArthur explains the finer points of a 12-foot Pelican sailboat to Ellie Andersen (center) and Abby Hodson on Wednesday at Lone Lake.

LANGLEY — There’s a time to learn and a time to have fun. When those two are combined, magic can happen.

Every Wednesday afternoon over four weeks this summer, South Whidbey Yacht Club members have been sharing their love of sailing and boats with young people by volunteering with the South Whidbey Youth Connection program.

The group meets at Lone Lake and, after making sure everyone has a lifejacket and a lesson on safety — “Stay with the boat; it’s made of wood and floats” — club members rig their 12-foot Pelican sailboats and launch them into the lake.

“Basically, it’s a chance to familiarize these young people about boats; the way they work and how much fun it is to be on the water,” said club commodore Don McArthur. “One of our missions is to get more folks of any age out there sailing.”

The program represents an unusual synergy of island agencies. The Youth Connection organized it, the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District teamed up to promote and register the kids, and the yacht club volunteers offered their eight boats, their time and their vast store of marine expertise.

The first week, Bob McConnell had two girls on board his craft.

“One had sailed before, the other hadn’t,” McConnell said. “We went through the rigging process together and each got to take a turn at the tiller.”

Ed Halloran said he saw an awareness grow with his crew as the two hours on the lake sailed by.

“One kid would ask what a particular line is for and I’d say, ‘Pull on it and see what happens,’” he recalled. “They learned something and I felt great.”

He and other members are anxious to get a sailing program under way at Langley Middle School, but state insurance laws have created a few shoals.

“Hopefully we can get a risk policy and start teaching about boats on a regular basis,” Halloran added.

Abby Hodson and Ellie Anderson are 11, and this was to be their first time on a sailboat — they were to crew on McArthur’s Bagpipe.

“I read about this in the park’s activity guide and it sounded like fun,” Ellie said.

Abby had no preconceptions before heading out, but wanted one thing made perfectly clear. “I don’t want to fall in the water,” she said.

Not much chance of that — the Pelican was originally designed to provide people on San Francisco Bay with a wide, stable platform to combat heavy wind conditions.

Though the class was for youngsters, Vicki Halbakken called to see if she could come along, too.

“There was a story in the paper about it and I wanted to give it a shot,” she said. “Ed said to come on down.”

Both McArthur and Halloran admitted the program was a bit self-serving for the yacht club.

“Hey, we live on an island and we want more people to discover the sheer joy of sailing,” McArthur said.

Based on a lifetime of experience, older people tend to know things; the process of sharing the knowledge acquired is called mentoring, whereby a person helps and guides another individual’s development.

Whatever it’s called, the day’s adventure was a big hit.

“I learned that when the lines get tangled, you have to untangle them,” Ellie said later. “And when you want to go left, you need to push the tiller right.”

Abby discovered boats sometimes have more than one sail. Though she got to steer, that wasn’t her favorite chore.

“I liked it when I adjusted the little sail, which is called a jib,” she said. “And Don was a good teacher. He’s been sailing since he was 5 and knows a whole lot of stuff about boats.

“I want to go out and sail again.”

For details about the program, call Carrie Monforte at the parks district at 221-5484.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or