By Connie Leinbach
Dozens of Ocracoke kids hopped into sailboats recently as if they were born to it.
Well, being Ocracoke kids, maybe they are since saltwater is in their blood.
The Hatteras Sailing Organization brought their teaching boats – six Optimists, which are small, beginner boats, and five larger boats, or 420s – to Silver Lake for a sailing expo on Saturday, Nov. 20, and the next day, too.
Despite it being a cold, windy day on Saturday, the kids leapt in and out of boats with their Hatteras Island mentors.
With the accompaniment of Latino music from the Festival Latino de Ocracoke at the Berkley Barn wafting across the island, the afternoon began at the launch area at NCCAT.
In waist-deep water, islander Thurston Sumner was teaching helmsmanship, or how to use the rudder and centerboards of the boats.
Jay Phillips, who is an Avon boat builder and charter captain, and Jeff Grisham, along with Ocracoke adults, then sent the kids out into the harbor in both sizes of boats.
“These are the designated boats in which kids can compete regionally, nationally, and internationally in this age range,” Phillips said.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm,” said islander Keith Crogan, who rides the wind frequently himself as a kite surfer, and who was on the docks watching. “There are a lot of folks who are into it and want to get the kids into it.”
In fact, the weekend’s events sparked so much enthusiasm, some Ocracoke parents are already negotiating the purchase of boats for their own program, Phillips said.
Sailing is just a great activity for all.
“Sailing is a sport that uniquely teaches kids independence and teamwork symbiotically,” Phillips said.
“This would be a year-round club for the people who live here,” said islander Paige Bennett as she watched her sons navigate Silver Lake.
Ocracoke student Oliver Cuellar tried it out on Saturday for the first time.
“It’s kind of scary when it was leaning,” he said about the experience of capturing the wind. “A couple times I thought I would fall but the people know what they’re doing.”
Phillips and his crew returned on Sunday afternoon and the kids had a calmer wind experience from the day before.
“Sunday’s impromptu sailing brought around 15 kids and parents, mostly younger children appropriate for the Optimist class,” he said. “It was a triumph for Hatton Howard, a 4-year-old, who sailed independently across Silver Lake.”
Hatton’s dad, William Howard, wasn’t surprised or scared for his young son.
“It was super cool to watch him in that little boat,” Howard said in an interview. “Those (Optimist boats) are very intuitive. Hatton and I have been talking about it. I’ve been wanting him to get a sailboat.”
Despite the island fishermen’s dependence on motorboats, sailing is still a skill that’s necessary, Howard said.
“Kids need to know (sailing) because it’s their heritage,” he said.
For Ocracoke to begin the kind of club Hatteras has would require a place from which to teach and launch boats, Howard said. “We need a green space.”
The two-year-old Hatteras Organization is trying to develop the Tops dock, which is across from Pops Restaurant in Buxton, as their sailing center, Grisham said.
Howard thinks that such a club on Ocracoke could begin after the new year.
And Hatteras Sailing will be happy to help, Phillips said.
Besides wanting to conduct sailing races closer to home rather than having to travel to Chesapeake to compete, such a club will foster fellowship between the islands.
“We’ve seen that the program needs to offer continuity through the year and include opportunities for kids and parents to build friendships and progress in their skills,” he said. “Hatteras Sailing has offered use of our equipment and extend membership benefits to sailors on Ocracoke as long as needed.”