Youth sailing is at full throttle, no experience required

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — The art of sailing can seem like an elusive mastery to newcomers. Finding one’s sea legs while tackling seamanship in ever-changing conditions on top of learning a catalog of new jargon may keep some novice mariners at bay. Yet embarking on a voyage with wind through your hair, sun on your skin, and the occasional sea spray on your face is the most fun adventure a kid can have, says Nick Steenberg, executive director of Northeast Harbor Sailing School.  

That’s why the MDI Community Sailing Center and Northeast Harbor Sailing School are calling on all interested young sailors to sign up for their summer classes and experience firsthand the magical moment when a vessel comes to life by a sea breeze.  

“The door is open for anybody to walk through that has the curiosity to learn more about boating and sailing,” said Glenn Squires, executive director of MDI Sailing. “It’s really all about getting kids comfortable and feeling safe on the water and having fun.”  

And after two years of abbreviated programming at MDI Sailing due to COVID-19 restrictions, classes are fully open this season and already filling up. To date, 185 kids and counting have signed up but there are still plenty available openings.   

Squires encourages those who haven’t quite found their niche yet to join. Lessons like decision making, confidence, leadership and teamwork learned from sailing can also apply offshore and last a lifetime, he said.  

“I always say you can see the kids walking a little taller when they come up to the dock once they sailed the boat by themselves for the first time. It’s a huge confidence builder,” said Squires. “We’ve had kids that do not do traditional sports, so it gives them a chance to be a part of a team and make friends in high school that they otherwise wouldn’t.” 

Young beginners can ease into the sport at MDI Sailing Monday through Friday from 9-11:45 a.m. with AM Introduction to Sailing 1. This class is focused on teaching the fundamentals of sailing through fun activities for newbies starting at 6 years old. Students will learn the basic parts of the boat and points of sail and pick up terms like rowing and rigging and various knot knowledge.  

“One of the key things we do is try to be in the classroom as little as possible,” Squires said, who boasts a brand-new fleet of 10 RS Teras. “We like to be on the water and have practical education on the boats.”  

Certified US sailing instructors will hop on individual Prams, RS Teras or signature Bullseye group boats to teach their rookies the basics with a sail directly overhead. Classroom reviews are saved for post-waterfront pursuits.  

Steenberg said interest in youth programs exploded in the last year, with one of the highest – if not the highest – enrollment numbers the fleet had ever seen at 250 signups.  

“It was like the most COVID safe sport you could possibly do. You have individual sailors on teras; they’re spaced out on the water. It was kind of like a perfect scenario,” Steenberg said. “So, I think people saw it as sort of the safest way to get outside and still have social experiences.” 

Student sailors practice at the sailing school in Northeast Harbor.

NEHSS is expected to host another record-breaking season at 300 students this summer, with a brand-new fleet to boot.  

“There’s a self-reliance that comes with sailing,” Steenberg said. “Once they’re out there on their boats, they have a freedom that I think is unparalleled.” 

Although morning programs have filled up, ample spots for learn-to-sail afternoon classes are available. From 12:30-3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, uninitiated boaters will climb aboard RS Ventures – larger, stable fleet that are impossible to capsize – to learn the basics of sailing in a fun and safe environment.  

“I would even say that sailing is maybe not the most important part of what we do here. It’s more the comradery,” Steenberg said. “It’s more like creating a community around it for kids and bringing people of different backgrounds together. And, we just happen to do it on the water.” 

Steenberg, who has been coaching sailing for nearly 12 years, said before COVID-19, the sport was in decline. Fewer youth were signing up for sailing school or showing general interest at all.  

Even after overcoming some of those aforementioned sea trepidations, other barriers may curb bubbling harbor enthusiasm – namely finances. Sailing is a notoriously expensive sport; the cost for classes and membership fees, let alone boat price tags, are enough to bar new members from joining.  

Thanks to the efforts of NEHSS President David Schoeder, in collaboration with fleet members’ donations, the NEMO fund allows island natives from all backgrounds to participate in Maine’s long-standing tradition at both the MDI Community Sailing Center and Northeast Harbor Sailing School. The program in its second year has already given away thousands of dollars in scholarships to locals, reducing registration costs by 75 percent.  

According to Schoeder, the idea for the fund was born out of the Great Harbor Dream initiated by David Rockefeller Jr. to save youth sailing by bringing Bar Harbor, Little Cranberry, MDI Community, Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor sailing clubs together. 

“We needed to bring all the sailing clubs on the island together to work together,” Schoeder said. “[The Great Harbor Dream] was to provide all the youth of MDI – both residents and summer people – the opportunity to get their children on the water.”  

Over the course of 10 years, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to add a new, cooperatively owned fleet of 21 new-design 420 turbos. Those boats are stored on a floating dock system off Greenings Island for all youth sailors in the area to use.  

As various summer camps cut their capacity by 50 percent last year, Schoeder realized it would be safer for students to interact on the water. Through those same fundraising mechanisms, scholarships were allocated to give eager MDI students, who wouldn’t have the means otherwise, the opportunity to sail. 

“I’m a big believer that sailing should be for everybody,” Steenberg said. “Luckily, we’re shifting towards that because ultimately this sport is going to die if we don’t bring everyone into it. 

“The one goal I have in mind is just stripping away any barriers there are to get anyone who wants to come here and get on the water and learn,” Steenberg said. “I want to see this community of youth on the water just grow and grow.” 

For more information or to register for classes, visit the MDI Community Sailing Center website at or for Northeast Harbor Sailing School. Steenberg asks those interested in programming to email him at [email protected] 

Victoria DeCoster

Victoria DeCoster covers the Bar Harbor area including town boards and committees. She recently moved to the island after graduating from Syracuse University last year. Contact Victoria with tips and story ideas at [email protected].

Victoria DeCoster