The Severn River is their classroom and the lessons are about rigging, racing and regattas.
All it takes is a lot of encouragement and a little enticement -- like lollipops -- to teach a group of youngsters affectionately called "sea squirts" the basics of sailing.
The course, started four years ago at the Annapolis Yacht Club, strives to "trick kids into learning" boating basics and encourage a lifelong love of the sport, said club program director Robert Shapiro.
"The course is called 'Fun With Boats,' not 'Learn to Sail,' " Shapiro said. "But when they're out there having fun, they don't realize they're learning."
Every Sunday afternoon for five weeks, sea squirts pair off and board 8-foot Optimum racing dinghies, called Optis. Instructors use strategies like taping lollipops to buoys and laying candy atop inflatable ducks and alligators that mark a course to get the kids sailing.
"It's a very hard concept for kids to grasp that you can't sail into the wind, you have to tack," Shapiro said. "It works quicker when they see something they want to get to."
The program's enrollment jumped to 26 youngsters this summer from 16 last summer -- thanks, in part, to enthusiasm generated by the Whitbread Round-the-World Race's Baltimore and Annapolis stops and by Maryland's first entry in that sailing race, Chessie Racing. In all, about 150 young sailors are participating in the club's junior fleet classes this summer.
Owen Empey, 8, is a sea squirt from Annapolis and a Chessie fan who already knows what he wants to do when he grows up -- race boats.
"I think it's really fun," he said.
The teachers "don't tell you exactly what to do. You can do whatever you want. That's fun, too," Owen said.
Owen's mother, Marlies Empey, says she was surprised how quickly the young sailors catch on.
"It was amazing to me how they were able to get from point A to point B without all bumping into each other," she said with a laugh. "There's no competition; they're just going out and enjoying themselves."
The sailboat's design was inspired by soapbox derby cars, making it the ideal size for little sailors, Shapiro said.
"They're like soapbox boats -- they look so simplistic but as a learning tool, they're fabulous," Shapiro says. "They're very responsive, very reactive."
One coach in a motorboat stays close to the sea squirts maneuvering around buoys and course markers, while five other coaches "are like border collies -- they keep the kids within the boundaries," Shapiro said.
The "Fun With Boats" course is open to anyone sponsored by a club member, Shapiro said. The club also holds advanced classes for youths in Annapolis-area high schools.
"We're accessible to any young person who has an interest in our programs," Shapiro said.
What's the toughest part about being a sea squirt? Eight-year-old Nick Silvestri of Arnold says it's bringing in the boat past the Eastport Bridge after a sail.
"Because when wind's blowing it's hard to steer straight and sometimes you hit it," he said, his voice trailing to a whisper.
"I did that today," he said. "But it was okay."
In addition to showing them a good time, the classes teach youngsters respect for the water, says Nick's mother, Martha Silvestri.
"They learn it's important to have a life preserver, proper gear, the right shoes, sun protection," she said. "The younger they start learning those safety skills, the better they are."
Ridgely Mackenzie's parents enrolled him because he was anxious about boating, his mother Liz Mackenzie said. But that has changed.
"I want to race sailboats when I grow up," said Ridgely, 8, of Annapolis.
Now that Owen Empey is learning about how to be a sailor, he also hopes to help out on his parents' boat.
"It'll be easier for me, because now I know what to do," he said. "I like that."
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
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