Eight boats with red, yellow, indigo and turquoise sails circled a buoy in Annapolis, following one another in a bobbing line. Then they set off toward the Bay Bridge, hazy in the distance, with the students learning to control the speed and direction of their boats.
"This is exactly what these kids need," said Stan Wood, whose son Connor, 11, is learning to sail this summer. "It's enough structure to keep them learning and a lot of fun with it."
The Brendan Sail Training Program was started by James Muldoon, a Washington businessman whose son had trouble learning. But once the boy got on a sailboat, Muldoon said, he instinctively knew what to do. He could handle the boat with control, patience and grace -- and Muldoon wanted to give other young people that opportunity.
"There's a lot of cause and effect between what you do and what happens in a boat," Muldoon said. "It has an amazing way of instilling self-confidence in these kids."
Now in its 20th summer, the program -- for 11- to 14-year-olds -- is expanding. It plans to start an overnight camp at St. Mary's College of Maryland next summer. Brendan Corp. in partnership with US Sailing sent videos and books to sailing clubs and community groups across the country on how to create similar camps.
St. Mary's College, known for a sailing team that keeps racking up national championships, hopes the Brendan program will be just one piece of a plan to offer more sailing to the community, especially to children with disabilities.
This weekend, Special Olympics Maryland athletes are competing in a sailing and kayaking regatta at the college. They include Ben Collins, who is legally blind and has been competing for 24 years. His sailing partner, Todd Croteau, said it's amazing to see Collins reach for the lines, knowing instinctively where they are at all times.
St. Mary's hopes that, when its $4.7 million boathouse fundraising campaign and construction are complete, there will be plenty of room for everyone, including local children who would not be able to afford the sport.
The Brendan program gets youngsters started in small groups and with lots of practice tying knots, rigging and steering.
"I can see their confidence grow, their sailing abilities grown," said Judi McKay, the director. "When they start out they're kind of shy, head down, don't want to talk."
Wood, who has sailed for years and recently bought a boat, was delighted when his wife told him there was a program for his son, who loves to read history but has trouble staying focused on lessons sometimes.
He watched Connor make three trips back to the shed to bring equipment down the beach to his boat. That would have been a challenge before, he said, but now Connor seems to have more ability to start and finish a task. Connor is also learning about teamwork.
"He knows if he doesn't keep up with them, everyone's going to sit and wait," Wood said.
When the students were trying to tack, he saw them keep turning accidentally in circles -- but having fun with it, laughing and learning how to correct it.
Now Connor comes home every day and tells his brother and sister what he has learned. "He's got bragging rights," Wood said.
Dan Hunter's son Matthew, who just turned 17, picked up sailing intuitively. After three summers of the two-week camp, Matthew works as a peer instructor to help the first-time sailors.
"He's taken this on as something of his own," Hunter said. "It's neat to be able to say, 'Hey, I can sail, I'm good at this.' "
Matthew "really enjoys teaching in the class," Hunter said, and he has been learning to be patient when the students do not always understand.
"I'm sure I would have had trouble if I learned this in a classroom," Matthew said. "But this way you get to experience it. This is something I can do my whole life, and it's -- it's like a mix of mind and body. Don't think about it, just do it."
Midday on Thursday, the boats turned back toward the beach of the Annapolis Sailing Club. That organization, along with the Shearwater Sailing Club, helps fund the Brendan camp. The older youngsters got to the beach first, jumping into the shallow water and pulling down the sails.
Connor's boat lagged behind a little as groups of students carried in each boat that was ready. Four boys lifted the first, then five lifted the second, and so on. Connor floated in the water with his life jacket on, watching.
But everyone was waiting, so when someone reminded him, he stood up and pushed the boat in. When the boat was lifted, he was right there, helping carry it onto shore.