You can see them from Southeast Washington’s booming waterfront: small dinghies, their sails white and crisp above the Anacostia River. Even in this landlocked city, sailing holds a powerful allure — yet despite its often expensive and exclusive reputation, it’s surprisingly accessible.
“The beauty of community sailing centers is that we provide a pathway to sailing,” said Traci Mead, executive director of DC Sail. “It’s very affordable, and you don’t have to have your own boat.”
These organizations get people out on the water while educating students of all ages on watercraft, safety, science and environmental stewardship. Their programs are open to the public, and by emphasizing equity, they bring sailing’s benefits to people who have historically faced exclusion from water-based recreation.
The nonprofit US Sailing provides leadership, national standards and education for the sport, including accreditation and support for community sailing centers. Although the exact number is difficult to estimate, more than 130 of US Sailing’s member organizations have self-identified as community sailing centers, and 42 of those are accredited. In total, there are probably a few hundred across the country.
Setting a new course
One community sailing center has offered affordable, accessible sailing since 1946. Community Boating Inc. (CBI) in Boston is the nation’s oldest public sailing organization, with a fleet of more than 120 sailboats. Its programs teach people of all abilities to sail, paddle and windsurf on the Charles River — and encourage volunteerism. As nonprofits, centers rely on community involvement, revenue from programs and donations to support operations.
Many centers similar to CBI opened in the 1980s and 1990s as community members created alternatives to costly boat ownership and yacht clubs. Today, many offer lessons and activities even along the country’s most spectacular urban settings; if you’ve ever daydreamed about admiring the New York skyline from a sailboat, Hudson River Community Sailing offers access from Chelsea and Inwood. Centers allow participants to learn and explore on all kinds of waterways, including lakes great and small, rivers, bays and coastlines. And they’re an increasingly popular way to gain public access to the water, according to US Sailing.
“Community sailing is a big part of the future of sailing,” said Jen Guimaraes, youth education manager for US Sailing. “It’s giving so many more people the opportunity to try it out.”
Community Sailing New Orleans (CSNO) is one such newcomer. The center kicked off its programming in 2021 and anticipates serving about 1,200 adults and children this year. To help create a more accessible West End waterfront post-Katrina, everything was built with an eye to eliminating economic, physical and social barriers to sailing.
CSNO’s cornerstone programs, many of which are free, include sailing and maritime career courses for younger children and high-schoolers, adaptive sailing for people with disabilities and veteran and service member instruction. The center also offers adult learn-to-sail classes, women’s clinics, boat rentals and social sails.
“You’d be surprised how many people have lived here their whole life but never enjoyed Lake Pontchartrain,” said Khari Parrish, operations director for CSNO. “I’m excited to help people in New Orleans get out on the water and experience a different perspective of their city.”
In Washington, DC Sail operates from two marinas and runs youth and adult programs. At the Diamond Teague Park piers, Kids Set Sail summer day camps take 7-to-15-year-olds from safety training on the dock to rigging and hands-on instruction aboard the center’s forgiving 18-foot dinghies.
The organization also provides more than $20,000 each year in scholarships and participates in US Sailing’s donor-funded Siebel Sailors Program, a no-cost opportunity that has taught about 1,500 children across the country to begin and continue sailing.
“Our goal is to get as many kids as possible on the water, learning about safety and the importance of our waterways and the human impact on them,” Mead said.
Like other centers, DC Sail dives deep, helping students grow their skills and confidence. Its vibrant high school racing program has advanced young sailors to national competitions.
Adult offerings include refresher, learn-to-sail and racing classes. Participants come to the organization for a variety of reasons: Some sailed during childhood summer camps and want to take formal classes, and others have bucket-list sailing goals. Some Washingtonians take weekend lessons, but they sail in the Chesapeake Bay. Still others are planning charters in farther-flung locations, learning the basics so they can better relate to their captain.
Docked at the Gangplank Marina at the Wharf, the 65-foot American Spirit schooner is a fundraising resource and an opportunity for the public to partake in sails, private charters and events.
Gateway to the water
Community sailing centers can be both waypoints and final destinations on anyone’s maritime voyage. For example, some participants might attain their small-boat certification, then proceed to cruising courses somewhere else that allow them to travel and charter their own boat. And attaining your small-boat certification equips you with knowledge to seek out boat rentals at other facilities while you travel, enabling you to explore new waterways.
“You can jump in a kayak or rent a boat, so now when you travel, you might choose to go somewhere that you can get onto the water,” Guimaraes said. “It can inspire you to seek new destinations after having the life-changing experience of learning to sail.”
More than sailing
Thanks to the growth in community sailing centers, it’s possible to try sailing at a reasonable price — and join a community that meets everyone where they are, from landlubbers to old salts. Children can learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts that are foundational to sailing curriculums. And everyone can cultivate the teamwork skills, leadership, confidence and appreciation for maritime activities and the environment that can arise from sailing.
“They’re a wonderful way to access the water with a supportive group of people, whether you’re there for a day and want a private lesson, want to rent a boat or want your child to experience an exciting summer camp,” Guimaraes said.
Operating in San Diego for 51 years, Mission Bay Aquatic Center (MBAC) is one of the world’s largest instructional watersport facilities, with a fleet that includes more than 50 sailboats, 15 windsurfers, 90 kayaks, 100 surfboards, 70 paddleboards and more. In 2021, the center served more than 30,000 members of the public with a variety of lessons, programs and rentals.
Its sailing programs allow participants — most of whom have never previously sailed — to progress from dry land to advanced sailing. That said, most people don’t pursue certification as an end goal, opting instead to simply enjoy the water.
“What we do here is about much more than sailing,” said Paul Lang, instructional and maintenance manager for MBAC. “Sailing is a tool to getting people outdoors doing something active. We’re the first step in providing access to people who see sailboats from shore and think, ‘How could I ever do that?’ ”
Williams is a writer based in Oregon. Her website is erinewilliams.com.
If You Go
What to do
Small-boat programs are located at Diamond Teague Park piers, 99 Potomac Ave. SE. The American Spirit schooner is docked at the Wharf, 650 Wharf St. SW.
Sunset Sails on the American Spirit are $50 for nonmembers. A $225 annual membership allows members to purchase up to four Sunset Sail tickets at $25 each, as well as other benefits. Refresher sailing courses are $75 for members. An adult learn-to-sail course at the basic membership level is $515. Kids Set Sail summer camps are $350 per week, and the high school racing program is $550 per spring or fall season. Youth program scholarships are available. Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Community Sailing New Orleans
101 N. Roadway St., New Orleans
Many of CSNO’s youth, adaptive and veteran sailing programs are free to participants. A beginner adult keelboat course is $375, and a customized Women in the Wind clinic is $32 per person. Youth sailing camps are $325. CSNO operates seven days a week; hours depend on the season.
Mission Bay Aquatic Center
1001 Santa Clara Pl., San Diego
MBAC has a variety of classes, youth programs and rentals. An adult basic sailing course is $180, An adult basic sailing course is $180. Private lessons are $150 for two hours, $75 each additional hour. Sailboat rental for qualified sailors is $40 for 2½ hours. Youth basic sailing and multisport camps are $465. Financial aid is available. Open Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Community Boating Inc.
21 David G. Mugar Way, Boston
The country’s oldest public sailing organization, CBI offers programs for adults and children, and it also offers accessible programming. Adult and youth classes include introductory through advanced sailing, racing, windsurfing and paddling. There are also youth STEM classes, a two-week beginner sailing class and sliding-scale costs from $1 to $395. CBI’s Universal Access Program provides adaptive instruction and equipment, also on a sliding scale. One-day keelboat rentals for experienced sailors from $85. Two-hour kayak rentals from $34 per person. CBI operates daily; hours depend on season.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.