Leaving Dependence on the Dock

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Leaving Dependence on the Dock

I looked on as Clare conducted an interview with the staff; the boat full of sailing students, I photographed next to the dock moments earlier, was pushing further out onto the lake. Next to me, Sarah looked equally fidgety and noticed that I was looking out at the lake.

“So, want to take the motorboat out and catch up with them?” She asked. I believe my response was, “Um... Get the life jackets!” I can’t remember if we even put them on as we jogged to the boat. A few minutes later, Burlington was growing smaller behind me. I stood with a foot balanced on the bow of the motorboat trying to steady my lens as we violently rocked up and down. A stupid grin stretched across my face. As we came up on the sail boats, I could see most of the kids were as excited as I was, or perhaps it was better to say that I was as excited as they were, since I felt like a kid on the first day of summer break. This had to be the best classroom ever.

“Burlington is special because our community is tied together in such a unique way and we have taken ownership of this lake and made it an integral part of our lives,” said Mark Naud, Executive Director at the Community Sailing Center. Twenty years ago, the sailing center was established with the simple goal of providing the people of Burlington access to Lake Champlain. For decades, the lake had been a dumping ground for toxic industrial waste, but in the 1960s, the city decided to take it back as a natural resource and recreation area.

The CSC provides an award-winning secondary floating classroom for local schools. Students learn about lake ecology, watersheds, lake stewardship and the physics of sailing while sitting on a 23-foot keelboat. All lessons are hands-on and project based, ensuring that students will gain full understanding of the subject matter.
CSC’s adaptive sailing program was established in partnership with Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports in 1997 and was designed to help people with diverse abilities realize their goals and develop self-confidence, leadership and teamwork skills.

Eventually, the industrial plants were moved, waste was cleared out and the water became safe to enjoy. Wealthy citizens bought yachts and sailboats and took full advantage of Lake Champlain’s revitalization. However, the vast majority of Burlington’s citizens didn’t have the means to get out past the shore and enjoy the water. At least not until Marcel Beaudin came up with the idea to open a public sailing center. Beaudin wanted everyone, no matter their background or ability level, to enjoy Lake Champlain. Since those first few years, it has been the Community Sailing Center’s mission to provide easy access to the lake. The center has also made a point to work toward breaking down physical, cognitive, economic and gender-based barriers that have kept people from the lake. Targeted programs have been created to challenge and inspire citizens to take ownership of their lives.

“One of our favorite sayings is ‘Leave Dependence on the Dock’” said CSC Development and Marketing Manager Sarah Smith as she showed us around the center’s shipyard. Dozens of small sailboats were standing on the dirt lot, waiting to be taken out on the water. Sarah lead us to a small boat in the middle of the field that looked a little different from the others. It had a single seat bolted to the floor in the middle of the deck and every rope needed to manage the sails had been rearranged to hang directly in front of the seat. This Sonar sailboat was one of two of the center’s boats that had been reconfigured to accommodate sailors that no longer had the use of their legs or were unable to move easily around the deck. “These boats are really quite amazing,” Sarah said. “Anyone who thought they would never be able to sail a boat because of physical or cognitive disabilities can sit in here and take complete control of the boat and learn how to sail it.”

A view of the old Community Sailing Center from the shore. The original building is no longer in use and is waiting to be demolished in preparation for a brand new facility.

Adapted boats weren’t the only projects the center had crafted to inspire community members to enjoy the lake. Programs such as Women in Wind, WAVES (Water. Access. Vitality. Education. Stewardship.), Leader Ship and Floating Classrooms have introduced thousands of citizens and travelers to Lake Champlain. In 2013 alone, the CSC saw 1,856 participants, and that number has continued to grow. Sailboats, kayaks, canoes and paddle boards can be rented inexpensively. Sailing lessons for all skill levels are offered on a regular basis through the summer. Young adults are encouraged to become Jr. Sailing Instructors or volunteer their time in exchange for free hours on the water. Scholarships are also available for those who can’t afford a promising program.

Some visitors come to Lake Champlain just for CSC events such as sailboat races, regattas, and Stand Up for the Lake, a stand-up paddleboard event that is Vermont’s only WPA-sanctioned paddle boarding competition. The center even has a yoga class that takes place on top of Stand Up Paddle boards. “SUP activities are really growing,” Sarah said. “People love it and it is a great example of taking ownership. Most people look at it and think there’s no way they can do it, but they get out there and learn how simple it is and how exciting it is. They take ownership of that activity and soon they are doing incredible things on the paddle boards.”

Meanwhile, the Burlington Middle School has started working with the CSC to educate children about STEAM (Science. Technology. Engineering. Art/Design. Mathematics). Students collect data, design and carry out scientific experiments, learn about conservation strategies and more. This new program corresponds with the CSC’s WAVES program, an endeavor that educates children and adults about lake ecology and the impact that trash has on the environment. WAVE participants help collect trash around the lake, monitor the water quality and blue-green algae levels, and help educate citizens about reducing the use of plastic water bottles. According to Jennifer Gulmaraes, Associate Director of the CSC, 20,000 cigarette butts were picked up by students as well as water bottles, cans and other plastics. Every scrap of waste was cataloged and sent to a corresponding partner organization that was equipped to act on the results found from the data.

In the summer, the focus shifts from academic work to fun in the sun. Parents can sign their kids up for week-long camps that offer sailing instruction, cooking classes, tennis lessons, scuba lessons, swimming instruction, adventure excursions and more. The Women in Wind program also picks up speed as the days warm up and women and girls take command of their own sailing vessels. Lead by professional female sailors in a stress-free environment, participants learn how to take control of the sails and develop the courage to tackle personal challenges they might be facing. Throughout the summer, everyone is invited to potlucks, fundraisers and other celebratory events. Weekly challenges and excursions are also held every week for sailors, kayakers and paddleboarders who can’t get enough of Lake Champlain.

A floating classroom gearing up for a day on the lake.

Even though the Community Sailing Center has its hands full with programs and visitors, it isn’t anywhere close to slowing down. Plans are in the works for a 10,000 square foot facility designed specifically to manage Burlington’s aquatic recreation needs and education. It will house year-round classroom space, public boat storage, offices and maintenance space. There will also be new boats, docks and other essential equipment added to the CSC collection.

“We bring people together,” said Jennifer Gulmaraes. “Whether it’s seasoned female sailors mentoring young women or children and parents in the community or teachers and students or grandparents and kindergarteners, this center is a great place for people to connect and learn and play.” Jennifer has seen numerous kids grow up at the CSC and has been amazed at the transformations she has seen. “The stories that come out of here and the kids that have been here since the beginning are like, ‘This changed my life! I can’t believe I’m in the Coast Guard now. If it weren’t for you, I don’t think I would have pursued this. I feel stronger and more capable after being here...” and you’re like wow, all out of this garage, all from the sport of sailing.”