Kids Cruise the High Seas

    As the Woodwind drifted from the sunlit waters of the Annapolis marina, seven young sailors prepared to sail the 74-foot schooner into the Chesapeake Bay and back.

     The crew — a mix of preteen boys and girls garbed in bright-green T-shirts — hailed from Brendan Sailing, a local school teaching life skills to children with learning differences. Many of the children have autism, ADHD and dyslexia.

     When hoisting sails, they learn time management, self-confidence, responsibility, a hands-on approach to tackling problems and many other crucial life skills they may struggle with.

     “Sailing is an awesome sport,” said Charlie Arms, the executive director of Brendan Sailing. “The ability to go out and sail your own boat and navigate around the Bay by yourself is a huge self confidence builder. There’s a lot of science, engineering and math to learn, but it’s hands-on learning, and they can see it in action.”

     The $700, two-week summer classes are offered at either the Annapolis Sailing School or in St. Mary’s County. By the end of the two weeks, the newfound sailors can boat their parents out on dinghies or two-person sailboats all by themselves.

     With the first-ever schooner cruise on the Woodwind, the parents see their kids in action on a big sailboat.

     Wind ruffled the sails and other sailboats floated by as the Woodwind broke into the main channel of the Bay with the sun beating down on the water. But the kids remained focused. They hoisted the sails and took turns steering with the guidance of Captain Jen Kaye.

     The volunteer crew from Schooner Woodwind Sailing Cruises quizzed the young sailors: “What do you call the end of the boat?”

     “The stern!” they shouted back.

     Parents, seated toward the bow of the boat, smiled. Lisa Callahan said she enrolled her 14-year-old son Thomas, who struggles with autism, for a second year because last summer he learned to work with others and behave responsibly. The instructors were encouraging, she said.

     “The repetitive, everyday approach of learning skills, they just feel comfortable with,” she said. “The positive reinforcement from instructors — it’s not a lot of no, it’s let’s try this — feels more inclusive, too.”

     Jim Muldoon founded Brendan Sailing in 1985, when sailing schools were sparse. Muldoon said he was inspired when his dyslexic son proved the water was a much different learning ground than the land.

     “I was going out on my boat, and these girls were asking this 12-year-old son of mine what to do, and he was telling them and they were doing it,” he said. “I said, Wait a minute, he’s not like this on land because he’s severely dyslexic. So I did some research, and I found out it’s a huge self-confidence builder.”

     Muldoon said he wanted to help other children with similar learning deficiencies. He founded the company soon after, and Brendan Sailing now trains more than 35 children a summer to become sailors and better-equipped students.

      Charlie Arms, the executive director, said the company is all about the children’s personal growth.

     One parent told Arms that before Brendan, her son would refuse to get up on time and prepare for school. After Brendan, he would scramble around the house in excitement to get ready for the day.

     Parent Susie Lutz nearly bursts with pride.

     Her 13-year-old son Ben has both autism and ADHD. Lutz said he’s become a much different person after the two-week program.

      Lutz saw the fruits of her labor when Ben took her out on the sailboat all by himself.

     “Brendan Sailing’s approach to kids with learning disabilities is tangible to them; they get it,” she said. “My son took me upwind, he tacked the boat and he jibed the boat. And he got me back to where we started. It was a real eye-opener for me.”