Melissa Walsh

The lake’s youngest skippers in their groove

Grosse Pointe News | July 5th, 2018 | Features section

Optiregatta

The lake’s youngest skippers in their groove By Melissa Walsh

Grosse Pointe Shores — Generations of area kids have made Lake St. Clair their classroom as they hone junior sailing skills.

Thursday, June 28, scores of young skippers practiced those skills in the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club Opti Red White Blue Invitational Stadium Regatta.

Before climbing aboard their Optimist single-handed sailing dinghy, known as an “Opti,” the more than 40 young sailors were clearly instructed over loudspeaker to help each other with rigging and launching before meeting for the “skippers’ meeting,” where they received their instructions for the windward/leeward course just offshore of the sailing center at the far corner of the GPYC marina.

Sailors of the red, white and blue fleets prepared to race, while the “greenies,” or learn-to-sail kids, boarded powerboats with instructors to observe the action at close range.

Waiting for his fleet’s race, Henry Chesterton, 11, of Grosse Pointe Park, said he’s enjoying his fourth summer of junior sailing.

“The first time it was really flat water, so I didn’t really want to go,” Chesterton said of his first season. “And my coach went with me. So ever since then, I really love sailing.”

Expecting to sail his entire life, Chesterton said he plans to move onto competing in the double-handed 420-class dinghies once he outgrows his Opti.

Kids move out of the Opti class once they’ve grown to more than 100 pounds or turn 15.

Kids as young as 7 begin learning to sail in the green fleet using the Optis before competing in the white fleet and progressing to the blue, then red fleets.

Conrad Squitieri, 11, of Grosse Pointe Park, said his parents, who sail, urged him to try the sport four years ago. He said he’s glad he did because he loves racing on the water.

“I just like the water a lot,” Squitieri said.

He said he likes to compete in various sports, including sailboat racing.

“We play a lot of sports,” added Chesterton, who plays baseball, soccer and lacrosse.

As of now, the two junior-sailing friends have not yet “versed” each other.

Grosse Pointe Yacht Club Sailing Director Wally Cross said the morning normally designated for Detroit Regional Yachting Association races was offered to the area junior sail clubs, including GPYC, Bayview Yacht Club, Crescent Sail Yacht Club, Detroit Yacht Club and North Star Sail Club, for the youngest skippers to compete in their Opti dinghies, as the more advanced junior sailors were racing 420-class dinghies in an Anchor Bay regatta the same day.

Cross assists GPYC’s Youth Sailing Director Emily Simon with this and other junior sailing events and programs.

“I make sure I get good coaches, because I’m not quite at their age level. It’s important to get good coaches that can relate to the kids,” Cross said.

Regarding the GPYC sailing center as host facility, which was constructed last summer, Cross commended Jim Morrow, president of the Grosse Pointe Youth Nautical Education Foundation, “This is the guy that made this all happen. This building (the sailing center) is like the field of dreams; if you build it, they will come.”

Morrow explained the sailing center is one project among many the foundation funded to support junior sailing, not just in Grosse Pointe, but throughout the area. Offering a comfortable learning space, which even includes sailing simulation for instruction during inclement weather, the center sits on the edge of GPYC harbor, attracting sailors young and old for its comfortable quarters and proximity to the lake.

Parents enjoy watching their children race close up, able to hear instructors’ coaching and committee instructions.

Morrow said five area high schools sail out of the center at GPYC and four regional high school regattas were hosted there.

“In our region, which is Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, it’s not unusual in these regattas to have kids coming in from Chicago, Cleveland,” Morrow said.

In July 2019, Morrow said, skippers of 350 to 400 Optimist dinghies will compete at GPYC in the Optimist Dinghy Association Nationals.

The foundation also supports the Challenge the Wind program, which brings junior sailing opportunities to kids in Detroit, donating instruction help and equipment, including nine Opti dinghies and two 420s. This season, the program expanded from Kean’s Marina to Belle Isle’s Detroit Boat Club.

Morrow said since the foundation’s founding in 2009, it has delivered 72 college scholarships to young sailors. Applicants must have participated in a junior sailing program to qualify. This year the foundation distributed $1,500 scholarships to 15 students.

Morrow said the foundation’s aim is to sponsor local kids as they move forward in sailing, several who have gone on to qualify as hopefuls in prestigious national and international competitions.

“Our hope is to give these kids every opportunity to succeed and excel,” Morrow said.

It begins with regattas like this one, with the greenie sailors watching and learning and the red, white and blue skippers at the helm growing their sailing instincts.