Wind at Their Backs
The Southport Junior Yacht Club has inspired generations of sailors to love the sport
The young sailors wave their hands in the air, following the Southport Junior Yacht Club’s (SJYC) well-established signal for quiet. Ranging in age from 8 to 12, about 50 kids sit on benches in a rough circle, some holding life jackets in their laps, all wearing smiles. The junior and senior instructors stand behind them, while a few parents of newcomers to the program watch from the edges of the room. The building’s garage doors are open, and Cozy Harbor is sporting her full summer regalia. Sail and power boats bob lazily at their moorings under a cloudless blue sky, and there’s just enough breeze to flutter a flag—ideal conditions for the beginner sailors.
Program director Will Jacobs takes attendance, inserting lighthearted comments as he goes through the list of names. “Good to see you…Nice haircut…Hello Charlie, how’s the old leg?” When he gets to first-timer Abraham Leonard, he calls out, “Abraham’s going to take the swim test today; who’s going to take care of Abraham?” Hands shoot up to volunteer, and a boy is chosen who will support the newcomer through this crucial first step of the program. Jacobs goes over the sailing safety rules—life jackets and shoes (no flip flops) are a must—and the group troops down onto the dock to cheer on the swimmers—three today including Abraham. Shouts of encouragement go up as each swims out to a designated mark and back, while doing their best to splash the two instructors rowing a dinghy alongside. After drying off and warming up with hot chocolate, the swimmers join the rest of the class. “Let’s go sailing,” Jacobs says.
On summer mornings for 50 years, the same scene has been replayed against largely the same backdrop. With a few alterations, the two simple buildings and the docks and floats that make up the Southport Yacht Club look just as they did when my two brothers and I were learning to sail here. Kids still careen down Cozy Harbor Road on their bikes and fold their sails on the lawn after class. Handmade posters advertise bingo nights, ice cream socials, and the annual Commodore’s Clambake. The view from the dock to the tall channel marker capped with an osprey’s nest and beyond to the Sheepscot River is as familiar to me as my own face.
The Southport Yacht Club was launched in 1923 in a former general store, bowling alley, and snack bar that now houses the seasonal restaurant Cozy’s Dockside. In the late 1930s the club moved across the driveway to the Cozy Harbor House, a gray-shingled Cape that had been a summer hotel. The Junior Sailing Program was formalized in the 1960s under the late Norma Smith. A single-story building for the Junior Yacht Club was installed on the edge of the harbor in 1968. Despite the name, the yacht club is not a swanky place, with no tennis court, no restaurant, no jackets with insignias; the dues are modest. Membership is not required for participation in the sailing program. “When people ask me what I do in the summer, I have a very hard time saying I run a yacht club,” says Jacobs. “I say I run a sailing program.”
Admired by all and honored with an annual sailboat race that bears her name, Smith spent 35 years instilling the love of sailing in countless children, including Jacobs. The program continues on much of the framework she established; the morning class is for beginner sailors, who learn how to rig and handle the boats, the care of sails and other equipment, knots, etiquette, and safety. The intermediate group meets in the afternoon and focuses largely on interclub racing, and advanced sailors, an older teenage cohort that also sails in the afternoon, represent the SJYC in competition against other yacht clubs.
“It was so important to me when I was a youngster,” says Jacobs, a fifth-grade teacher in Tarrytown, New York, who has helmed the program since 2007. “It was something I wanted to pass on to my children, and I realized how important it was to other people, so I wanted to keep it going.” He credits his predecessor, fellow teacher Peter Hawley, for introducing a bit more structure, including the colorful star charts that beginners use to track their skills, and a fleet of 420s, two-person dinghies that are universally raced at the college level, for the advanced sailors. The SJYC is the only sailing program in Maine that still has a fleet of Turnabouts, 10-foot-long, cat-rigged boats that were once ubiquitous at yacht clubs in the Northeast. The tubby yet fun-to-sail Turnabout has largely been replaced by the Optimist, a lightweight single-handed dinghy that is sailed and raced by youngsters around the world, including at SJYC. “I love Turnabouts, and I would never get rid of them,” says Jacobs.
The advantage of the Turnabout is that it can hold three kids, four if they are small. At SJYC, this means a junior instructor—who volunteers with the morning class and sails in the afternoon—can be in a boat with a couple of beginners. Some of the 25 Turnabouts in the yacht club’s fleet, with names like Huzzah, Bandito, Windjoy, and Hi-Ho, have spent summers in Cozy Harbor for decades, passed down between generations or transferred to a new family. My parents sold ours, painted pale yellow and named Sea Nymph by some unknown former sailor, when my brothers and I were in college. Years later, just as my son and niece were starting the program, their grandparents found our old boat and bought it back.
As the instructors ferry the kids and their gear by Boston Whaler out to the field of Turnabouts, senior instructor Shannon Killian notes that it’s high tide, and the wind is just right to allow the class to sail out of the harbor through “the gut,” a rare treat. A narrow passage leading to the Sheepscot at the back of the harbor, the gut is impassible at all but high tide. Today the light breeze coming from the south allows the fleet to glide through with the wind at their backs. Once they are out in the river, the wind picks up slightly and instructors tail the fleet in motorboats offering instructions and encouragement. “Avery, bear off first, get your speed up, and then tack,” Killian calls to a boat that has slowed down by sailing too close to the wind. “It’s nice and puffy out here,” Abraham says as he sails by. “Kids who might be a little tentative may come for a week or two at this level, then when they get the fever they’ll stay for the whole summer,” says Killian. Like every SJYC instructor, she came up through the program, beginning at age eight, and went on to race at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, where she was named to the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association’s 2015–16 All-Academic Sailing Team. She has been coming back to teach in Southport for ten years. “The instructors here bring a great energy,” says Jacobs, “and if a new kid is feeling a little shy, I’ll call over Shannon or her sister, Jen, and the next thing you know they’re playing and laughing.”
For the past hour or so, the Turnabout sailors have tacked back and forth between the shoreline and the center of the river, learning how to turn efficiently and to trim their sails. Killian blows a whistle to call them back toward the harbor, and suddenly a small armada is breezing toward us on a reach; the wind has risen enough to create wake against the bows as the little boats sail past. I remember the feeling of being in my own Turnabout in a good wind, one hand on the tiller and the other holding the mainsheet, feeling the salt air and the sunshine on my face as I made for the harbor, and I see the same sense of contentment in this group of morning-class sailors, many of whose family names I know well, having grown up spending summers on the water with their parents and grandparents.
Some of these kids may go on to race sailboats competitively, while others, like me, will never catch the racing fever but will jump at every chance to go sailing. And, whether they have sailed here for a season or for years, they will come back to this place where, summer after summer, the docks go in, the star charts go up, the fleet of Turnabouts returns to its moorings, and the breeze reliably picks up in the afternoon—same as it ever was.