A Boatload of Knowledge

Rhode Island’s Sail Newport teaches the city’s fourth-graders more than just sailing
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Instructor Mary Finn teaches fourth-graders from Newport, Rhode Island, to sail on one of Sail Newport’s J/22s.

Instructor Mary Finn teaches fourth-graders from Newport, Rhode Island, to sail on one of Sail Newport’s J/22s.

It’s 9:45 a.m. when the kids pour out of the school bus at the Sail Newport Sailing Center. Half the fourth-graders head up to a classroom with teachers, while the other half grab life jackets and walk to the dock with sailing instructors. There’s a nice breeze and the Sail Newport J/22s have their mainsails already reefed. The jibs remain furled too, but when the nimble 22-foot keelboats get off the dock, they move at a good clip.

This is only the third of 16 weekly sailing lessons for the 160 students, many of whom come from families that lack access to boats. The program gives all the kids a chance to steer, and each boat has a student at the helm.

Sail Newport Program Director Kim Hapgood checks sail trim, provides feedback and points out landmarks while keeping an eye out. Only when she sees trouble ahead does she subtly adjust the tiller. The rest of the time she sits back with her arms crossed. Her body language is clear: Here, the kids do the sailing. “This is not about racing,” Hapgood says. “It’s about learning life skills.”

Back in the sailing center’s second-floor classroom, teachers run the kids through a specially-designed curriculum. Fall topics include mapping, weather, erosion and landforms. In the spring, the kids will learn about ocean sustainability, habitats, the food chain, organisms, the environment and salinity.

Sail Newport created the program three years ago in conjunction with Newport public schools. The partnership was put together by Donna Kelly, a Newport schoolteacher who also worked at Sail Newport. The sailing center finances the classes through grants, donations and fundraisers. The nonprofit organization pays for the boats, life jackets, foul-weather gear, teaching materials, snacks and busing. The Newport school system provides the kids, the teachers and the time. All of the city’s fourth-graders attend the program.

“At first, some kids don’t want to go,” says Sail Newport’s marketing director, Kim Cooper, “but then they watch their friends do it and the other kids come back and say, ‘Hey, you made a big mistake.’”

The instructors don’t just teach sailing skills. They focus on teamwork, communications, spatial awareness and decision-making. “By the end of spring, the kids have sufficient skills so they can manage the boats themselves,” Cooper says. “It’s a massive confidence builder.”

The program has received positive responses from parents and teachers. “One teacher thought the kids would be tired afterwards,” Cooper says, “but then she saw the kids were more focused, cheerful and productive.”

Brad Read, Sail Newport’s executive director, says it’s empowering for kids to understand more about the place where they live. “In Rhode Island, it’s the water,” he says. “We live on an island. Our kids need to learn how to sail. It gives the students a different perspective.” 

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.