In 1995, social worker JoAnn Tschaen visited seven kids in a sweltering tenement in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The former whaling town had already fallen on hard times. Manufacturing job losses had brought poverty and, in its wake, severe crime.
Seeing the kids’ plight in the tenement upset Tschaen, but as she crossed the bridge to her home in Fair Haven, Massachusetts, she spotted sailboats in the harbor and that got her thinking. New Bedford had an enormous commercial fishing fleet, but most kids had no way of getting on the water. Three years later, she officially founded the Community Boating Center (CBC).
One town over, in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Andy Herlihy had been sailing for as long as he could remember. There were plenty of sailboats and access to the water was easy. He loved sailing, so in 2000, he joined CBC as assistant director.
For the next couple of years, he taught kids how to sail while he lived in the donated split-level home that still serves as the center’s New Bedford headquarters. Herlihy liked the work, but after a couple of years, he left. He worked various jobs, got married and had a couple of kids.
But CBC was always on his mind. In 2012 he returned as executive director and now, at 44 years of age, he oversees an organization that teaches more than 2,000 kids a year, and every summer puts 600 of them on the water from two waterfront locations.
CBC is much more than a summer youth sailing program. The organization provides powerboating classes for kids and adults, teaches boatbuilding skills, environmental awareness and computer coding skills with radio-controlled boats. They also run educational programs in the local schools for all fourth and fifth graders.
The boatbuilding program uses fractions and geometry to show kids the practical applications of mathematics. “Kids see that and say, ‘That’s why I need fractions,’” Herlihy says. “We add value to the school programs. We use a lot of STEM to engage the kids around the marine environment.”
CBC has 12 senior staff, but the junior instructor program is its engine. Every summer, 45 junior instructors, most of whom worked their way up through the CBC program, supervise the kids on the water. The fleet has expanded to 100 boats, including Bahias, 420s, Picos, Sonars, rowboats and motorboats.
“There’s one instructor for every four to five kids,” Herlihy says. “We got rid of all the Optis. We want kids with each other and possibly with an instructor.”
Kids learn about the CBC program by word of mouth, often from social workers or police officers who identify children who need a summer activity. “They’re our sales force,” Herlihy says. New Bedford kids get bussed to the program’s waterfront location, where they receive free breakfast and lunch. “For some kids, it might be the only healthy meals they get,” he says.
Kids can grow inside the program, going from an attendee to an apprentice instructor to a junior instructor and, eventually, an adult instructor. “We have 8- and 9-year-olds who talk about how many years until they get to be junior instructors,” says Andy Chin, who has been CBC’s director of training for the past three years.
Herlihy says the goal is to get kids on the water and have them find their own way. “We have kids who just like to sit on the bow and drag their feet through the water, and that’s fine by us,” he says. “We get kids out of their comfort zones and build their self-confidence. We want to help them find their future pathways.”
The kids learn what they want to do, and what they don’t. “We have kids who do boatbuilding,” Herlihy says, “who then say, ‘I never want to pick up a hammer again,’ and that’s just as valuable as knowing what they want to do.”
In its 21st season, CBC has put 15,000 kids on the water. Safety, fun and education are cornerstones. “We try to reach kids right here so they can enjoy it just like everybody else,” Herlihy says. “We have kids from suburban schools and from right down the street. It doesn’t matter what their socioeconomic background is. They’re all kids on a boat.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.