by Airwaves writer Olivia Hennon
Growing up in Cleveland, Paula Hennon has raced sailboats from a young age throughout Ohio, New York, Florida, and North Carolina. She has raced many varieties of sailboats, most notably
Jet-14’s, as well as Thistles, Interlakes, Snipes, and some big boats. She is a Jet-14 Class past-President, sits on the board of The Asheville Sailing Club, and has extended her leadership skills and sailing knowledge into a newly developing youth program – Asheville Youth Sailing, in Asheville, North Carolina. Paula is the director of the Asheville Youth Sailing program and the founder of the Asheville Sailing Foundation. We conversed about the makings of the youth program, the challenges, and hopes for the future.
Where does Asheville Youth Sailing take place?
The program takes place at Asheville Sailing Club. It’s a small lake made by a reservoir in the middle of the mountains in Western North Carolina. Asheville itself is surrounded on 3 sides by mountains so the sailing isn’t really that great– the wind often gets confused and swirly! I kind of feel like if you can sail here, you can sail anywhere. The sailing club demographic is made up of mainly older members. Many of them have found a One-Design class to race in– we have mainly Jet 14’s, Flying Scots, a couple Thistles, Lasers, and junior program boats that are active on the water.
What made you decide to start a youth program?
I actually took it over for someone else who was having a difficult time getting it going because of health-related issues. I sort of jumped right into the fire– our first season was well-intentioned, but ill-planned. Our next season was much better!
What does the youth program consist of?
This year with COVID-19 it was not really the best program. This year we chose to not teach brand new sailors, so kids who sailed with us this year had already sailed with us in the past. In prior years in pre-COVID land and hopefully in post-COVID land, we have a Learn-to-Sail Program which starts with what I call “Peanut Butter and Jelly Sailing.” These 90-minute lessons are for tiny kids usually ages 5,6, and 7 that we tow around in Sail Cubes with counselor instruction where we let them use the tiller, figure out the mechanics of the boat, and get a feel for how to maneuver. We even have life jackets for their stuffed animals! We do crafts and fun activities with them off the water. So we start with the little kids, and then we have a general Learn-to-Sail Program. We get the kids in the prams, they learn to sail them around, we do scavenger hunts and other things so essentially we just have a fun summer since there isn’t a ton of racing nearby anyways! During the other months, since we sail year-round, we have more racing-intensive programs. We have a Junior Racing Team that mostly crews in Jet-14’s and travels to regattas, and we have some high school sailing we have been trying to get off the ground. Sometimes it’s difficult because we are in the mountains and many people don’t view sailing as a sport.
What were the biggest challenges with the youth program?
The biggest challenge was maneuvering some strong opinions that many of the adult members had about introducing a youth program. There were some questions about liability and such but in the end, everyone agreed that the youth are the future of sailing. We ended up getting a community grant from our county’s sport and recreation department which helped us get our first boats. We tried to start a program that was open to anyone so there was no need for any experience, money, or anything. It was sort of like a community sailing program. The biggest obstacle though was transportation. Our lake is a little bit far from town and the group that we originally targeted didn’t have reliable transportation to get to practices. Also, the competing sports like soccer, track, and lacrosse make it hard to have consistent practice times.
What is your favorite part about the youth program?
My favorite part is watching the kids gain confidence. Going from capsize games and climbing around the boats to actually sailing on the race course is really inspiring and is really fun to watch!
What do you hope for the program in 2021?
I hope that we can get a little bit back to normal and maybe get some more kids that want to sail competitively. There is a really great racing program around the area and it would be cool to get to more of those regattas. The high school sailing around here is also really fun even though we have to travel further than many on the coast do, but it is a really great experience and opportunity. It’s especially good for those who aren’t really into giant team sports! I hope that we can do some fundraising since we have a foundation in place now, and I hope we can get some more boats for the program!