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Going With the Wind : Learning to Sail Gives Youngsters Feeling of Power, Freedom

June 11, 1996|GALI KRONENBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This skipper doesn't instill confidence.

"I've capsized plenty of boats," boasts 10-year-old Steven Miller, a mischievous grin on his face.

But as the skiff pulls away from the dock, a gentle breeze fills the sail and Steven deftly guides the sailboat toward the mouth of the Channel Islands Harbor.

Across the bow, half a dozen sailboats glide past. They, too, are piloted by young skippers enrolled in a two-week sailing class that turns Ventura County schoolchildren into seaworthy sailors.

The classes, however, are about more than sailing.

Listen to the 6- to 14-year-old youths tacking near the Pacific Corinthian Yacht Club, and one can hear the confident bravado of children no longer afraid to venture into uncharted waters.

Not that these youngsters will be sailing west to the Channel Islands or China any day soon. Just don't tell them that.

"I have dreams that I go on sailing adventures to caves where there are storms and crocodiles and all kinds of things," says Sara Beckton, 9, of Oxnard. "When I sail it makes me feel like I'm powerful or something."

Of course, Sara, and many of her classmates, had never set foot in a sailboat before last week. And those with sailing experience said they had only worked as crew--untying a line or hosing off the hull--never as captain.

Now, these kids already sound like old salts.

"Throw me the painter," yells 12-year-old Tom Ortez. The Oxnard youth translates for a baffled visitor: "The line."

Steven, the tow-headed captain who prefers capsizing vessels to sailing them, says his maritime skills weren't always as sharp as they are now.

"Every time I tacked I didn't know how to switch sides so I kept flipping the boat over," he says. "The trick is switching hands so that you hold the tiller with one [hand] and the main sheet with the. . . ."

"Jibing," Steven calls out, interrupting himself, as he pushes the tiller away from the sail, sending his boat back toward the pier.

Aside from instruction on knots, wind direction and boating safety, some of the youngsters are also learning about romance on the high seas.

"The other Sarah likes you," hollers Sara, the sailor with freckles and vivid imagination, as she passes Steven's boat.

*

He furrows his brow to show his annoyance. An older boy in another boat yells: "Sarah thinks you have the look."

Raised on fast-action video games like Nintendo, GameBoy and Mortal Kombat, several kids said sailing was never even on their list of things that mom and dad had to let them do this summer.

While riding a loud, fast speedboat struck Tom's brother Michael, an eighth-grader at Fremont Junior High in Oxnard, as "real cool," sailing seemed as if it would be "kind of boring."

With a lull in the wind, Michael dangles his hand in the water, letting his boat drift. After a moment, he makes what two weeks ago would have been an unlikely observation.

"Sailing is relaxing," he says. "I like it."

Sailing instructor Rick Flucke, the owner of a surf and ski shop in Agoura Hills, and two other adults who sail alongside the children in a motorboat and rubber dinghy, wave for the children to return to the pier for a boating safety lesson.

Flucke, who started sailing when he was 11, worried that only the kids whose parents sail would have a chance to discover the sport. He helped found the Pacific Corinthian Sailing Foundation, which offers low-cost sailing courses to Ventura County youth, ages 8 to 18.

Twelve kids in swim suits or wet suits stand in a line on the dock as Flucke announces the day's lesson: What to do if your boat capsizes.

Told they'll each have a chance to tip their boat and then right it, the kids let out a cheer.

He advises some of the lightweight sailors to use their weight and climb on top of the centerboard to right their boats.

*

The weekday morning classes, already full in July, continue through August. The fee is $30 and the Sailing Foundation provides the boats, which it purchases with money earned from selling donated boats.

Students need basic swimming skills and their own life jackets.

Michael weaves a figure 8 as he ties his boat to the pier. Sailing, he's decided, is now cooler than motorboats.

"It's not as noisy," says Michael. "It doesn't pollute the water, and you don't need an engine to help you. It's just you and the wind."

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