Harry McDonough Sailing Center’s Free Program Unlocks Ocean’s Magic for Local Youth

By Ginger DeShaney

It may just be the most unique summer experience for youths in South Boston. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

The nonprofit Harry McDonough Sailing Center, in existence since 1972, spreads the love of sailing and the ocean by teaching youngsters how to sail. For free.

The center’s mission is to provide inner-city youth with a fun, safe, and accessible environment while promoting positive life skills and values through sailing.

There are sailing lessons in the morning and open sailing in the afternoon. There’s also swimming (in a designated area), paddleboarding, kayaking, friendship, and so much more.

“It’s an amazing activity to do in the summer,” said Wil Hingston, assistant director. “It just kind of allows you to experience the ocean in a new way.”

The Sailing Center, located on Castle Island, is open to kids ages 8-15. The summer program runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday through Aug. 31. Parents can sign up their kids at any point during the summer, said Wil, a senior at Merrimack College majoring in health science with an eye toward a nursing degree.

Wil and director Michaela Bavis grew up in the program. And so did all the staff. 

“I started off as a sailor at the age of 9,” Wil said. “I’m 21 and I’m still here. It just has a hold on you.” 

This is Michaela’s first year as director. “But I was here when I was younger,” she said. “And I live in Southie, born and raised, so I know a good majority of all the kids.”

In addition to sailing, kids learn responsibility, teamwork, organization, and how to help others, Wil said. 

“It gives them all accountability and teaches them life lessons,” Michaela said, noting they also gain confidence and experience camaraderie. “The kids are really good.”

The kids agree that learning to sail is really fun. And parents love the program’s flexibility. They can drop off their kids at any time and pick them up at any time between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., said Michaela, 33, who works with special needs kids at the Tynan during the school year.

Michaela said it’s so important for kids to have a place to go, and the fact that this program is free is an amazing bonus. “You want your kids to have a great experience,” she said. “It’s a good foundation for a community. It’s nice to be able to have a place to feel confident and have a good summer. And parents don’t have to worry.”

The program has about 500 signups but no more than 80 kids usually show up on any given day, Wil said. There are 23 staff members, all lifeguard-certified, and they teach the kids how to sail and keep an eagle eye on the water.

Lessons include how to tie nautical knots, how to rig the boat, the actual sailing, and how to de-rig, roll up the sails, and clean up properly.

Once the kids are comfortable in the boat, the young sailors can take a test to get a license to sail solo in the program. “It just gives them a little bit of freedom and a little bit of confidence,” said Wil, whose duties include social media for the center. It also allows them to take more of a leadership role in the program and help others learn how to sail. 

“Compared to all the other summer camps that are in the Boston area, I feel like it’s the most unique and has a lot more to offer.” 

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