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Sailors from the Community Boating Center on the water PHOTO BY JAMES JONES

A Sailor’s Life for Me
Learn to man a boat in just nine hours at the Community Boating Center

There is boating, and there is sailing. Ive been on plenty of motorboats in my life, but never a sailboat – I didn’t understand the appeal. When cruising past sailboats on a motorboat, I generally had one of two reactions. The first was, “Wow, those people are patient!” When Mother Nature is your engine, you move at her pace, not yours. Clearly these sailors did not have dinner reservations. The second was, “Wow, those people are working!” Crews on big boats rushing around, pulling ropes, hoisting sails – none of this jibed with my idea of boating as a leisure activity.

Perhaps my disdain for sailing was a remnant of high school. My sailor friends sat on the water for an afternoon to receive their “sports” credit, while I suffered late spring heat waves on a lacrosse field sweating under a helmet and pads. But with my social circle peppered by avid sailors and the hoopla of America’s Cup races in Newport this year, part of me was curious to know what all the fuss was about. So when asked to write about Providence’s Community Boating Center (CBC) this month, my immediate reaction was, “I need to get on a sailboat.”

On a hot Saturday morning, I headed to CBC for a lesson. The property is easy to find – located in India Point Park, and in Rhode Island parlance, next to the old Shooters. I was met by Will Lippitt, the organization’s sailing program coordinator. Will came to Rhode Island with a boat building degree from Seattle, and he finished his undergrad studies at Brown. A “water kid” who has sailed all his life, Will started “teaching the eight-year-olds when I was 10, the 10-year-olds when I was 12, and worked my way up from there.” Clearly, I was in good hands for my maiden voyage.

We started with a tour of the facility and some background. The center opened in June of 1994, in minimalist form – just a small fleet of boats, a few docks and a storage shed. The project came together with donated materials and volunteer labor, a collaborative effort that remains critical to the center’s operations and success today. The existing boathouse was completed in 2002, and it contains office space, bathrooms, a classroom and a deck that can be rented for private events.

The ever-growing fleet includes over 60 boats, most of which are the “bread and butter” Hunter 140’s – 14-foot sailboats that are used during open sailing and instructional classes. These can be sailed by an individual or a small crew. Lippitt explains, “One person is possible, two is fun, three is comfortable, and four is okay.” There are a few larger 170s and 216s (measuring 17-feet and 21.5 feet, respectively), a catamaran, and 20 kayaks. Lippitt highlights the kayaks as a new initiative “to reach more people” – CBC recognizes that it’s in a position to make not just sailing accessible, but the entire waterfront as well.

CBC is a non-profit 501(c)3 charitable organization, which Lippitt describes as “the basis of what we do… keeping it affordable for anyone to come.” As with many small non-profits, a lean, jack-of-all-trades staff heads a team of dedicated volunteers. Lippitt, for one, has spent three years as sailing program coordinator but his daily duties run the gamut. He could be teaching kids’ classes, teaching adult classes, or putting his boat building degree to work by repairing boats. When asked if the center supplements its revenue by selling repair services, Lippitt responds, “The work here is enough to handle. We accept donations and they’re not always in the best condition. And as with any boat – there’s always another thing [to be fixed].” The main task, however, is coordinating the volunteer effort Lippitt stresses as “crucial.” He explains, “[Volunteerism] makes it work, and makes everyone’s job easier. You’ll see kids in youth camp that come back later to teach classes. It’s an effective method to teach and reach people. It’s a culture, and it works well.”

CBC’s mission is to “make sailing affordable and accessible in Rhode Island,” and for a relatively nominal fee of $195, individual adult members have unlimited season access to most of the fleet (there are modified membership fees for kids, families, groups and businesses, plus discounts for Providence residents, students and seniors). The season runs from Memorial Day to October, and open sailing and kayaking occurs every day from 1-7pm. During this time, members can take sailboats and kayaks out on their own at no additional cost. The only requirement to participate is that you must initially demonstrate some basic water knowledge and training through a written test and an on-water practical.

For those without any experience, CBC offers a variety of classes. There are classes for kids and adults, and they can be taken as a weekly series or a one-day Saturday intensive class from 9am-6pm. I was skeptical of being water-ready after a few hours of training, but Lippitt set me straight, “You definitely can come out of the classes ready to sail – we make you do everything. I’m pretty impressed with people’s skills by the end, and I think it comes from the excitement and readiness in people that are here because they really want to learn. We like catering to that.”

Lippitt continues, “We teach you what you need to be safe and hang out in the bay on a boat. Of course there are many finer points to sailing that we may not cover, but it’s a question of how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go? On the first day you’ll master steering and the hard part will be remembering all the terms and how to talk like a pirate. Ultimately, you’ll get the best training by being out there on your own.”

It was time for my lesson, and we began in the classroom with a textbook. The first topic was a quick overview of the parts of a boat, essential knowledge when being directed to maneuver the ‘halyard’ or ‘jib’ (the pirate talk begins immediately). Next was wind detection, and Lippitt explained, “Throwing grass in the air works on a golf course, but not on the water. You need to feel it on your face, neck and hands, or turn yourself until you’re pointed directly at it. Visual cues like water ripples and discolorations can also help.

Understanding the wind is what sailing is all about, and we concluded the classroom part of the lesson with wind awareness. I was surprised to discover that if you want to travel in a certain direction, you can do so no matter which way the wind is blowing. You may have to follow a zigzag path, but you’ll get there; it’s all based on how you position the sails vis-à-vis the wind. Also, somewhat counter-intuitive at first glance, you actually sail fastest when perpendicular to the wind instead of directly downwind. The reason is that the sail position on a perpendicular path puts the boat in its most efficient aerodynamic shape. As we left the classroom, Lippitt pointed out that the lessons learned applied to any size boat, but I was about to find out that understanding theory does not translate to proficient practice.

We decided to sail one of the larger boats, and as we motored to the mooring I took in the surroundings. The center ‘s location can be identified in several ways. It’s considered upper Narragansett Bay, as well as the lower junction of the Providence and Seekonk Rivers; perhaps most appropriately, it’s also called Fox Point Reach. CBC’s designated sailing area stretches from their dock south to Fuller Rock, in East Providence. This area has been purposefully delineated for safety, since more southern points are prone to stronger winds and cannot be seen from the boathouse.

My immediate observation was that there were large ships in the vicinity, and steady traffic. I ask about the danger level, specifically capsizing. Lippitt laughs, “It happens. You go in, we get you out. It’s not a big deal.” He mentions that the biggest issue with capsizing is Good Samaritan bystanders who call in capsized boats to the police, forcing them to respond while knowing it’s probably another first-day student who will be back to cruising by the time they arrive. (Don’t let this stop you from calling it in if you ever see a capsized boat… you never know.)

We reached the sailboat and did some quick prep work – lowering the rudder and keel, untying lines and raising the main sail. We reviewed parts of the boat, and Lippitt went over Sailing Rule #1: “Don’t hit stuff.” My proposed revision to Rule #1 is: “Stay low.” Just trying to adjust my life jacket with the boat still attached to the mooring, I had to constantly bob and weave around the free moving boom (the horizontal pole at the bottom of the mainsail) to avoid getting knocked in the head. I can guess why they call it the “boom.”

We set sail and my first assignment was to steer the boat – a task that takes all of three minutes to get the hang of. With a shining sun and a cool breeze blowing, we glided across the water at an easy pace. Totally relaxed and soaking in the weather, I was starting to understand sailing’s appeal. However, this was not a leisure trip – I was here to learn – and the next lesson is where the real work began.

Lippitt took over the steering and gave me the lines that controlled the sails – it was now my job to read the wind and adjust the sails to move us in a pre-determined direction. I quickly figured out how to work with the lines and the impact they had on the sails. I sat there thinking, this will be a breeze (gratuitous pun intended).

A wise martial artist once said that being 100% in tune with yourself is only 50% of the battle, because you have to also be in tune with your opponent. While manning the sails, these words had never rung so true. Reading the wind is not as easy as it sounds, and by the time you’ve figured it out, it may have already changed. The wind comes and goes, and a leisurely cruise can quickly become a sprint with the side of the boat you’re sitting on lifted out of the water. Adjustments are constant and you’re always on alert.

I exaggerate slightly. I felt in control of the boat the entire time, and when we caught a gust just right it was a great feeling to coast along the water. I did get worked up, but only at the difficulty I had in reading the wind and positioning the sails correctly. I had sweat on my brow, and determination to do it better the next time. Most importantly, I now had an appreciation for the rigor, challenge and intricacies of sailing – maybe my high school friends had earned that varsity credit after all.

Coincidentally, I left CBC and headed to Jamestown for previously-made plans to watch the America’s Cup races. Until that morning, I had only been looking forward to BBQ and sun. But when I arrived, I immediately grabbed a friend’s binoculars and stayed glued to the action for the rest of the day. I talked shop with my sailing friends, sounding like a rookie most of the time, but perhaps surprising them occasionally with a thoughtful question or comment derived from the morning’s lesson. Most of all, I just marveled at the boats, the crews, and their speed – something I never would have expected. It’s amazing what a few hours on a sailboat can do for a person.

If you’re an avid sailor, you know about the CBC and what a fantastic resource it is for our community. This article isn’t for you. This article is for the people like me, who had a pre-conceived notion about sailing, had never done it, and wondered what all the fuss was about. This is for the people who like to challenge themselves and compete, learn new things, be outside, or hang in a boating community and understand what the heck everyone is talking about. Sailing can be whatever you want it to be, and your friends at the CBC will help you get there.


Community Boating Center (CBC) is a non-profit, 501c3 recreational organization offering all members of the community an opportunity to sail. Located in India Point Park, CBC provides outreach, sailing lessons and affordable access to the Providence waterfront. Gifts of cash or property to CBC may be treated as charitable donations for Federal Tax purposes.

For additional information contact:

John O'Flaherty
Executive Director
Community Boating Center
tel: 401.454.SAIL (7245)

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