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Providence resident Rory Stanton, shaded by the mast, Journal reporter Mike Stanton (no relation) and Cathy Orloff, of Providence, prepare to leave the pier at the Community Boating Center, at India Point in Providence, during a recent beginners class there. Already under way in one of the center’s 14-foot boats are Patrick Shea and Christine Platiel, both of Providence. The Providence Journal / Ruben W. Perez

Going with the Wind — June 2008, Mike Stanton

Providence — Skimming across the water, sails crackling in the stiff evening breeze and water splashing over the gunwales as the boat tips precariously, it is easy to lose sight of the urban skyline nearby and the late rush-hour traffic crawling home on the Iway.

And that’s precisely the point.

“Ready to jibe?” calls out Patrick Shea, a novice sailor at the Community Boating Center.

“Ready,” responds his crewmate, Christine Platiel.

“Jibe ho!”

Shea seizes the lines running from the boom and pulls the boom across the boat, then pushes the tiller over while neatly moving his body from starboard to port. Platiel takes the boom and helps swing it over. The 14-foot fiberglass boat shudders as the mainsail snaps into place, then settles into a smooth run downwind. Platiel quickly pulls another line, tightening the smaller jib sail on the bow, and it bellies out in the 5-knot westerly breeze.

Shea and Platiel are wet, but happy.

“I thought I’d bring my friends out,” says Shea ruefully. “I guess I’d better tell them to wear their bathing suits.”

For those who think of sailing as a rich man’s pursuit — one axiom likens it to standing under a shower, tearing up hundred-dollar bills — consider the Community Boating Center, at India Point Park.

Founded in 1994 as a nonprofit, public-access sailing program, the center is held together by volunteers and charitable donations, elbow grease and heart. One of the instructors this warm summer evening is Andres Reyes, 28, who participated in the center’s first youth program for inner-city children as a teenager in South Providence’s Elmwood neighborhood.

“You’re doing great!” he shouts from a motor launch after Shea and Platiel execute a nifty tack into a sudden gust of wind that nearly capsizes them.

Reyes teaches the students to read the texture of the water — the darker patches moving across the surface signifying ripple upon ripple stirred by a strengthening wind.

“TILLER TOWARD trouble,” he reminds them, a saying designed to help sailors fight their natural instincts to turn the wrong way when faced with a near collision with another boat or a potential capsizing.

“Don’t fight the tiller when it pulls against you,” he says. “If you’re tense and you pull the tiller toward you, you’ll make it worse. Relax. Go with it. The boat will head up into the wind and settle down. Let the boat do its thing.”

The Hunter 140s that the small class is using this warm summer night weigh 400 pounds. Sailing them embodies simple yet complex forces of engineering and nature, forces in conflict that balance one another out. A skilled sailor, says Reyes, should be able to sail with just two fingers on the tiller — not the white knuckles more typical among beginners.

Shea, 23, recently moved from Worcester to Providence, where he works in marketing sunscreen. He discovered the Community Boating Center while Googling for things to do in his new city.

“I like the water, and this was the cheapest way to get out on the water,” he says.

His crewmate, Platiel, 30, of Providence, is from Bonn, Germany, and moved to the Ocean State last year to work in marketing and sales for a Swiss chemical company that has operations in Coventry.

“Rhode Island is so small, you almost don’t see it on the map,” she says. “But it’s a beautiful state. I thought I’d travel more outside Rhode Island, but it’s so nice here with the beaches and the sailing. I’d been out with friends on bigger boats, but I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Shea and Platiel are in the midst of a three-week beginning sailing course that meets twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesday, from 6 to 8 p.m. The cost is $185. Students are also required to buy a membership for the season, which runs from May to October, and costs $195. Once they learn to skipper a boat on their own, members receive unlimited free sailing, and can take out friends and family.

There are also a variety of classes and summer camps for children. Details are available on the group’s Web site or by calling (401) 454-SAIL (7245).

Robert Johnson, of Providence, another student, recently lost his job as a financial planner and is using his sudden abundance of free time to refresh sailing skills he learned in a more intense sailing school 10 years ago while a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island.

Cathy Orloff, of Providence, a teacher at Central High School, wants to hone her sailing skills so that she can skipper a used wooden Blue Jay that she is thinking of buying.

Reaching the Community Boating Center requires navigating the shifting streets and construction debris of the new Route 195 construction project. The shingled building sits on the water near the defunct Bootleggers waterfront bar. The view includes oil tanks and old pilings from crumbled piers. But a southerly sea breeze sweeping up Narragansett Bay to the Providence River conjures a different world of water and grand sailing ships that once swarmed India Point from points around the globe.

With gas prices making people rethink vacation plans, the Community Boating Center offers an inexpensive, wind-powered means of escape.

“If you can’t afford the south of France,” quips the center’s executive director, John O’Flaherty, “then the south of Providence isn’t a bad alternative.”

Community Boating Center Location: India Point Park, Providence

Costs: Annual membership, $195. Beginner Adult Sailing Lessons: $185 for three weeks.

What to bring: Rubber-soled shoes (no socks!), bathing suit, sense of humor.

Advice for beginners: Keep your eye on the boom!

What’s the Web site:

For additional information contact:

John O'Flaherty
Executive Director
Community Boating Center
India Point Park, 109 India St., Providence, RI 02903
tel: 401.454.SAIL (7245)