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Kids in Southern Maryland are finding new adventures on the water. Whether as part of a sailing club or paddling smaller craft, they can enjoy the sights and sounds of the region’s many miles of shoreline in safety while testing their abilities and making friends.

‘I learn every day’

During the summer, the Southern Maryland Sailing Association in Solomons hosts a junior sailing camp for kids as young as 5.

Eight times during the summer, a weeklong camp is held for kids to learn sailing terms and the basics of operating a small sailboat, but mostly the kids are encouraged to enjoy the experience of sailing.

“What is the No. 1 rule of sailing?” Daniel Ahern, 21, the camp’s head instructor, asked a group of about 10 kids during the day camp.

“To have fun,” the children replied in unison.

“I really want to teach them to like sailing,” Ahern said of his students. “You can’t learn sailing in five days, but they can learn to like it and want to keep going with it … I learn every day.”

Ahern of Charlotte Hall started learning how to sail at the association when he was a teenager. Both sides of his family, he said, are “big into sailing and racing,” and he has carried on that tradition. Three years ago, Ahern bought his own Vanguard 420 sailboat and keeps it at the SMSA during the year. Now, the North Carolina State University aerospace engineering student races sailboats in college and returns to teach in the summer.

Neel Guha, 9, of Leonardtown said attending the camp was his idea after going out on a friend’s sailboat and enjoying the experience. Guha said the camp was his first experience learning how to operate a sailboat, and he said he wants to continue learning as he gets older.

Brothers Andrew and Michael Purring live in Gaithersburg during the school year and Prince Frederick during the summer at their family’s summer home. Andrew Purring, 11, said he and his brother, who is 8, wanted to attend the camp because their parents enjoy sailing.

Julia Kleponis, 11, said she does not come from a sailing family but wanted to learn because her older sister got a job from having sailing experience. “I’m learning everything about a boat, how to sail it,” the Lusby resident said. “Before this I had no experience.”

Ahern said the camp is split between children who come from sailing families and those who do not. He said the camp gives kids a unique opportunity to learn a skill they can pursue for the rest of their lives.

“It’s like learning a language,” Ahern said of learning how to sail. “It’s easier to learn a language when you’re younger, [and it] introduces responsibility you might not have faced before.”

The camp also helps give working and leadership experience to the young adult instructors.

After a lesson in nautical vocabulary and a game of “final jeopardy,” the students donned life jackets, helmets, boat shoes and slathered on another layer of sunscreen before splitting into two teams and heading out onto two sailboats with sibling assistant instructors Courtney and Michael Mattson.

Courtney Mattson, 17, of Prince Frederick said she took the camp when she was 11 and decided to return as a counselor for her first summer job.

“I think it’s pretty awesome that I get to be out there sharing my love of sailing every day in the sunshine with kids,” Mattson said. “That’s so cool to me.”

Mattson said while the children are learning to control and operate a sailboat, they are mainly learning to be safe and have fun on the water.

“A lot of it is about teaching them to have fun on the water. There’s only so much you can teach about sailing in a week,” Mattson said. “We teach them the basics, just enough to get them out and having fun, making friends and learning responsibility.”

Appreciating nature’s beauty

While life on the water offers an opportunity to learn how to operate nautical machinery, it also boasts excellent opportunities for fishing, rare wildlife views and visiting historical sites by way of smaller boats along the many creeks in the Potomac River.

Mallows Bay, Nanjemoy Creek, Port Tobacco River and Mattawoman Creek are 32 miles among the many avenues for paddlers, kayakers and canoers in Southern Maryland.

Tom Roland, chief of parks for the Charles County Department of Public Works, said that portion of the Potomac River basin has more than 100 miles of paddling opportunities.

The creeks feature interesting and rare opportunities, such as largemouth bass fishing, bald eagles and even a ship graveyard.

“The largemouth bass fishing is known throughout the world on the Potomac,” Roland said, in addition to finding perch, rockfish and snakehead fish in the waters.

Bird watching is a large draw for paddlers, Roland said, and the most exciting is the eagle viewing.

“We have one of the densest populations of nesting eagles in 48 states and the second highest in Maryland,” Roland said. “It’s an extremely easy place to view eagles all day long in the tributaries.”

In addition, a ghost ship fleet rests in Mallows Bay where Roland said the county is working toward becoming a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration national marine sanctuary.

The ship graveyard includes more than 100 World War I-era wooden vessels that have been sunk, and there’s a “tremendous history” that goes along with those, Roland said.

In addition, holes in the sunken ships have become their own mini-wildlife sanctuaries and house many different animals. Roland said the area’s sanctuary selection is key to further conservation efforts and protecting the historical element of the ghost fleet, in addition to building educational programs and opening public access to the site.

While no classes are available for the public, Roland said it is important for the local population to understand the history and significance of what is in their backyard.

“Unless you get out and paddle, you really can’t appreciate the beauty,” Roland said.

Finding their niche

“I’ve always had kids say it’s so boring here I can’t wait to get out,” Guy Barbato, director of Sailing Center Chesapeake in Tall Timbers, said. “My response is that ‘are you kidding? You’re surrounded by water. It’s a beautiful place to live. That’s one of the reasons I moved here to be on the water.’”

The Leonardtown High School biology teacher learned how to sail in Virginia from his grandfather and began racing sailboats when he was a student at Penn State. When Barbato moved to St. Mary’s County, he realized few opportunities were open to take advantage of what was there to offer.

“I started to realize there were very few public access options in the county and very few places you could go unless you lived on the water. Unless you had a boat with a trailer or knew somebody, your options were limited,” Barbato said. That’s when Barbato found Sailing Center Chesapeake and a group of high school students who were going out and practicing the sport he loved.

“We have this rich natural resource you’re surrounded by and you can get out on, and if that’s something you enjoy, there’s tons of things to do here,” Barbato said.

In 2009, the center opened at the Tall Timbers Marina and began the first pilot program in summer 2010. Since then, about 350 students have going through the Southern Maryland region, mostly from St. Mary’s, Barbato said.

The center’s high school sailing program acts as a facilitator for local high school sailing teams. Any student is welcome to participate in the program, regardless of if they have a team at their school.

Barbato said he has seen many students find their niche through sailing and learn skills that help them the rest of their life.

“There’s a lifetime of learning ahead of you and growth in the sport,” Barbato said. It takes “the mental agility of chess, but there’s also a physical component … you can spend decades learning it, and you’re always learning something new and kids finding their places here.”

Kids like Ethan Johnson, 20, who sailed with the center throughout high school and came back to be an instructor.

Johnson began sailing when he was 14, after a week-long Boy Scout sailing trip on the Chesapeake Bay got him hooked on the sport.

“It was definitely a different sport than all the other sports in high school, and I felt like the team was really close, and it brought me closer with a lot of my friends,” Johnson said.

Two and a half years ago, after graduating from Leonardtown High School, Johnson began volunteering for the center and now is the lead instructor. On any given practice, Johnson said, there are between 20 and 25 students from all different schools in St. Mary’s and southern Calvert counties.

The teams also participate in eight to 10 local regattas during the school year, including in Annapolis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and at Washington College along the Chester River in Chestertown. These away regattas introduce the students to even more new friends who share a common hobby.

“I learned leadership and how to work with a lot of different types of people because there were a whole variety of people I saw every day, and it made me outgoing and more willing to try new things, which I think will be helpful,” Hana Zwick, 17, said.

Zwick said it was sailing that inspired her to look at the college she will be attending in the fall. Though she will study international business at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., she will be a part of the sailing team for four years.

“I think there’s a lot more different aspects in sailing that made me a more well-rounded person,” Zwick said of the sport. “It wasn’t as strict as other sports, and we had two seasons instead of just one. It overall made me well-rounded because there are so many aspects you have to take into account when you’re sailing.”

snewman@somdnews.com