On the surface, it would appear that Evan McCarthy is your average, talented sailor. With years of experience on Broadneck High School’s racing team and a U.S. Sailing Level 2 Instructor certification under his belt, it would be easy to think that he was born in a catboat wearing a life jacket.

Yet a peek behind the curtain reveals a different story: One of an individual with learning differences who discovered how the sport of sailing could change his life forever.

“I have severe, but properly treated Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and anxiety,” said McCarthy, who was diagnosed around first grade, back when little was known about learning differences. “School, home, friends, everything was complicated by the constant struggle for my attention.”

At the time, Evan was labeled an undisciplined problem child where the approach was to punish without trying to work with and understand him, though it became obvious early on that punishment was not working as a motivator; it only created anger and loss of self-esteem.

But with the help of his therapist, McCarthy discovered that helping others gave him the confidence and the pride he was seeking. It was now time to find him an outlet for his energy and something that would build his self-confidence.

Kids with ADHD have a hard time keeping focus on things, as well as sitting still. They crave activity, but they also struggle at team sports, and with that in mind, McCarthy took up martial arts.

“I did martial arts as an outlet for my energy,” he said, “but it wasn’t much fun anymore because I had been doing it for so long and it wasn’t keeping my interest.”

Since his family were boaters, it was natural that he gave it a try. And that’s when they came across Brendan Sailing, where Evan was first exposed to others who were in the “same boat” as him.

That first summer for 10-year-old McCarthy marked a major change.

“It was one of the first times where I was in an environment of people just like me, and I felt like I fit in,” he said. “They were just other friendly kids that I was sailing and having a good time with.”

New friends, coupled with passionate instructors, and an instructional approach that allowed him to learn and thrive, brought him back summer after summer and his love for, and skill in, sailing grew and eventually instructors began placing him in boats with newer sailors. He soon became an instructor.

“I finally got to show off my skills and pass those skills that I had worked really hard to develop on to new kids and see the happiness on their faces when they finally grasp them,” he said. “I got to think back to how I felt during the first time that they trusted me to be on a sailboat by myself and that joy — I wanted to give that to more people who had had similar experiences like me.”

A decade of improvement

Though those 10 summers — five as a camper, three as a counselor and two as a head instructor — were not always easy, McCarthy persevered to not just become a successful sailor, but to conquer every obstacle in his path.

“I had trouble working with other people and keeping my attention focused [and] these kids have a lot of the same troubles,” he said. “They struggle to grasp a lot of the material being presented by schoolteachers or cannot focus on homework as well as the other kids. In sailing, you practice, learn a skill, and someone trusts you to be on that boat doing it all yourself. It is exhilarating to realize I can focus on something and complete it without having to drag myself through it. I remember the moments where I experienced that, and I get to be the person that passes that on to them.”

As Brendan Sailing’s head instructor, McCarthy has helped create a curriculum unlike any other. Building on his experiences as both a camper and an instructor, as well as on his love of the sport, he has made it a point to emphasize creative methods of teaching that build on every sailors’ unique strengths by blending pre-existing ideas for teaching sailing with lessons learned in practice.

“I really make sure that we’re working with the kids in different ways that stimulate the unique ways that they perceive information,” he said, “Because the immediate skills that you need for a traditional style of learning are ‘Memorize this, do this,’ is not a process for success for youth with learning differences.”

The confidence McCarthy gained from Brendan Sailing has been especially useful in managing what he calls “those big, overwhelming firsts.”

“You’ve got to consider the wind, the other boats, so many different things to think about at once,” he said. “When I was at Brendan, I was really taught to take steps to problem-solve without getting overwhelmed by anxious thoughts or all that stimuli. Instead of becoming flustered, I can use the things I’ve learned and then I’m able to keep going and accomplish my goals.”

Next year McCarthy will graduate from Washington College with a dual major in mathematics and computer science; a huge accomplishment for a “problem child with no discipline.”

Program receives Wood grant

Brendan Sailing recently received a $20,000 grant from the Kathy and Jerry Wood Foundation

“At Brendan Sailing, we never turn down a child for financial reasons,” Brendan Founder and Chairman of the Board James P. Muldoon said in a news release. “It is important that these children have the same opportunities to build social skills and teamwork, regardless of their financial position. On behalf of the organization, I want to thank the Wood Foundation for their continued commitment to Brendan. They have believed in our mission from the beginning and over the years have become a truly special partner.”

“We are so grateful to the Wood Foundation for their on-going support of Brendan Sailing,” Brendan Sailing Executive Director Charlie Arms said. “This generous gift will enable us to continue creating successes for youth with Learning Differences in our program in Maryland and in D.C.”

The grant will support camper scholarships for youth for this summer and beyond who would otherwise not have these opportunities.

Brendan Sailing is currently accepting registration for the 2021 summer camp season. There are two weekday programs in Annapolis, while St Mary’s College of Maryland will host a 10-day residential camp and a week-long day camp. Scholarships available.

For more information, go to www.brendansailing.org.