Kathia Gerena started the summer nervous about getting into a sailboat. Now the 11-year-old is ready to steer a directed route on the Long Island Sound.
So are her pals Kayson Maciel-Andrews and Kymani Chapman, newly emboldened after capsizing — and righting their boat with a little extra help.
Gerena, Maciel-Andrews and Chapman are three of 48 students to hit the Schooner Summer Camp this week, as the New Haven Land Trust hosts its first season exploring sea and shore. The eight-week camp, offered in one-week increments, is part of the Land Trust’s absorption of Schooner, Inc. earlier this year, which included keeping the popular camp program going.
The camp began its season on June 26. It runs through Aug. 18. Currently, each week’s session is fully enrolled, with wait lists of up to 15 students for certain weeks.
“It couldn’t be more different” than last year’s program, said Land Trust Executive Director Justin Elicker. He and camp director Sarah Morrison are seeing that as an exciting change. After taking on Schooner, Inc.‘s signature coastal exploration component formally in February, Elicker and Morrison designed a full-day, eight-week summer learning program that takes advantage of the land around the marshy Nature Preserve. At the end of a six-hour day, students have an after-care option through 5 p.m.
Six-to-eight-year-old campers spend their days in the camp’s Shore Program, learning about the small fish and crustaceans that call the Sound their home. Nine-to-twelve-year-olds split their time between sailing instruction and time on the shore. For this first Schooner summer, the Land Trust has developed partnerships with Solar Youth and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) and awarded over $60,000 in financial aid and scholarships. Sixty percent of the total camp enrollment is supported by financial aid. That breaks down to 74 campers, or about 51 percent of the camp.
Thursday morning, students were deep into the third week of programming, hopping aboard the camp’s bright yellow-and-pink sailboats and wading cautiously into the Long Island Sound. Elicker bobbed between them, chatting with campers and counselors as they navigated sandy trails and rock piles leading to the water.
Eating her lunch in one of the Sound School’s elevated buildings, Gerena (pictured at top) reflected on her week at the camp. When she arrived, she said she was “not scared, but nervous” to step into a sailboat. Despite growing up in New Haven, she hadn’t heard of the Long Island Sound, and wasn’t aware that the city was so close to the ocean.
That changed quickly. After passing a “float test” that all campers must take before going out on the water, she learned the basics from instructors Connor Schiff and Noah Nyhart, making the shift from stepping gingerly into a sailboat for the first time to sailing one with the wind in her favor.
“It’s fun to be with them,” she said of the instructors. “They’re funny, and they’re super good at driving the boat. My favorite part is when we’re in the water, because it makes me feel fun — like I’ve learned something new about going in the water.”
Also taking their lunch before heading out to the nature preserve, nine-year-olds Kayson Maciel-Andrews and Kymani Chapman recalled capsizing earlier this summer, and the unlikely sense of empowerment they’d gotten from it. As Chapman recalls it, he was acting as skipper and Maciel-Andrews steered the wrong way with the tiller, causing the boat to become uneven.
“It’s good to capsize, and we might be practicing that sooner or later,” said Maciel-Andrews.
“It was fun, except for the fact that out boat flew away and we had to get on the motorboat,” cut in 11-year-old Jahadi Wilson, a camper whose boat had also capsized.
“My main focus is getting kids comfortable with the water,” said head sailing instructor Schiff, who is studying industrial engineering, finance and computer science at Lehigh University. After years of teaching at the Westport Sailing School — Schiff started the sport when he was eight and has taught for four years — he said that Schooner has changed how he teaches sailing, from curriculum design to his weekly goal of a longer “destination sail” with campers who are just learning the ropes.
“It’s unique,” he said of the program. “Some of these students have never been on a sailboat, or in the water.”
Just a seven-minute walk away on sandy, overgrown trails, first-time campers Nicole Torres and Trinity Vidal stood still and enraptured on the side of a tidal pool, watching a female horseshoe crab lay her eggs in the wet sand. Her tail bobbed behind her, sending a cloud of brown sand into the water as minnows swam by. Debating what to call her — Big Mama or Lucy The Crab — the two described the process of egg-laying and floor-scuttling as they’d learned it that week.
“Once she’s done having her eggs ... she digs a hole to put her eggs in there,” said Torres, gesturing as if she was teaching a science class. “Once she’s done, she’ll lay her eggs to finish growing and then she’ll come back to get her eggs. Her eggs will eventually come to see her ... to see the mother.”
Further down the beach, a group studied the molted shell of a young horseshoe crab that had washed ashore. Sunlight shone right through it like glass, exposing a tiny, delicate shell and row of expired claws underneath. Torres was distracted for a moment, then turned back to Big Mama’s pointy, wagging tail.
“I’m going to go watch some other crabs mating over there,” she said. “I think they find each other with sound. Like dolphins.”