BOWERS: Program teaches Merced youths how to sail, enjoy time on water

It’s a mild day in late June, with temperatures in the mid-90s and winds out of the northwest at about 15 miles an hour.

Standing on the boat docks at Lake Yosemite, I hear shrouds clanking against the masts of nearby sailboats and, from the lake, kids talking and laughing. They are members of the Lake Yosemite Sailing Association’s summer junior sail camp, and this is their second day of sailing.

Three of them are out by themselves in El Toros, and the other six are on Lasers and Lido 14s. There are a total of nine sailboats skippered by junior sailors out on the water, plus the motor boat with adult instructors. The motor boat carries bottled water and an adult with a megaphone.

Occasionally, the motor boat buzzes the sailboats to create waves for the kids to sail through.

It’s around 3 p.m., and it’s been an eventful day for these novice sailors. Earlier, one of the Lidos capsized, a common enough occurrence, but this time the camp counselor and her junior sailor couldn’t right the boat. It kept filling with water until another counselor, Jacob Harden, swam out and helped them turn the boat right side up.

About an hour after the first boat capsized, an El Toro went over at the same time another one ended up trapped by the bridge. I am impressed by how well the junior sailors react to these mishaps. They remember the rules – make sure everyone is accounted for and OK, stay with the boat and stand on the keel to flip the boat back up.

As I stand and look out at the lake, I can hear one of the adult volunteers, Eric Swenson, banging out a repair for the mast float on the Lido which capsized earlier. A retired engineer, he knows how to fix things, and he has put together a little workshop in the clubhouse yard.

My husband, Matt, the sailing instructor, is on the beach with a group of kids, supervising their turns in the El Toros, boats so small they are suitable for only one person at a time. Two of the El Toros were built by Darrell Sorensen, a longtime sail camp volunteer. Jerry Rokes, another volunteer who has been with the program for years, is out on the LYSA motor boat.

Started by Jay Sousa, a local photographer and sailing instructor, LYSA Junior Sail Camp began in 2007 with a few counselors and sailors and has grown steadily ever since.

This year, the camp has nine camp counselors, four of whom have been involved in the camp since 2007 and 2008.

The other counselors are past campers who, over the years, have perfected their sailing skills enough to be entrusted with teaching younger, less-experienced sailors.

My husband and I have been managing the camp since 2010. This year, camp will run for only four weeks because the drought will make sailing even small boats difficult in August.

We will have about 50 junior sailors in all this summer, with six scholarships granted so far to kids who would not be able to experience it without financial help.

Last year, with cooperation from Court Appointed Special Advocates, we were able to offer scholarships to kids in the Merced County foster program, and we hope to fill a few more CASA scholarship slots once again this year.

Also, for the first time, we’re teaching a three-day sailing camp to a Navy ROTC program from Turlock.

Campers go home at 4 p.m., and so I leave the docks and walk back to the clubhouse.

The junior sailors are taking down the boats and cleaning up. In three more days, the sailors’ parents and siblings will come out to the lake and sail with them.

Summer vacation should be a time for spending the long days outdoors, somewhere near water. I’m hoping that, eventually, every kid in Merced who wants to experience sailing will be able to do so.

Kenneth Grahame, the author of “The Wind in the Willows,” once said that “nothing (is) half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” I’m pretty sure the kids I watched sail today would agree.