They seem to like to keep things simple along the Maine coast, where it’s no big deal for neighbors to pitch in and help each other out. But to be honest, my head began to spin listening to Phin Sprague, the owner of Portland Yacht Services and an avid encourager of all things nautical, describe a blueprint for a sustainable future for the marine-trades industry.
Here’s the premise: Sailors need sailboats, and boatbuilders need customers. Throw in a boatbuilding school that relies on projects for its hands-on curriculum and a few community sailing programs that depend on affordable sailboats to introduce kids to a life on the water, and presto, you have the ingredients for a scheme in which everyone comes out a winner. Or that’s the plan, at least, as Phin tells it.
It starts with the theory that if you get kids out on the water early enough, they’ll take to it like ducks, remain sailors-at-heart as adults, and, somewhere along the way, turn into those previously mentioned customers.
Enter SailMaine, a non-profit Portland-based program that connects people of all ages with the water. In addition to its downtown sailing center, where it provides lessons for youngsters and adults, it supports programs in other communities as well as high-school and collegiate racing teams and events.
In Portland, SailMaine offers lessons using several types of boats, but the one Phin was jazzed up about when we spoke during the Maine Boatbuilders Show (which he hosts annually, by the way) was the Frosty, or more formally, the Cape Cod Frosty. This is a six-foot-four-inch plywood sailboat designed for winter sailing by Tom Leach, the harbormaster for Harwich, Massachusetts. Though originally intended for an adult, the little cat-rigged boat is ideal for starting kids, says Phin. Sailed solo, the Frosty provides immediate feedback to students as they develop balance, muscle memory, and sailing skills. Sit in the wrong place and you can’t get the darned boat to tack for trying, he notes, but when kids shift their weight a little, “the boat tells them they’re right.”
Maine, of course, is a whole lot bigger than the Portland area, so SailMaine has come up with a plan to expand opportunities. Now, if parents in a town want to start a sailing program of their own, all they have to do is ante up $600 each to purchase easy-to-build stitch-and-glue Frosty kits and construct training boats on their own. Students at The Boat School, in Eastport, will package the kits; doing so teaches them how to program and operate the school’s CNC machine. The students will even travel to a fledgling sailing school and help the parents and children build their Frostys.
In essence, for little money down, a sailing program can sprout up just about anywhere that interested parents have access to the water, even just a pond. And that, says Phin, sows the seeds for the next generation of sailors—boat lovers who’ll help feed and nurture the whole boatbuilding thing that, even in hard times, seems to thrive Down East.
This article first appeared in the June 2013 issue of Cruising World.