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Nonprofit Offers Sailing Lessons at Sandy Creek Park

Several hours from the coast and not particularly close to north Georgia’s several large lakes, Athens may seem an unlikely place to learn how to sail. Since 2007, however, a local nonprofit has been working to change that impression and give Athens residents the opportunity to experience sailing without distant travel or the cost of acquiring boats. 

Whether you are an old salt or total novice, Community Boating of Athens invites you to harness the winds and enjoy a sail out on Lake Chapman in Sandy Creek Park at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 9.

The group hosts a boating day one Sunday each month on the 260-acre lake from March to September. (See the group’s Facebook page for future dates.) Except for the $2 entrance fee to the park, it is free, and volunteers will be on hand to show you the ropes and teach you the specialized vocabulary. 

Participants can jump into instruction on the ins and outs of rigging, trimming and steering, or they can simply go along for a ride on one of four American 14.6 Daysailers in the CBA fleet. They seat four adults comfortably, and just a little knack will have them cruising pleasantly around the lake even in a gentle breeze caught in their two sails—the main and the jib. With a sturdy and simple design, these craft are widely used for sailing instruction across the country.

CBA is particularly keen to get young people involved in non-motorized boating. The idea is that going sailing not only helps children develop a greater appreciation for water and aquatic ecosystems, but that the challenge of learning to sail also provides an opportunity to develop self-confidence, independence and teamwork skills. 

To this end, CBA has acquired six small, one-person sailboats for youngsters, called Optimist Prams, or OPPIs. Now the largest class of boat in the world, these easy-to-build boats were originally designed in 1947 by Clark Mills of Clearwater, FL as a surrogate for soap box derbies in topographically challenged locales like central Florida. Today, OPPI races are popular around the world. 

In the past few years, a number of local boy and girl scouts have taken advantage of the OPPIs provided by CBA to learn to sail a vessel on their own all around Lake Chapman. Even on the relatively small lake, when the wind changes and you have to figure out how to get back to the dock, sailing an OPPI can be both edifying and empowering, and it requires kids to think about their place in the environment. 

Getting out for a paddle or a sail is often talked about in terms of leisure and recreation, but Bob Saveland, founding member of CBA, says this limited imagination of boating as an activity misses out on the most important part: the chance to see ourselves in the conjunction of air, water and land. 

A true seaman who first learned to sail in 1935 through a community group led by a graduate student at Ohio State University, Saveland says “there’s nothing like the flow of water going down the hull.” At the same time he is keen to argue that boating isn’t just leisure: “It really is an environmental activity.” 

Beaming over the dozen or so sailors out at the CBA boating day on Memorial Day weekend, 92-year-old Saveland joked that sailing is a great way to stay active without “ruining your ankles or your knees.” 

After serving in World War II as communications officer aboard Landing Ship Tank “533” that brought soldiers and heavy equipment ashore at Normandy, Saveland started a long and distinguished career in geography education. Beginning with graduate work at Columbia University “once the boat got tied up” after the war, and culminating recently with the highest award from the National Council for Geographic Education for a lifetime of distinguished service, Saveland has worked long and hard for the cause of fostering environmental literacy. As editor of Ginn & Company’s Lands and Peoples of the World series of primary and secondary school geography textbooks from 1952 to 1968, Saveland authored, edited or had some role in publishing textbooks on geography and the environment for millions of American schoolchildren. 

While Saveland certainly knows how to relax and enjoy a pleasant sail in style, he says his advocacy for community boating centers is based on a strong belief that getting out there on the water helps us to cultivate an “appreciation for the environment.” But, perhaps even more than that, getting together and sharing skills that accrue over a lifetime through community boating also provides an opportunity to learn from our elders important lessons and perspectives on how to be at home on this earth and its waters.