Come Sail Away

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Even if you don’t own your own boat, Nicole Jantze finds ways to put some wind in your sails around the Coastal Empire.   

Boating and coastal communities go hand-in-hand, but sometimes that hand feels financially and logistically out of reach.  Nicole Jantze plows the waters and discovers how to set sail in Savannah.

Anyone can lounge on the beach and bob in the surf, but what if you’re drawn to the sights further off shore?  You seem to have two choices: get a boat or a friend with a boat.  Both ways require a commitment—one is financial, the other, emotional.  But as it turns out, a life on the water isn’t just reserved for hedge-fund holders, country club kids, and opportunists bribing for boat time with a cooler of beer.  The growing availability of local clubs and classes have somewhat democratized sailing, blowing wind into the sails of newbie enthusiasts around the Coastal Empire.   

Testing the Waters

Storage, maintenance, equipment and boating club fees can all add up, in some cases to the tune of $35,000 a year, which is why it’s smart to test drive the sport before shelling out thousands of dollars for what could be the next home treadmill that doubles as a towel rack.  The Savannah Sailing Center at Lake Mayer is a good place to start.  The Southside facility is an ideal location for beginners because it’s a fairly contained environment—the lake is small, smooth, conveniently located—and you don’t need any of your own equipment or skills, save the ability to swim.  If you’re hooked, you can join the center and have access to discounted lessons and equipment for an annual membership fee ranging from $50 for a student to $100 for a family.

As the Savannah Sailing Center can attest with a roster of students and members spanning from kindergarten to retirement, you’re never too young or too old to learn the sport.  But why would sailing be a sporting option for children just a couple years out of diapers?  Anne Marie Gladden, whose son Will began sailing when he was 8, cites many benefits, one of which is family involvement.

“It is so easy for the family to participate,” explains Gladden who works the registration booth at local regattas in which her son, now 12, participates.  Her husband Eric, a certified safety instructor, sails alongside his son and other participants during regattas in case they encounter trouble.

Life Lessons

Regardless of your age, commandeering a large vessel on your own builds confidence and muscles.  And unlike so many sports that require a willing team of six and/or an infinite supply of cartilage, sailing lasts a lifetime, as do the friendships that stem from clubs and competition.

“I like that the kids are able to ‘unplug,’ and work together as a team,” says Gladden, whose son competes on the Savannah Yacht Club’s team and travels to regattas in Beaufort, Charleston and Jacksonville.

Local schools have caught onto the sailing trend, launching new programs and, in the case of Benedictine Military Academy, reigniting dormant ones.  Five high schools in the Hostess City currently offer club programs, organizing a total of 43 students within the South Atlantic Interscholastic Sailing Association (SAISA). As part of this affiliation, students compete in an average of eight regattas each year as far north as Charleston, SC, and down to the southern tip of Florida.

Kelley Jeffries, former sailing coach at Benedictine and the current coach at Islands High School, offers a “chalk talk” class twice a week where she teaches new recruits about the parts of the boat, points of wind, racing strategy and other basics.

Jeffries’ history with sailing illustrates how an early interest can bloom into a life-long love once you learn the basics.  She and her brothers, Gary and Eric Oetgen, got involved the sport when her non-boating parents relocated to Savannah when she was just 9 years old.  Eric went on to be a 1994 silver medalist in the Good Will games and continues to compete today in local regattas.  But the real value to Jeffries lies in the experience itself.

“The best thing about sailing is just being on the water, feeling the breeze and the smell of the salt air,” she enthuses.  “Don’t get me wrong, it is a lot of hard work, but once you learn the basics, you can sail anywhere for fun or competition no matter the size of the boat or location.”

If you’ve yet to experience the freedom of the open seas, now’s the time to set sail—with a little help from Savannah’s sailors.