JUNEAU -- Mainsail billowing full, the sleek sailing vessel sliced through choppy waters on a Thursday afternoon, its small jib chattering in the brisk gusts. At the helm, the skipper's hands pulled the main lines hard, pressed her legs against the beam for support, and leaned back over the surging vessel's side-railing.
It was a move that could have been seen in an open ocean race with multi-million-dollar boats and professional crews.
But skipper Olivia Fletcher is just 11, the waters are Gastineau Channel, and the wind-blown ship is a 15-foot Vanguard "Club 420" sailing dinghy.
"Yeah!" Fletcher shouts. "This is the most fun I've had in a long time."
Four instructors in outboard motor-driven boats give the thumbs-up signal and flash huge smiles of satisfaction as their charges tame the winds.
"I started in this program 12 years ago," instructor Matt Callahan, 22, said. "I had a lot of fun out in the water and learned how to control a sailing boat. Now I want to give that back to other kids."
The Juneau Youth Sailing program started in the late 1990s and operates out of, and with, the generosity of the Juneau Yacht Club and volunteer sailors who graduated from the program.
The introductory, or junior class, is for ages 10 and 11 and involves basic safety and comfort around boats.
The first thing youth sailors learn is to wear dry suits for protection from the cold water. Next is tipping and righting sailboats in the harbor, self-rescue and maneuvering the sailboat. Students sail with an older student in the boat who shows them the ropes.
"The first thing we teach them is how to recover a capsized vessel," Callahan said. "Once they have that, they know they'll be able to get their boat back up and it is a big confidence booster."
The Level 1 class, for ages 12-19, covers basic rigging, launching, maneuvering, self-rescue and water safety.
Level 2, for ages 12-19, includes more difficult activities such as rudderless sailing. Level 3, for ages 12-19, expands on that difficulty and includes introduction to spinnakers, or racing sails. There is also an adult class.
Rebecca Buckler, 23, is a top sailor and an instructor from Rhode Island. She and Callahan are the lead instructors, Hana Lie-Nielsen and David Mendivil are assistant instructors, and there are six junior instructors.
"It builds a lot of confidence for them, especially in a town that is so close to the water," Buckler said. "Lots of kids don't get other chances to get out on the water. The junior class is unique in that the instructors are ages 15-17 and are actually in the boat with the kids. It is really a good peer group situation."
"I just like being on the water," Sarah Sophia Lie-Nielsen said. "My big brother is the head instructor and he always takes me sailing."
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