Eli Donaty, 16, has always enjoyed being in the water. However, it wasn’t until two summers ago that he realized he also harbored a passion for sailing on it.
It was then that Eli was introduced to a summer camp at the Baltimore County Sailing Center. The center, which operates out of Rocky Point Park near Essex, has offered sailing camps for 21 years. In 2011, it offered its first camp specifically tailored for Orthodox teenage boys.
After hearing about the opportunity through word of mouth, Eli, with no prior boating experience, signed up. Now, he reels off sailing terms such as jibbing and tacking as if it’s a second language. And, even better, he has found an enthusiasm for something he may have never discovered without this opportunity.
“It was a phenomenal experience compared to anything else I’ve ever done,” said Eli, who also attended the camp last summer. “You are in complete control. You are in control of how fast you are going or not going. Everything is under your power. It’s amazing. The weather is great. You’re hanging out with great kids. If you like the water, it’s perfect.”
For the first time, the BCSC is extending Eli’s fervor to young women, offering a week-long camp in August for frum girls, ages 11 to 19.
This summer, because of scheduling conflicts with the early High Holidays and the resulting early start of Jewish day schools, there will not be a camp for boys, but organizers are hoping to be able to provide programs for both boys and girls in summers to come.
The creation of the Orthodox-specific camps, in part, was spurred by the BCSC’ overall goal of offering sailing opportunities to individuals from all walks of life, as long as they had the ability and desire to learn.
“Traditionally yacht clubs were the only places where you could learn how to sail, and they were very much closed to Jews, women and African-Americans,” said BCSC Director Eileen Fahrmeier. “We’re fighting those stereotypes and boundaries and saying, ‘No, who’s to say that only WASP men are going to be good sailors.”
Two years ago, Fahrmeier was approached by Rabbi Aaron Tendler, a faculty member at Ner Israel Rabbinical College. Tendler, who was friends with a sailing enthusiast, had always thought the activity would make for a positive outlet and a “good, clean, kosher activity” for teens.
Tendler floated the idea to organizers at the BCSC who were immediately on board. The camp drew about a dozen teens in each of the last two years. This summer, 10 girls are already signed up, and Tendler anticipates even more will register.
Tendler said that the program particularly appeals to kids who may not be enthralled with team sports — the central theme of so many summer camps. He’s heard stories from parents whose kids entered the camp as introverts and came out with more confidence and maturity having accomplished a new craft.
“It provides them with an opportunity to excel and develop a skill that sets them aside from everyone else. It’s something they can be proud of,” said Tendler, who dubbed the BCSC as “the county’s best-kept secret.”
While there are a couple breaks for lunch and downtime, campers are in their boats for a good portion of the day. Usually, campers are grouped in twos and operate kids-size double-handed boats. After some fundamental instruction from gender-appropriate counselors on the first day, campers spend the rest of the program operating the boat on their own. However, instructors are always close by in power boats to provide advice and safety.
Sailing throughout Hawk Cove (adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay), campers are given a crash course on wind direction, the paramount element of learning how to sail.
“We’re able to give them the tools they need to make their boat go where they want it go,” Fahrmeier said.
Fahrmeier said that learning how to sail also fosters life skills: teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving and independence.
In the past, on the camp’s final day, parents and family are invited to see what the campers have learned at a graduation barbecue, which is held on an island a little less than two miles away. Awe-struck reactions from parents, Fahrmeier said, are typical.
“They’re just like ‘Whoa, how are you doing that?’” Fahrmeier said. “What’s cool is to watch the kids then explain to their parents what they are doing.”
Originally, Tendler viewed a sailing camp for frum kids as a shot in the dark. Now, he understands why it’s taken off.
“It’s not just getting on the boat and having fun,” he said. “You’reengaging your head and your heart,” he said. “It’s an emotional experience as much as it is a fun experience. I see why [campers] are so excited.”