Paying it forward: the making of a boating family

If you make it nice and inviting, they will come. And if you teach them with patience and care and make it fun, they’ll give it a good try. And if we’re all lucky, they will join the tribe and have a long and happy life messing around in boats.

That virtuous cycle is nicely represented in these photos from Bald Head Island, N.C., sent to me by longtime sailor John Barry. They were taken in 2009, when John was running the fledgling sailing program at what is now The Sail Shop at Riverside Adventure Co. on the island.

These photos show Sophie Mason in an Opti for the first time. The young man standing up to his chest in the pool is Conor Dugan, a US Sailing-certified instructor in J/80s and Optimists. Sophie’s brother, Rogan, and father, Eric, are sitting poolside, looking on.

“Conor can reach everyone,” says John, an experienced sailor who spent 20 years running charter boats in New England and the Caribbean. “He has a gift. Both young and old love sailing with him. He is an excellent sailor and professional in his approach. … As a Opti youth sailor, Conor placed second in New Jersey’s state competition.”

Conor certainly reached Sophie and the Mason family that day.

A week later, she was signed up for Opti lessons with the young instructor. And shortly after that, the family was sailing in a July 4 “fun regatta.”

“And the rest is history,” John says. “Fast forward to 2013, and the Masons now own a very handsome, state-of-the-art Archambault A35, which they sail out of their home waters in Hong Kong.”

The family still returns every summer to Bald Head Island for more sailing, as this recent photo with Sophie at the helm shows. Brother and sister have long since graduated from Optis to a J/80.

John sent a photo to Eric Mason, who responded in an email: “We have you and the team years ago to thank for our family interest in sailing. We even bought a sailboat in Hong Kong, an Archambault A35, all because you guys have been so patient with us learning!”

John calls this story “pay it forward” — the idea of giving something back and investing in the future by teaching young people to become proficient at something as enjoyable, challenging and sustaining as sailing.

The pool was John’s idea. “It was simply to make the island vacationers aware that we had a sailing club and lessons and fun sails,” he recalls. “The club was very young at the time, so we dreamed up the idea of open, free, impromptu lessons on Saturday mornings in the pool. Conor and I would drag the Opti behind the golf cart across the island and set it up in the pool for a few hours of introductory sailing for kids.”

Voilà! It proved to be a nice, non-threatening environment for kids with little experience on the briny.

“Some of the simplest innovations in business, and least expensive,” says John, “can lead to the most rewarding effects … and all from that day in the pool. Neither one had sailed before. It makes you feel good when you see something like that happen.”

John gives Conor a lot of credit for successfully introducing young people to the sport. “I was fortunate to have Conor as the anchor of the sailing club,” he says.

Conor was in high school when he gave the Masons their first lessons. He is now a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he was student body president in his senior year. And he’s back at The Sail Shop as a summer instructor.

John’s shorthand philosophy for introducing new folks to the water is as simple as it is effective.

“Make it fun, easy and safe,” he told me. “Ask questions and listen to concerns. Explain the parts of the boat, points of sail. Explain how a boat sails. Give the student the helm immediately. Push, pull, center. Last but not least, fun and safety. Let’s go sailing!”


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