Marcus Asante tunes in to the sights, sounds and smells of natural forces around him as he sails alone on the Chesapeake Bay.
“It’s you and the water and the salt and the fresh air,” Asante said. “All those things are happening all at once, and you get a chance to just see yourself as a small element … It’s humbling.”
Asante, who is Black, said he saw few sailors who looked like him when he started sailing in the late ’90s. He wished more Black people could experience the same excitement he felt on the water.
That desire inspired Asante to establish the Universal Sailing Club with co-founder Michael Campbell in 2001, creating a space where Black people in the Chesapeake Bay region could feel comfortable exploring the sport.
Twenty years later, the Universal Sailing Club is continuing that mission, and more organizations in and around Baltimore are implementing their own efforts to make sailing more diverse, inclusive, accessible and equitable.
The United States Sailing Association, or US Sailing, partnered with the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation in 2019 to launch the Siebel Sailors Program, with the aim of providing opportunities to middle school-aged students and opening the sport to a more diverse range of sailors.
The program has been adopted by nearly 20 sailing centers across the country.
Janel Zarkowsky, a Siebel Sailors Program coach with US Sailing, is involved with Siebel programs in the Mid-Atlantic, including Downtown Sailing Center in Baltimore City; the Baltimore County Sailing Center in Essex; DC Sail in Washington, D.C.; and Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria, Va. She is also the assistant coach for the sailing team at Georgetown University.
Zarkowsky, who is white, has been sailing since she was about four years old. Her parents met while sailing, and her family always lived near the water while her father served in the U.S. Navy.
The quiet of sailing is one of the things that Zarkowsky enjoys most.
“There’s a lot of white noise in the world, but out on the water it’s calm and quiet,” she said.
For the Siebel programs, the sailing centers had planned to collaborate with local school systems. But after schools moved learning online in 2020, the centers shifted to working more with other community partners, particularly groups led by parents organizing activities for their children.
Zarkowsky said they found that many people were not utilizing the centers despite living nearby. She hopes the Siebel programs will help centers attract more sailors from the communities they are located in.
“We try to focus on what the community looks like, and getting people in from the community that haven’t been accessing the boats,” she said.
Each sailing center determines how they will implement Siebel, whether as a summer camp or afterschool program. But US Sailing provides a basic framework built around five core values: respect, effort, inclusiveness, student voice and fun.
Downtown Sailing Center education manager Lorena Kazmierski, who is white, said the facility has worked to diversify its sailing community since opening 25 years ago.
“We really want our sailors to reflect the community here in Baltimore,” Kazmierski said.
The Downtown Sailing Center’s motto is “sailing is for everyone,” and the partnership with US Sailing provides another avenue to make good on that message, said Hannah Dickmyer, an assistant coach and Siebel Sailors Program assistant, who is white.
Dickmyer, whose grandparents were sailors, started taking sailing lessons when she was 6 years old. She took a break from the sport in college, but picked it back up again afterwards.
In addition to the Siebel program, the Downtown Sailing Center offers other programs to improve access.
The center’s adaptive sailing program gives disabled people and their loved ones the opportunity to sail on accessible boats, including some non-capsizable dinghies that provide greater stability for those with limited mobility.
The center’s docks have lifts so wheelchair users and other disabled people can board safely.
“I hear from members sometimes who say ‘A few years ago, I didn’t see people that look like me on the docks. Now, I see people who look like me on the docks,’” Kazmierski said.
Downtown Sailing Center has a coach-in-training program for Baltimore City high school students, who can work toward leading sailing courses as coaches and instructors.
The sailing center also has a “Women on the Water” program geared towards women and nonbinary people, Kazmierski said.
Historically, the sailing demographic has been “very white, very wealthy, and a lot of young, athletic men,” Dickmyer said.
Or as Asante puts it “It’s like walking around a Jimmy Buffett concert.”
Asante said it can often feel “awkward” to be the only Black person in an unfamiliar situation. But over the past 20 years, the Universal Sailing Club’s members have worked to build a group where people can sail without judgement among other Black sailors, whether they are new to the sport or longtime participants.
“We’ve tried to make it a place where people who are already sailing can coexist with people who are new to sailing, and just have a place where African Americans are not in the minority, not the only one, not the first one, not getting asked questions about Black Americana like they represent all Black people or something,” Asante said, who added that while the club was created with Black people in mind, members of other backgrounds are welcome as well.
Asante said the sport is becoming more diverse, albeit slowly.
“I don’t expect these changes to happen overnight, or very quickly,” he said. “These patterns have been established for a very long time sailing”
Dickmyer said “there’s been a big push, especially in my lifetime as a sailor, to try and change that.”
More women are getting involved in sailing, Dickmyer said. She pointed to the 2018 documentary “Maiden,” which featured the first all-women’s sailing team to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989-1990, as evidence that the sport is becoming more diverse.
To make sailing more accessible, organizations are addressing some of the root challenges that block many underrepresented groups from the sport.
Sailing can be expensive, Dickmyer and Kazmierski said.
“Due to that affluent stereotype of sailors, I think people think that they need to be dressed up in the latest gear, whereas here you would see a lot of people come sailing just wearing whatever they want to wear,” Kazmierski said.
Dickmyer said the Downtown Sailing Center supplies life jackets and foul weather gear for sailors. They also provide water and snacks for Siebel participants.
Annual membership dues for the Universal Sailing Club range from $35 for sailors aged 18-35 years old, $70 for adults older than 35 years old, and $100 for couples. Children aged 17 or younger can sail for free.
Dickmyer said the Downtown Sailing Center charges $25 to register for its Siebel program. But if a student attends at least 80% of the classes, they are reimbursed at the end of the season.
“We want them to be there and commit to showing up, but we don’t want the money to ever be a financial reason why they can’t go to class,” Dickmyer said, who added that the center tries to keep the costs of other programs low for participants as well.
In addition to financial barriers, lack of representation in the sport can also steer away would-be sailors.
“If you don’t see someone who looks like you getting ready to get on a boat, you’re probably not going to feel like you are welcome,” Kazmierski said.
People follow the examples they see around them, Asante said. So if someone has no reference point for how to sail or even where to go to learn, they are put at a disadvantage for entering the sport.
Asante said it was important to him to create a sailing club that was intentionally geared toward Black people because he did not have such a club when he began sailing.
“People are overjoyed to know that there’s just simply some Black people out there that they can talk to,” he said. “I didn’t have any Black people to talk to. I had to become this Black person that everyone wanted to talk to.”
One of the biggest barriers to sailing, Zarkowsky said, is fear of water.
All Siebel students wear life jackets, but the sailing centers also work with students to teach them to be comfortable in the water. Some centers offer swimming lessons or can refer students to partner organizations for teaching.
In addition to technical skills, participants at sailing centers also learn valuable life lessons, Dickmyer said.
Through the Siebel program, Dickmyer said Downtown Sailing Center teaches students to respect themselves, their fellow sailors, coaches, the equipment and the environment; to exercise their voice and collaborate with one another by making decisions together; to be prepared and try their best; to be inclusive of people from varying backgrounds; and to have fun while doing it all.
Downtown Sailing Center also hosts STEM events for Siebel participants, where they learn about local wildlife like birds and fish, and take samples of algae in the water.
“Learning those skills is so important as a kid, and it shaped a lot of who I am today,” Dickmyer said. “Knowing where you’re sailing, what this place is, and what’s in the water, you can be less afraid of it and know what’s there. Education can change a lot.”
Asante said sailors learn how to be responsible members of a team.
“A crew has to work together as a family,” he said. “They’re under the leadership of their skipper or captain, and he or she will have to practice being a good leader because it’s a challenging environment when it’s wet, cold, windy, dark, when unforeseen things happen on board or happen around you. You learn self-sufficiency, you learn how to work as a team, and you learn to master your position on the team.”
Even longtime sailors have plenty left to learn, Asante said.
“The key for successful sailors, I think, is to just keep an open mind and always try to learn,” he said. “You just never get boastful about being a sailor. You’ll realize that you’ll have a certain degree of competency when you do achieve it, but you realize that nature always has the upper hand and that there are always new things to learn, to understand and to master.”
Sailing can also allow people to connect with their heritage on a deeper level, Asante said.
Universal Sailing Club hosts annual “Souls at Sea” ceremonies, which draw from traditions and practices of the Yoruba religion of Ifá from Nigeria, where members honor their ancestors.
“It’s a chance to remember your family members who have passed and transitioned, relevant ancestors that are important to you … and the many Africans who lost their lives by one means or another being captured aboard a sailboat and being brought into a strange new land to never have their freedom again,” he said.
As sailing centers attract more people to the sport, Zarkowsky said it is important to keep those newcomers engaged, whether by allowing them to sail different types of boats as they gain experience or learn to become a coach.
“One place where I’m looking is retaining the sailors that we’ve recruited, these communities, these groups that we’ve given an opportunity to,” she said. “Where do they progress in the current organization? Where do they go next and feel like they’re moving up through the program?”
Thank you and Michael for being and living history ! It has been nothing less than inspirational. I look forward to your legacy continue to the next generation!
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