When I was a youngster growing up on the Great Salt Pond down on the coast of Rhode Island, I was intrigued by small sailing boats commonly known as catboats that gracefully plied the harbor waters. I have a distinct memory of an old saltwater Yankee artfully maneuvering his catboat around the inner haven of the Point Judith breakwater, his Irish setter sailing with him as first mate.
A sight reminiscent of this idyllic scene can be found on the Charles River most any day from April to November. By driving across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and looking east toward Boston's skyscape, you often take in a wonderful panorama dotted with numerous, small sailing craft of the kind I always wanted to learn to sail, but never did.
Although these boats aren't the catboats of my youthful memories, they spark a sense of that same flavor -- skillfully handled small sailboats creating a serene and picturesque image. These boats belong to Community Boating Inc. and are sailed by the club's approximately 7,000 members.
Without a doubt, the club lives up to the word ``community'' in its name. ``We have a variety of people who sail here,'' said assistant manager Mary Lou O'Donnell. ``We get people from as far away as New Hampshire, and people from the suburbs. We get inner-city kids and a number of recreation groups from surrounding towns. It amazes me what we do here. The club gives people a place to unwind, to meet other people.''
Nobody is turned away from Community Boating, which from all indications is one of the few major city clubs of its kind. Race, age, background -- none of these factors matter. The pleasures of sailing are open to everyone, including the handicapped, and the prices are affordable too. Juniors from 11 to 17 years old can sail all summer for a dollar. Adults can purchase 30-day, 90-day, or full-season memberships, the latter costing $120.
As the sun set and sailors were bringing their boats in for the night, I chatted with some club members.
One, the owner of a large sailboat docked north of Boston, said he has chosen crew members for ocean sailing from the ranks of the members at Community Boating.
Another sailor noted, ``You know, when you're out there sailing you could be a hundred miles from Boston.'' I was. I was thinking about the fact, that if I'd known about a club like this when I was growing up in Rhode Island, I'd be sailing that catboat by now.
Community Boating got its start in the late 1930s and early 1940s. ``A group of boys and an adult, Joe Lee, a Bostonian who loved sailing and working with youth, built the boats themselves, literally on rooftops,'' O'Donnell told me. ``Then they launched the boats in the river, and the group just grew and grew.''
The result was a nonprofit organization that operates in cooperation with Boston's Metropolitan District Commission, which oversees the land where the club is situated.
Community Boating offers adult and junior programs. The sailing experience of members runs from experts, some of whom are oceangoing sailors who enjoy the esprit de corps of the city sailing club, to the novice who has never sailed. However, a novice doesn't have to remain a novice very long.
``If you came down every single day for five days you could sail,'' O'Donnell said. ``But I think the average person who comes down a couple of times a week learns in about two weeks.''
When a newcomer arrives at Community Boating, he's matched up with an experienced sailor, one who has achieved his helmsman's rating. They go out sailing together for an hour or so. This gives the beginner a chance to get the feel of sailing. ``A new member can do that as many times as he wants to,'' O'Donnell explained. ``We use the hands-on teaching technique.'' Once the new sailors get used to being out in the boats they take a course of instruction in basic sailing techniques.
After successfully passing the oral part of the helmsman's test and when the new member feels ready to sail alone, he can solo in light winds. After sailing by himself a few more times and gaining a little more expertise, he can take his helmsman rating test.
Safety in sailing is a prime consideration at Community Boating. All members are required to be qualified swimmers. ``People capsize all the time,'' O'Donnell said. ``That's pretty much a given thing. If you're learning, you're going to capsize.''
Whenever any club member is sailing, though, the dock staff is always on full alert. If a boat capsizes, one of five safety launches appears on the scene within a very few minutes. Sailors are rescued and boats righted. All the boats have flotation devices and life jackets, and the sailing classes explain emergency procedures.
The club has more than 100 boats in its fleet. These include 86 Cape Cod Mercuries that are used for teaching beginners and for recreational sailing. These boats are 15-foot, centerboard sloops. The more experienced sailors at the club have access to two-person and single-handed high performance boats.
There's more to Community Boating than just water and boats, though. The active and diverse membership is a sociable one too. The sailing season abounds with events -- cookouts, dances, concerts, harbor cruises. And for competitive types there are races and regattas.