'Prepare to board," an enthusiastic voice yells from the sailboat. The three kids on board expertly steer the sailboat alongside the dock at the Boston Community Boating Boathouse. Twelve-year-old Daniel Alvarez hoists the heavy wooden rudder out of the water and away from the small fiberglass sailboat. The boat gently rocks up and down on the waves of the Charles River – a river that divides the city of Boston from the neighboring city of Cambridge. Spencer Gao, 10, and Alex Chung,12, tie the boat to the dock and pull the sail down from its perch on the mast.
As the summer sun beats down on him, Daniel smiles slightly. He enjoys his time on the waves – a taste of independence – even if he sails for only a few hours at a time.
On any given summer weekday, this boathouse is a hub of activity for local children, with a couple hundred of them sailing boats on the river or milling around the dock.
While other boathouses might be places for adults, kids rule here, as there is a no-adult policy on the dock from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. With membership for kids ages 10 to 18 costing just $1, any boy or girl can afford to become a member; use the equipment; and take free sailing, kayaking, and windsurfing lessons.
Although a few other boathouses around the country have imitated this program – Community Boating Inc. – it remains the oldest and largest sailing program for kids in the country.
The idea behind the program began in 1936 when Joseph Lee Jr. taught street kids how to build sailboats and sail them on the Charles River. In 1941, another Boston resident donated the funds to build the current boathouse. Today, donations, fundraisers, and adult memberships pay for the kids' memberships. About 1,800 new "sailors" join each summer.
Daniel became a member two years ago and comes a couple times a week with his school friend Alex. Instead of watching TV and playing video games, Daniel, Alex, and the other kids here are sharpening life skills, making friends, and having a blast doing it.
"I like the thrill," Daniel says. "It's kind of like video games, except you're actually doing it. With TV or video games you're just watching stuff happen, but with sailing you feel and do it yourself."
Doing it yourself means you develop some important skills, he says, such as strength, hand-eye coordination, and teamwork. Balance, which in sailing means making sure you're not on the same side of the boat as the heavy boom, is a must. "Otherwise we'd be in the water right now," Daniel adds.
The teamwork aspect of sailing appeals to Daniel and Alex's other sailing buddy, Spencer, whom they met at the boathouse recently. It's easier to make friends, they find, with those who also share their love of sailing and the interaction that comes from working as a team.
Sailing is "better than being a couch potato," Spencer says. "I've met a lot of friends here, and we have lots of fun. We're nice to each other."
While some kids such as Spencer come to the boathouse alone, siblings Matthew and Lindsey Theriault come together. They first visited the program three years ago, and this shared activity continues to bring them closer to each other and the outdoors.
"I like enjoying the summer weather, getting a tan, and going fast on the boat on windy days," Matthew says.
Conversely, Lindsey enjoys the calming effect of sailing with friends and family. The fact that this program is "nice and cheap" is an added bonus. Because she had already learned how to sail, she was allowed to join her school's sailing team when she started high school last year.
The upcoming school year is quickly approaching, but you'd hardly know it from the carefree buzz of energy exuded by the kids readying their sailboats to take out on the water or the incessant babble of kids telling their parents about their daily adventures when they're picked up after a long day on the river.