Into The Wind
Steve Manson's Unconventional Path to Sailing
It's the sort of day on the harbor that just says sailing. It's early fall and still warm, there isn't a cloud in the sky, and a breeze blows in with enough strength and consistency to keep the two small sloops loping back and forth just out from the Downtown Sailing Center spry.
Steve Manson echoes this day's vibe. The 22-year-old has been an instructor at the center since 2005 and, as of this week, is now an unlikely movie star. He recently returned from a Hollywood premiere of the documentary Morning Light, in which he plays a central role. Today, he's traveled by bus from New York, where he attends school at SUNY's Maritime College, and, since getting back to Baltimore, has endured an afternoon of press interviews.
Manson is relaxed and maybe beaming a little. At the end of a 20-minute interview he goes on briefly about how all of the reporters have been so easy to talk to today. It's a break from what Manson says has sometimes been confrontational questions about his role in Morning Light. The subject is an easy, cynical target. The Disney movie revolves around 15 mostly college-aged sailors selected from a pool of more than 500 applicants to train for six months to compete in the yearly offshore Transpac Los Angeles-to-Hawaii sailing race.
The conflict comes from the "why" Manson was chosen to be one of those 15. During the selection process, he was green by most sailboat-racing standards--"I was extremely outclassed," he says--and by Transpac standards, he was whatever comes before green. The cocked eyebrows come from the fact that Manson is African-American, and sailing is about the whitest sport this side of hockey. The argument would be that he was chosen because he makes a good subplot--beating the odds, etc.
The thing is that it's a good subplot. It sucks that sailing is a frequently white, elitist-on-its-face sport. (Yes, it is.) And it's cool that Manson got this opportunity. At the end of Morning Light, you get a quick end-credits epigraph that gives updates on the 15 participants, and while many of them are two steps closer to jobs in tall glass buildings in desert cities and away from the sport, Manson is teaching sailing, racing on an offshore sailing team, and looking at a future designing and building boats. Huzzah.
It was Baltimore's sailing community that ultimately did the heavy lifting--besides Manson, of course--in terms of advocating and opening the sport and providing a base of support. Manson, having never been on a boat save for "maybe a water taxi," was recruited by Youth Works, a program that matches kids from public schools with jobs. "They tell you they want to teach you to sail and they want to pay you," Manson says. "And in return they want you to come back the next summer and teach. I don't mind getting paid to do something that I know people pay a crap load of money to learn."
He says that on his first day at the Downtown Sailing Center the wind was blowing about 20-25 knots, a formidable breeze. "They usually don't even take one of these boats out in that," he says, motioning toward the sloops still ducking around the harbor. "We went out, and I got banged up a little bit. When it's windy out you get hit by the lines and things moving. We were just cookin' along, sailing back and forth. And you hardly ever learn to sail in those conditions. In those kinds of situations, you either love it or hate it. And I loved it."
That was only three years ago, which, by sailing standards, is a blink. The sport is full of "people that grew up sailing," Manson says. "Their grandparents sailed, their parents sailed, they sailed." When the Morning Light opportunity came up, he had slim experience even being on a sailboat of that size. He hemmed and hawed some about whether or not to take the next step after the application process--taking two weeks and traveling to Long Beach, Calif., for a series of further trials.
"I was really nervous when I first got there," Manson recalls. "I did some side training, like with the Baltimore City Yacht Association's offshore boats. Ears popped open in the sailing community--there's this kid in Baltimore that's trying to do this Morning Light thing--and people realized that this is something that they wanted their kids to do. Everybody from all over, Baltimore Yacht Club, Annapolis Yacht Club; even people from Annapolis, would call and say, `You don't know me, but I know you're trying to train for this Morning Light thing. Come sail with us, we'll come pick you up.' I can't believe the kind of love I got from people I didn't even know."
Even at the Long Beach trial, Manson found a group of what should have been his competitors instead helping him out, something he also credits, in part, with helping him make the final cut. "If I was this guy that just knew his stuff and didn't need any help from anybody, I probably wouldn't have communicated with half the people that were there," he says. "So, I was just askin', `You look smooth, you look professional. How can I look like that?' That helped me out a lot in getting to know a lot of people, meeting people."
In the end, it sounds less and less like Manson got some kind of free pass from the movie's producers. The young man has discovered something he loves. "It'd be hard going from sailing here seven days a week to nothing," he says. "I would be a sad person to be around."
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