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Sizzlin Feature

Masts for the Masses

The Downtown Sailing Center Makes Everyone a Sailor

Photos by Michelle Gienow

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By Brennen Jensen | Posted 5/24/2000

Horse racing, they say, is the sport of kings. So what is sailing? It's the sport of snobs. Going down to the sea in wind-driven ships is the moneyed pastime of guys named Endicott and Winthorpe. Chaps who jump into L.L. Beans and hand-stitched TopSiders, slather their turned-up noses with goopy white sunblock, and flitter across the briny in teak-accented sloops named Courage or Dreadnought (as opposed to, say, Daddy's Loot). When they're not out doing the wind-jockey thing, you'll find them parked behind the polished bar rail of Ye Olde Members Only Yacht Club, bantering and boozing: Stuffed Shirt Sailor Guy #1: "Say, Prescott, old bean, are you having problems with your jib?"

Stuffed Shirt Sailor Guy #2: "Nothing wrong with my jib that another Johnny Walker wouldn't solve!"

Stuffed Shirt Sailor Guy #1: "Hear hear!"

To wit: Blue-collar folks can go motorboatin', but it takes a blue blood to sail.

Of course, this is a stereotype. But one thing is for certain: Unless you're talking about a craft small enough to tow behind a Geo Metro, owning and operating a sailboat is expensive. You have to buy the boat, you have to maintain the boat, you have to have a place to tie the boat up, you have to insure the boat. (No wonder kings stick to horses.)

But suppose you really like the challenge, beauty, and excitement of sailing--or think you might--and don't possess a blue-chip portfolio or a fat trust fund? This is where Captain Kirk comes to the rescue.

Yes, Captain Kirk--but this Kirk, I can assure you, doesn't wear side-zip boots and a polyester pullover like his TV namesake. Kirk Culbertson is the executive director of the Downtown Sailing Center (DSC), a 6-year-old nonprofit organization whose goal is to make sailing fun, convenient, and--most important--affordable to all. And it does it all right here in Baltimore.

DSC's armada of some 30 boats bobs off a series of floating docks arrayed along the waterfront at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Culbertson, the center's only paid employee, is an affable 44-year-old with a reddish-blond beard and the tanned, rugged face of a consummate outdoorsman. His blue eyes squint beneath a bacardi rum baseball cap. The best place to explain what DSC is all about, he says, is the stern of one of its boats as it tools across the harbor. And though it's kind of an icky day--gray, dank, and ready to drizzle--I scramble aboard the 27-foot sailboat.

"This is better than being in the office, isn't it?" Culbertson asks as I find a place to sit. (My main job, for the moment, is to just stay out of the way.)

Joining us are Captain Jack Lynch, another outdoorsy-looking guy and one of DSC's more seasoned boat handlers, and Alex Adamson, a Canadian in red plastic glasses who's sort of a captain-in-training.

"Shall we head down to the Inner Harbor?" Culbertson asks. Lynch wants to try out a snazzy new rainbow-colored sail, but since it's not very breezy today, he starts up the diesel (aka the "iron lung") to get us away from the dock.

Settling in behind the tiller, Culbertson quickly explains that one unique thing about DSC is its location. Annapolis is Maryland's--if not the East Coast's--de facto sailing center; Baltimore's waters are generally regarded as the domain of cargo ships, water taxis, and paddleboats. "There is very little recreational sailing here now, but we look to a time when sailing will take over," he says. "There is certainly a great tradition of sailing and shipbuilding in Baltimore."

Lynch, who's mucking about with the ropes and sails, chimes in enthusiastically: "Baltimore is the best place to sail. I like the traffic and the excitement."

Indeed, the sailors admit, somewhat sheepishly, that they find sailing the Chesapeake a little, well, boring. There's just not much to look at. In contrast, Baltimore's shoreline is an ever-changing panorama of history, industry, and things touristy.

"There's the prettiest ship in the harbor," Culbertson says as we watch the sleek black Pride of Baltimore II prepare to pull away from an Inner Harbor dock. Nearby motors one of the ugliest ships in the harbor--but also one of the most important. "I don't know what we'd do without that," Culbertson says, pointing toward one of the blue-and-white garbage skimmers that prowl the waters.

Because of the harbor's narrow confines, unseasoned sailors can get their sea legs in a hurry. You get lots of practice "coming about" (changing the boat's direction to attack the wind from another angle). The sundry shoreline landmarks come in very handy for navigation. When we finally get under sail, Culbertson hands me the tiller and tells me to steer toward the tip of freighter unloading raw sugar at the Domino plant. Later, after coming about, I'm told to steer toward Brown's Wharf in Fells Point. As long as I remember to push the tiller the opposite direction from the one I want the boat to follow, it's pretty easy. I'm starting to feel all cocky. ("Somebody get me a captain's hat, and some goopy sunscreen!")

This sailboat is one of the larger of the DSC's boats, many of which have been donated to the center. "Some of our boats might not be new and might not be pretty, but they are all very functional," Culbertson says. Center volunteers pitch in to keep the boats in shape, so there's some sweat equity involved in being a DSC sailor. The center does have seven J22s--sleek 22-foot sailboats that are used for racing. (Some DSC members are organized into teams and compete in a summer-long weekly racing series; Culbertson says the comradeship and friendly competition of these evening matches is comparable to what you'd find in a bowling league.)

Beyond bringing more sailing to Baltimore, DSC wants to bring more people to sailing.

"Yacht clubs can be very exclusive," Culbertson says, "We're inclusive. We strive to bring new people to the sport in a cost-effective way. We want to develop a community of sailors."

You can become a member of DSC at variety of levels, depending on how much you want to sail, when you want to sail, and how well you know how to sail. A basic $25 annual membership gets you invites to all the group's social events and a chance to go out on monthly First Friday sailings. For $125, you can go recreational sailing two nights a week. The highest membership level is $650 a year, which allows you to co-chair a racing boat. (At that level you can also reserve and take out boats in the DSC fleet.) If you don't know how to sail, adult and youth lessons are available as well, staring at $125 for a four-week session.

DSC also reaches out to those who might not otherwise ever have an opportunity to run a sail up a mast. The center has hosted sailing-education programs for the Maryland School for the Blind and the Maryland Special Olympics. Over the past few summers, some 1,400 inner-city kids have had a chance to sail on DSC boats through the Parks and People Foundation's SuperKids Camp. These week-long camps combine daily sailing lessons with an intensive reading program.

"We've had kids that had never left their city neighborhood, and it is very rewarding to take them out on the water," Culbertson says. "They are often very tentative at first, but by the week's end they're all really enjoying themselves and have learned the importance of teamwork."

DSC hopes to take even more kids out on the water this summer, and its good work has not gone unnoticed: The center recently beat out some 300 other community sailing organizations to win the U.S. Sailing Association's Outstanding Seasonal Sailing Program award.

Culbertson was a kid himself when he first took to the tiller--he's been sailing since age 11 and started racing boats on the Chesapeake at 13. When he's asked why he loves the sport, he elects to show rather than tell: He cuts off the diesel engine, which we'd been using here and there whenever the wind was weak, and gingerly positions the boat. "That's more like it," he says as a gust begins to fill the sail and we glide smoothly forward.

"I like the quiet," Culbertson says after a reflective pause. "It's like getting back to nature. Sailing brings a peaceful settling to the soul."

Of course, it's not totally quiet. I can hear bells chiming from church spires in both South and East Baltimore. Gulls are squawking too. (One thing I don't hear, mercifully, is police sirens.) Other senses are teased as well. Depending on the wind, you can smell sugary sweetness from the Domino Sugar plant, baking bread from H&S Bakery, or coffee being roasted at Pfefferkorn's roastery in South Baltimore.

We slide silently through the waters for some time--each lost in our own thoughts. Culbertson looks particularly at ease. Holding a master's degree in taxation, he spent most of his adult life listening to the hum of florescent lights and the clatter of copying machines as a certified financial planner. Now Captain Kirk sails--and turns others on to the magic of wind, water, and canvas.

"There's not a lot of money in running a nonprofit sailing center," he says. "But the mental and spiritual rewards are significant."

To learn more about the Downtown Sailing Center, call (410) 727-2884 or visit its Web site, www.downtownsailing.org.

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