“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Rondell, 14, a future high school freshman who lives in one of Annapolis’ public housing projects. “When you do sports, you have to do everything at a certain pace. With sailing, you can go alone and take your time.
Sailing is like religion in Maryland’s capital, where children from well-to-do families learn early in exclusive yacht clubs the way kids from elsewhere might learn to ski. But while Annapolis once had stretches of shoreline where anyone could fish or set sail, the small town now teems with tourists and nautical-themed bars, its waterfront areas are whiter, richer and less accessible than never.
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Jayden and Rondell’s mentor, Thornell Jones, is among those looking to turn the tide. Jones, 84, raised the money this summer to send them and two other boys to sailing camp at the Eastport Yacht Club, where Jones is one of the only black members. The club has offered scholarships to four other children to attend its $450-a-week camps, which sell out months in advance. And a non-profit organization has partnered for the first time with a sailing school to provide a week of training for a dozen children from black and Latino communities.
“When you learn to sail as a kid, you learn all about water and wind, and it becomes a part of you,” Jones said, still lively despite his glasses and graying mustache. “If you don’t have access to water, if you don’t have any connection to the people on the water, it’s harder to imagine.”
Jones could imagine him growing up. Sailing was his childhood dream, conceived at the age of 5 and seeing
boats with white sails gliding along a New Jersey shore, a sight he still calls “magical.” But in the Jim Crow 1940s, no program would teach him. Half a century later, Jones retired from his marketing job at IBM and moved to Annapolis, determined to finally sail.
But even as he staged Friday night races and joined the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, Jones discovered that in America’s Sailing Capital the sport wasn’t much more integrated than in his youth. He was appalled that children growing up a few blocks from coves dotted with elegant sailboats had never noticed them.
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It’s a systemic problem, noted Deni Henson, who grew up here in the 1960s when the town of 41,000 was low-key and working-class, home to oyster farmers and crabbers. Henson recalled an “idyllic kind of childhood” catching crabs and swimming along the Eastport Peninsula, before soaring land values forced most of his black community out. Fences were erected, restaurants opened, and as multimillion-dollar homes replaced working cottages and shipyards, informal access to water gradually disappeared.
“If you’re the average African-American kid here, you live on a peninsula surrounded by water, but you can’t get to the water,” said Henson, who still owns his grandparents’ home. , next to an oyster factory that is now a museum. “You can’t just go to the beach like I did and swim.”
Over the past few summers, as covid crowds have swarmed public piers, coves and the downtown harbor dubbed “Ego Alley,” Annapolis officials have searched for solutions. Earlier this month, conservationists celebrated the saving of a fragment of a historic black beach for a park. The city launched a water equity study and planned new kayak launches and an electric ferry.
But there’s not much you can do, since nearly all of the city’s 17 miles of shoreline is privately owned. In Eastport, tensions over water access are rising as fast as upscale and gated housing, and waterfront neighbors are putting up bushes to block creeks where some used to paddle.
“Every wealthy person wants to protect their access to water,” said Diane Butler, 60, a sailor who sits on the city’s planning commission. “They take five feet on one side, five feet on the other, and there’s less left.”
A public sailing school could expand opportunities and compete with powerful yacht clubs, which run high school teams and charge junior membership fees. But some Annapolis leaders wonder if the city could afford it.
“The problem isn’t access to water,” said former mayor Ellen Moyer, who worked to preserve street creeks, including the handle currently in dispute. “It’s the equipment, the maintenance and the responsibility.”
Jones has been trying for years to introduce more kids to sailing, especially those who live in areas that tourists rarely see. He knocked on doors and talked to donors. He taught CM2 students the contours of the bay. He preached that knowing how to navigate can change lives, open up opportunities for high school teams, college recruiting, or high-paying jobs.
“Too many young people here don’t understand that there is a shipping industry that desperately needs workers,” he said.
Equally important, Jones hoped that by sailing for three weeks, through sun and wind, choppy water and the occasional rain, the boys would come out competent enough to teach young children. He plans to develop “a core group of young black sailors” to transform the sport for the next generation.
In the sweltering heat of a recent morning, Jones’ four teenagers huddled with younger campers in a gravel lot, their expressions serious as they fumbled with knots. Two instructors, competitive sailors but barely older, showed how to attach a light spinnaker to sail upwind. Jayden, 15, sweating as he struggled with the kite-shaped sail, joked: “I was ready to cry if we had to do this every day.”
Jones followed the boys’ progress as they mastered the tedious art of untangling ropes, hoisting sails and memorizing courses. He passed by with sandwiches, cold drinks and nautical charts to teach them navigation. Although local nonprofits regularly organize ship tours and sailing trips on private boats, Jones didn’t want to settle for a sightseeing outing. He wanted the boys to handle the boats themselves.
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Few young African Americans do. A 2020 national survey of college sailors found that less than 1% were black. The National Sailing Hall of Fame, which moved from Annapolis in 2019 to Newport, RI, only inducted its first black sailor last year.
“Coming up in the sport, I haven’t seen a lot of people like me,” said Preston Anderson, 22, who sailed for Bowdoin College and organized the diversity task force that orchestrated this poll. “We’re really trying to find ways to bring in new sailors, because you never know: you might have this extra on your team, and in four years they might be an all-American.”
Ky’Niya Henson, 13, could be one. The eighth-grader, who is not related to Deni Henson, lives in a ground-floor apartment in Harbor House, a housing project that has no water views despite its name . Although she likes to swim, she avoids her community pool, worried about broken glass on the terrace.
Three years ago, a mentor introduced Ky’Niya to sailing and helped her win scholarships to the Eastport Yacht Club. She initially felt shy among the other campers, in their Vineyard Vines bathing suits and proper boating shoes. Now, she says, she wants to sail all her life.
“It’s so open. You see water, trees and everything you don’t see on land,” Ky’Niya said. “It makes me feel really free.”
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The Jones boys felt the same way. Along the water, they came to savor a calm that can be elusive in the city. “It’s peaceful,” said Rondell, who lives in Robinwood, where, during the second week of camp, a man and woman were shot outside their apartment.
But the boys were most elated by their ability to control a boat, chart their own course and “go fast” on windy days.
“We didn’t know much about it,” Jayden said, recalling his apprehension during Jones’ first lessons. But “especially now that we’re going on the water, I love it.”
Towards the end of their final week, the coaches held a simulation race. As the eight campers set off, trying to remember a complicated two-mile course, Jayden and Rondell drifted far behind. Near the channel beacon, however, a gust of wind drew them to attention. With their coaches shouting directions, Jayden shot the bar, Rondell snapped the jib and they took the lead.
Their advantage would be short-lived as the tide turned, but neither seemed to care. Rondell’s thoughts turned to his freshman year at St. Mary’s High School, where he thought he would be too busy with football and basketball to join the sailing team. Jayden was considering football tryouts at Annapolis High; he announced that he could sail “after my retirement”.
Jones had other plans for them. ‘Triumphant’ with the boys’ progress, he was already planning to sign them up for yacht club races, introduce them to paddle board companies looking for workers and another summer of lessons so they could become junior instructors .
The camp lasted three weeks, but the title, Jones had decided, was for life: like him, they are sailors.