Northern Michigan residents know sailing is a lot of fun, but some at-risk teens are learning it can also be good for your soul.
This summer marks the fifth season for the SAIL Champion therapeutic sailing program, run by TC’s Mental Wellness Counseling and the Maritime Heritage Alliance. It combines traditional sailing skills with therapy to teach leadership, responsibility, and self-awareness.
Each session, six teenagers ranging from 14 to 17 years old who come from troubled backgrounds spend one week training as the crew of the custom-made 39-foot cutter Champion (the only other boat like it was once owned by the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy).
Not only do the teens learn to sail Champion, but they also receive group and one-on-one therapy on the boat from licensed counselor Joseph R. Sanok, who runs the program and says the results are promising.
“After the one-week intervention program, we saw a 70-percent drop in the intensity and frequency of the teens’ psychological problems,” he says. “We’ve helped over 100 kids, but there’s still room for a lot more.”
One of those teens helped was David Van Horn of Traverse City, who is now a student at NMC. He says along with being a lot of fun, SAIL Champion also changed his outlook on life.
“The program is a real-world understanding of how teens and young adults have to learn to be a community and work together,” he recalls, adding, “I also learned to drive a boat, so that was cool too.”
The teens spend the first day on land, doing team-building exercises. Then they learn how to run the boat –everything from steering to raising and lowering the sails – as they travel from the Maritime Heritage Alliance dock across West Bay. The teens then teach each other new skills, helping instill a sense of pride and accomplishment.
“The expectation is to develop a sense of trust by the end of the week,” Sanok adds. “We expect that they’ll be able to sail the boat. Each becomes an expert in their own way.”
One of the highlights of the program is going on a solo sail with the help of Captain Rorke Miller; he says the results he’s seen are amazing.
“I get to witness transformations before my very eyes,” he explains. “Quiet kids find their voice, bullies drop their guard and kids with lower self-confidence levels find a way to lead.”
The teens are referred by various local agencies, including Child and Family Services.
Independent living specialist Julie Quinn is an advocate of the program.
“It’s a chance for our youth to be proud of themselves,” she says. “The excitement in their face when they accomplish tying a knot, raise or lower a sail and steer the boat into the dock is priceless.”
The SAIL Champion program is offered at no cost to troubled teens, and runs for most of the summer. Along with grants and donations, Champion is also available for charter.
“If we can do 40 charters this summer, it will help offset the program,” says Sanok, who adds, “Our goal is to become self sufficient and also buy a second boat.”
Champion also offers family counseling cruises, where a family can go sailing and do team-building therapy on the boat.
See SAIL Champion in action here.