The light wind on Hempstead Harbor this summer day was just enough for the boys and girls sailing tiny Optimist dinghies to make a little headway.
It was the second day of Sea Cliff Yacht Club’s seven-week Junior Sailing Program for students ages 8 to 17. But it was the first day the beginners’ group got to sail after completing swimming tests and practicing intentionally capsizing the 7-foot-9 craft on day one.
The majority of the eight novices quickly got the hang of making the Optis, as they’re known, go where they wanted, although several were occasionally confused about which way to turn the rudder to change course.
Most of the 42 participants in the sailing program’s three levels are children of yacht club members. But three enrolled through an unusual route.
While the club members paid $2,685 tuition and either own or rented the required boat for their children, three beginners are attending on scholarship. Their participation was made possible by program co-chair Harvey Bass, a former club commodore — chief officer of the club — who seven years ago created Ranger Sailing Foundation to sponsor children from underserved communities.
ON THE WATER
On the first day of sailing, scholarship recipients Ly’Anna Ermmarino and her friend Mayra Chandler, both 12 and heading into seventh grade at Glen Cove Middle School, were making the most of the opportunity. Max Martinez, 11, of Glen Cove, joined the program in the second week, after attending lacrosse camp.
The rectangular Opti dinghies can only comfortably hold one small person, so the students sailed solo while getting tips from instructors circling in “crash boats,” on hand to help with mishaps.
Instructor Shepard Stone, 24, glided alongside Mayra’s boat and corrected where she was holding the “main sheet,” the rope that controls the angle of the single sail. Idling alongside Ly’Anna’s boat, Stone told her to move back toward the stern. “That way you will have room to move the tiller both ways,” said the Maine native who has been sailing since he was about 10.
The novices sailed slowly, or drifted under a hot sun when the wind died, until the instructors yielded to pleas to return to the club for swimming.
There would be more excitement in coming days, when the wind inevitably would be stronger, and by the second week the participants would cruise farther on “adventure sails” and compete in races.
Ly’Anna said she had been on a sailboat once before in Oyster Bay when she was about 2 and remembers enjoying it. Already thinking of her future, she said she’s excited about learning to sail “because I think it would be a good skill to know and I might have a higher acceptance rate at some schools.” She thinks she would like to continue sailing and compete in races.
“I like it,” Ly’Anna said, but she was looking forward to sailing with more wind. So far, she said, she wasn’t having trouble controlling the boat. “Everything’s pretty good,” she said.
She added that she hasn’t done a lot of swimming in salt water “because I’ve always been kind of scared of it, so being here is kind of making me get over my fear.”
Capsizing the boat intentionally the day before to learn how to handle such an occurrence while sailing “was pretty scary because it was the first time I have been in the sea or the ocean for a while.” Having done it, she said she felt much more comfortable in the Opti.
Unlike her friend, Mayra had never been boating before. And unlike Ly’Anna, she signed up because “I really like the ocean, and I like swimming.”
Mayra’s initial reaction: “It’s all right. I like it.”
But she, too, was looking forward to windier days. After the first day under sail, she said she understood the mechanics of controlling the boat “a little bit.”
“I need some work, but I get it,” she said, adding that she was looking forward to “going places and moving around more.”
‘I’M HAVING FUN’
“The first couple of days we didn’t get a lot of wind, and the first day we got wind they were definitely a little freaked out,” instructor Stone said of Ly’Anna and Mayra’s first week.
Putting them in a boat together helped, he said. “It seems like they’re starting to get a feel for it and it’s starting to be a lot less scary for them. It seems like they’re having fun now.”
“It was a little scary with the wind and waves combined,” Mayra said after her second week. “Now it’s fine,” she said, adding that she learned to handle the Opti: “I can control it. I learned how to stand up in the boat to steer.”
“It’s just a little scary sometimes when there’s a lot of wind,” Ly’Anna added. “It’s getting better. It’s getting easier than it was in the beginning,” she said of sailing the Opti where she wants. The bottom line: “I’m having fun.”
Stone kicked off July 5, the breezy first day of week two, by having the young sailors launch from the beach, sail out to a buoy by the entrance to Glen Cove Creek and return to make sure they could safely handle the boats — before proceeding for a day of sailing on the open waters of Hempstead Harbor.
Max and the others accomplished the boat handling reasonably well as Stone shouted encouragement and directions from shore. “Pull in the sail a little more,” he yelled to Max and a few of the others.
Max, who will be entering sixth grade at Glen Cove Middle School in the fall, is a relative sailing veteran. He started two years ago at a weeklong program at the nonprofit WaterFront Center in Oyster Bay, sailed in a four-week program on Hempstead Harbor last year and sails regularly with a friend.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s relaxing and I really like the water and water sports,” he said, noting water scooters, paddleboarding, kayaking, “and all that stuff.” He said controlling a sailboat has become natural to him, but “I just want to get better.”
FOUNDING THE RANGERS
Bass, 75, created Ranger Sailing Foundation in 2015 to satisfy a desire that emerged after undergoing successful esophageal cancer surgery in 2002.
“I was working at The Green Vale School, which is a very wealthy private school, and I grew up in a poorer neighborhood in Brooklyn,” the Sea Cliff resident related, “and I thought it was time to do a little payback. I started to look at what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and I really enjoy teaching, and I wanted to help kids who had a background like mine when I was growing up.”
Bass also wanted to memorialize his father, who died at 67 in 1987, the year Bass joined the yacht club. “He was all about kids,” Bass said of his father.
“I called it the Ranger Sailing Foundation because he was a decorated Army Ranger who hit the beaches in Normandy in the Second World War and survived a mission that was classified as almost suicidal that day.”
“I took my father out sailing just a couple of times,” Bass said. “When I was young, we took out rowboats and went fishing upstate.”
With donations from foundations and individuals, Ranger Sailing Foundation has provided scholarships for more than a dozen students so far. Bass has raised money to buy several Optimist dinghies and 420s, 13-foot-9 dinghies with two sails that hold two occupants.
“My greatest accomplishment was that the first two sailors I had — Adam Bonilla and Rafael Cruz Villalobos — got jobs last season as junior sailing instructors at Port Washington Yacht Club,” he said. Both are teaching there again this summer.
Bonilla, 18, of Glen Cove, had never sailed before he attended the Sea Cliff program the summer before seventh grade at Glen Cove Middle School.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I met new people and they become lifelong friends, both students and instructors. In the beginning I felt like an outcast because my color was different and my accent was different. But after two or three weeks I felt welcome.”
Oscar Bonilla, Adam’s father, said, “He loved it. He was so excited. I feel proud of him.” Asked if he could have afforded sailing lessons for his son without the scholarship, Bonilla, a delivery driver for a beer distributor, said “No way! I can’t afford those kind of things.”
Bonilla, whose brother Brian subsequently participated in the program, will attend SUNY New Paltz in the fall, so the foundation is paying for his books for the first year.
BASS' VARIED CAREER
Bass began his career teaching math at an intermediate school in Williamsburg in Brooklyn while studying for his MBA at Baruch College. Then he was hired by Baruch and later worked as a fraud investigator for the New York City Human Resources Administration. He became the head systems administrator for the city’s Department of Investigation and eventually worked for the New York City Transit Authority, where he also headed the systems operation.
After retiring in 2004, Bass worked as a consultant. A two-week project for The Green Vale School led him to a full-time job there, starting in IT, then returning to the classroom to run a “discovery lab,” for pre-K and nursery school children, as well as a robotics class for older students. He’s now completing his doctorate in information science while continuing to teach at the school.
Bass began sailing at 25 after a friend from City Island, in the Bronx, said he had bought a Hobie catamaran. The two assembled the boat and launched it.
“We did not know tacking from jibing, turned it over a few times and figured that maybe we should take some lessons,” Bass said.
They found a Coast Guardsman who “took us out on a 26-foot sailboat that had no motor, so we really had to learn how to sail,” Bass explained. “I’ve been sailing ever since.”
In 1975, he bought his first large sailboat, a 23-footer, and joined Stuyvesant Yacht Club on City Island. Two years later, he traded up to a 28-footer.
Bass moved his boat to a mooring in Manhasset Bay in 1982 before joining the Sea Cliff club in 1987. His current boat is a 37.5-foot Hunter named No No Nanette, inspired by the Broadway musical and his wife, a retired eveningwear designer who also loves to sail. Bass has three grown children. “My girls are both teachers. . . . My son owns a kosher organic farm.”
After becoming co-chair of the junior sailing program in 2004, Bass said, he inundated the club’s board of directors with enough suggestions for improving the program to get a spot on the board. He worked up from treasurer to commodore in 2012, serving for two years in that position.
FUN COMES FIRST
“I’d like to give a big shoutout to the club for recognizing that it has a responsibility to the community,” Bass said.
The current commodore, Robin Maynard, the first woman in that role, said the yacht club is “thrilled to partner with the Ranger Sailing Foundation to be able to provide the opportunity to sail to underprivileged children.”
“It’s been a great experience for everyone,” she added, with scholarship recipients and members’ children participating in birthday parties and other events and making lasting friendships.
In addition to sailing in the junior program, some of the older and more accomplished young sailors have joined Bass on his boat for evening races. Before he started the foundation, he invited six sailors from the program who were 14 and older to crew his boat in 2007 for the Around Long Island Race, sponsored by the yacht club. Bass said it was the first time a boat competed in the race without an adult crew — and they came in second. He subsequently has taken young crew members a half-dozen times on the race.
Of the young people brought into the program through the Ranger scholarship, Bass said, “I’ve stayed in touch with a couple of them. Some of them have stayed with sailing and some of them moved on. Kids want to do a lot of things, and parents want to put their kids into hockey, tennis and golf, so you have a lot of competition.”
True to Bass’ experience, novice sailor Mayra said she’s not sure whether she’ll continue sailing after this summer. “I like sports,” she said, noting many others competing for her attention.
Those who have raced on the bigger boats tend to stay with the sport, Bass said. “Some move on to racing because they’re motivated to do that. But we don’t emphasize that here. At other clubs, everything is built on racing. A lot of times that turns kids off. The idea is to keep it interesting and challenging.”
Bass said the junior program operates on a simple philosophy: “They’re children, and they need to have fun. If they learn to sail, that’s terrific.”
Harvey Bass hopes to raise money to buy larger boats that can accommodate several crew to expand the junior sailing program. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Ranger Sailing Foundation, 42 The Boulevard, Sea Cliff, NY 11579.