Samantha Smith, 8, skipped to the end of a fishing dock in Oyster Bay, screaming “Go Justin!” while waving her hand in the air and holding up a congratulatory sign, amazed that her brother sailed solo across the Long Island Sound on Saturday.
Justin Smith, 12, pushed off from Stamford, Conn. at 10:45 a.m. and four hours later arrived near the WaterFront Center in Oyster Bay to see his family cheering him on.
“The waves weren’t that big and there was pretty big wind the entire way,” said Justin, who has sailed with Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club in Oyster Bay for three years. “When I came into Oyster Bay I heard an amazing cheering squad.”
Justin sailed across the Long Island Sound in his 8-foot-long Optimist sailboat raising money for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit that preserves and restores native wildlife and habitats.
So far, Justin has raised $4,000 to fund the wildlife foundation’s “bioextraction” cleanup project of the Bronx River, which uses seaweed and ribbed mussels to naturally filter pollution from the water that also feeds into the Sound.
The idea was sparked a year ago when Justin was asked to come up with a charity project for his bar mitzvah. The 7th-grader from South Woods Middle School in Syosset decided to then incorporate his love of sailing into helping the body of water he has sailed on for years.
“I chose to do this because the water is very important to me and I want to keep it clean,” Justin said.
Lynn Dwyer, assistant director for the northeast National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, waved with excitement at seeing a young person engaged in preserving the environment.
“When kids get engaged on the water or doing things by beautiful places we have them for life,” said Dwyer, 54, of Patchogue. “This is the type of thing that’s going to protect our natural resources and environment in the future. Justin is already committed to putting together a team of other young sailors for next year to raise funds for the program.”
To keep Justin safe, dad Brian Smith, followed him the whole way on a chase boat along with Ben Benfield, 29, of Port Washington, a sailing coach at the WaterFront Center.
“It was a pretty exciting day,” said Brian Smith, 43, of Muttontown. “I’m extremely proud of him and it has been a pleasure to watch him take this challenge on and come up with it all on his own. To cross 7 to 8 miles of open water in an 8-foot sailboat solo at 12 years old is quite the feat. I’m really proud of him.”
Justin used his Facebook page, Justin Protects the LI Sound, to allow sailboat enthusiasts to follow him on his journey. He will continue to collect donations until Jan. 12.
While looking through binoculars at her son approaching the shore, Sharon Smith said she was proud of Justin for using his passion for sailing to help protect the environment.
“It was a lot of work and it’s important for him to learn how to give back,” said Sharon Smith, 44, of Muttontown. “He wanted to fund a project that would benefit the water he sails on. This experience will stay with him for the rest of his life.”