Sailing school persists despite pandemic

Aug 7, 2020

As a long-time sailor, Amy Gross-Kehoe is used to headwinds.

The new sailing director at Padanaram’s New Bedford Yacht Club moved from Chicago to Falmouth to take up the position following the departure of 20-year veteran Michael Callahan.

Gross-Kehoe said that earlier this year she was looking forward to her first time leading the club’s summer sailing school.

Normally, the program teaches more than 200 kids how to sail, and by March over a hundred had already signed up. But then the pandemic struck.

New safety precautions meant that the club could only offer its sailing school to club members, so Gross-Kehoe had to whittle the number down to around 75.

“That has been manageable,” she said, “But still overwhelming at times, because we still have to adhere to all the social distancing rules.” On rainy days, she noted, classes have to be held indoors.

And after hiring 12 instructors for the program, she said she decided to keep on as many as possible. “So, I’m a little overstaffed, because I didn’t want to let them all go,” she laughed.

This meant that on August 7 — when many of the sailors were at the first regatta of the season in Plymouth — there were three instructors for a class of seven children.

“It’s so good for the kids,” Gross-Kehoe said. “They get so much individualized instruction.”

Due to concerns with younger kids being unable to maintain proper social distancing, the club suspended its ‘Tiller Tots’ program this year. But starting from age 7, kids of all levels are still able to learn to race.

“I don’t like going fast,” said eight-year-old Emma Wallace, who was busy tying a daisy chain — a series of loops that can be quickly unfastened when needed — in class on Friday.

Meanwhile Noah MacGregor, also eight, said that his favorite part of the sailing lessons was going swimming. 

Seven-year-old Ryan Nyweide said he liked doing the rigging — putting the boats together at the start — best, while eight-year-old Eric Furey said he liked racing. “I’m really good at going downwind,” he said matter-of-factly.

Alongside the more traditional sailing programs, the club also holds a sailing adventures class that allows students to cruise on a variety of vessels, and incorporates other activities like kayaking, exploring, and boat restoration.

“It’s super popular,” said Gross-Kehoe. “The idea is to spark interest in not just the next college sailor of the year, but the next engineer.”

The club is considering starting a new series of lessons this fall, while many students are at home learning remotely.

Gross-Kehoe noted that she’s never seen the first regatta take place as late as August 7 before. But despite the strangeness of this summer, she seems to just be glad to be on the water doing what she loves.

“My whole life I've been a sailor,” she said. “And you can’t control the wind, you just have to make adjustments for it...looking at this year, you just have to make adjustments for the wind that’s in your way.”

“My kids have been great, the parents have been great,” she added. “Things [happen], things you can’t control — so you just roll with it.”