Friday morning, as rush hour traffic began swelling on Storrow Drive, a pack of sailboats with neon orange sails set out from the docks of Community Boating, a historic public sailing nonprofit. Each boat carried children and teens from across the state out into the open waters of the Charles River.
On the dock, over the faint sound of boats bobbing on the water and metal masts clinking, five boys sat on top of picnic tables making bets on which boat would capsize first and stressing about not being finished yet with their schools’ summer reading assignments.
This summer marks the 75th anniversary of Community Boating, which since its conception has sought to make sailing accessible to all regardless of income or ability.
“I can say unequivocally that anyone who comes in the front door will be able to get on a boat,” said Executive Director Charlie Zechel in a phone interview Thursday.
The program was inspired by Joe Lee, an affluent Bostonian with an eye for social justice, who wanted to give the West End’s working-class children opportunities to experience sailing, an activity often defined by elitism and exclusivity. Lee’s program began in the 1930s and sparked the formal creation of Community Boating Inc. in 1946.
Now, operating out of a boathouse built on the Charles in 1941, the volunteer-run program is defined by its vibrant and diverse community of about 3,000 adults and 1,000 youth, some with physical disabilities.
“I like that it’s very diverse here and there are so many different levels so anyone can do it,” said Liam Abarca-Gresh, a 10-year-old from Somerville, on Friday. He meets kids from different schools, he said, and he likes that — especially meeting older kids.
“It’s just fun,” said Tamerat Edelstein-Rosenberg, 14, who lives in the North End, as the two exchanged phone numbers. “You get to do whatever you want here.”
Like Edelstein-Rosenberg, many sailors relish the independence and freedom that comes with steering their own boat.
“I loved the independence. When I first started, I immediately felt like an adult,” said Evan McCarty, 21, of Lexington, as he cruised along the water in the staff motorboat.
McCarty has been a member of the community for 10 years — first as a youth sailor and now as a volunteer. His father also learned to sail at Community Boating, he said.
Last season, due to the pandemic, the youth and adult programs had to be suspended and the organization could only offer rentals. He missed the energy of having “mischievous” kids around all day, McCarty said as he sped up to use his EMT certification to help a boy who had bruised his foot.
Growing up, McCarty said, he was one of many who paid close to nothing for a summer membership which was a huge relief for him and his family.
Community boating offers memberships on a sliding scale, with some paying as little as $1 annually. And its universal access program offers opportunities for people with disabilities to operate sailboats independently.
Daniel Scher, 47, from Mansfield, has multiple sclerosis, which forced him to retire from his job as a physician and reel back on many of his hobbies. When a friend suggested he try out sailing, he thought it was a “bizarre” idea.
“Me? Learn how to sail?” he said, adding that he’d never been on a boat smaller than a ferry.
But he quickly was thrilled by the physical and mental challenges that come with being on the water.
“Learning new things can be really hard for me,” said Scher in a phone interview Friday. “The instructors adapted to that… Some of them have made it their mission to make me get as many certifications as I can.”
For two years now, he’s been sailing at least once a week. In September, he’ll be racing in a regatta on Long Island — something he never imagined he’d do.
The community also includes blind sailors and paraplegic sailors, Zechel said at the boathouse on Friday. And several couples have fallen in love on the docks of the boathouse, he said.
“Sailing is a wonderful activity,” Zechel said. “It’s a refreshing, invigorating, and rejuvenating experience. It puts people in touch with nature... But community is the more important of the two words.”
Zechel said Community Boating, which operates every year from April to October, gives people experiences and relationships they wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.
“When you get on the water, there’s this euphoric sense of ‘life is good again,’” he said looking at the water through his office window. “It’s the reason people like me hang out here for so long.”
Julia Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.