Written by Tom Carter
School was out for summer and color TV was all the rage. Cable was still a couple of years away from Boston. Video games were in their infancy and cell phones and the Internet were a good 15-20 years away as well. Every parent would be asking themselves the same question – What am I gonna do with these kids all summer?
I used to get up every day at around 7:00am
I remember I was about 11 years old and I used to get up every day at around 7:00, get on the bike (that I paid for with my paper route money) and head down to the Castle Island Sailing Program. Now known as the Harry McDonough Sailing Center. I forget what it cost – I want to say it was $5.00 for the summer. In order to sail at the sailing program, you had to pass the swim test which consisted of either swimming the length of the dock twice or having one of the life guards from the beach give you a test. Most kids took it at the beach because of all the nasty sea-weed attached to the dock.
Harry McDonough was truly a legend and probably the least likely person you could ever pick to run a youth program. To me he was this loud, angry barrel-chested guy that loved to yell at people. But the secret was that he was really this teddy bear type guy who was like a second father and maybe even a first father to a lot of kids. He also had a knack for getting what ever was needed for the program, regardless of the State’s funding shortage. He always got the boats, sails, and supplies that were needed to keep the kids busy all summer long. There were also a lot of other people that were involved. They did not actually work there. They were more like volunteers. Some were experts at sailing. Some would repair the boats or the docks. They had a lot of people that supported the program in so many different ways. That is probably the biggest secret about Southie that some people can’t grasp. It is, was, and always will be about the “people of Southie” and not the actual geography of Southie.
For a kid in the city – the sailing program – was the greatest place you could be. Pleasure Bay is an excellent place to learn to sail. It is a decent size. Not too big, not too small. But you could do just about anything there. It started with King Fishers and 110’s, then escalated to Force 5’s and 210’s.
I remember one summer when the Tall Ships were visiting and some of the Norwegian sailors found themselves at Castle Island. Harry just took in a new fleet of Laser’s. Lasers are a very small high performance boat that held 2 people, max. To get the boat at its maximum speed you had to keep it level and this was done by hanging out almost horizontal. In sailing this is called “hiking out” and if you hike out too far you end up in the water. A couple of the Norwegians were hiking out too much and Harry was chasing them in his Boston Whaler and screaming with a bullhorn to “Vet you Vass in zee boat.”
The Carrol School for the Blind
Then after you learned to sail, Harry would grab you and tell you he needed a favor and the favor would always be the same. One day a week bus-loads of kids would arrive from the Carrol School for the Blind. Harry would have us take kids out and teach the blind how to sail. I remember thinking he was nuts, but he had it all figured out. He would put one of those portable stereos facing the water and crank it up. That was their reference point. If they got too far away they had to head back towards the music and if it was too loud, then they would be too close to the land and dock. It was weird at first, but it actually worked.
The rest was all hearing and feel. If the sails were not full you could hear them flapping in the breeze so you pulled the tiller in to tighten the angle. These kids were amazing.
Give back to the community
It is not until now that I realize that not only did they teach you how to sail, they also taught you how to give back a little to the community and to society. At the end of the day, I would ride my bike back home.
As we all know a lot has changed since then, but the Harry McDonough Sailing Program is still rolling.
Help support the Harry McDonough Sailing Center on Thursday, June 20th https://caughtinsouthie.com/feature/sailing
This blog was originally published in 2011.