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By the bay: The Harry McDonough Sailing Center

Photography by Deborah McCarthy

Picture this: A panoramic view of the ocean from a protected bay. Semi-private sailing lessons. Kayaks and paddleboards and fishing rods at your disposal. Complimentary lunch on Fridays.

A fancy private yacht club on the Cape?

Nope. It the 43-year old Harry McDonough Sailing Program at Castle Island’s Pleasure Bay. 

It’s a summer camp for kids.  Oh, and it’s FREE.

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Named for former Boston Patriot (before they became the New England Patriots) and South Boston resident Harry McDonough who founded the sailing program.  “He was a phenomenal athlete and former all-American running back who grew up sailing in South Boston.  His vision was to have children of South Boston and Boston be able to sail for free, so he started the ‘Pleasure Bay Sailing Program,” explains Billy Higgins, a board member of the organization. (After the program obtained its non-profit 501C3 status it was renamed for its founder.)

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Higgins’ dad ran the program for years with his dear friend John “Dudso” Foley, till present treasurer Kenny Ryan assumed the directorship. Three years ago the program was able to hire East Boston High School teacher and South Boston resident Matt Sances to direct the program.

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(in photo: John “Dudso” Foley and Harry McDonough – special thank you to Patty (Foley) Shields for sharing picture)

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“We’ve got a really great team of instructors this year, and a very healthy sailor to instructor ratio of about 4 to 1. The campers must pass a swim test before anything else happens, and then they learn about dock safety, tying knots properly, the parts of the boat, and then they go out sailing. Many of our return campers have earned their solo cards and can take a boat out onto the lagoon by themselves,” said Sances. “And of course we employ two full-time lifeguards on duty at all times,” he added. 

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The popular summer program runs from after July 4th till late August, although Higgins would love to see it returned to its original Memorial Day to Labor Day schedule. “As with everything, we are slaves to funding. We have received tremendous support from the BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority) last year and we get an annual stipend from Massport as well. Our annual fundraiser accounts for the majority of our operating costs, and there are also some very generous local folks who always come through for us,” said Higgins. 

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As with any outdoor camp program, Mother Nature can throw a monkey wrench into the daily plans, but for that Sances and his team are prepared. “We teach the kids how to go crabbing, rescue starfish, use fishing rods, and we always have plenty of board games on hand too,” said Sances.

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On any given day there are between 75-100 sailors at the program which runs from 9 am – 4 pm.  Ten-year old Lauren Chin of East 7th Street is a newcomer and a big fan: “I love being with my friends and being able to swim, paddle board and sail all in the same day!”  

For more information on the program contact Director Sances at mattsances@gmail.com.

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About the Author

Christine Fennelly

South Boston resident since 1996 (left for the 'burbs for a few years but that was no fun), unabashed anglophile, unapologetic binge watcher and voracious reader. Strong advocate for Al's Liquor store to roll out a rewards card for frequent customers. (You know that's a good idea.) Devotee of all things Cafe Porto Bello. SBCA mom, lives on Thomas Park with her precocious 10 yr old son and her spoiled rotten Bernese Mountain Dog, Dory.