Sometimes it’s easy to forget Southie is a seaside neighborhood. But each July and August, the Harry McDonough Sailing Program at Castle Island brings all the joys of summertime ocean sailing lessons to kids 8 to 14—and for free. This year, the program—founded in 1972 by Southie resident Harry McDonough—is entering its fifty-first year. Originally created with the goal of teaching the blind how to sail, it has expanded to welcome all children from all neighborhoods. Though most kids are from Southie and Dorchester, the program has welcomed sailors from all over the state, like Milton, Quincy, and even Foxborough. This year, the program—headed by director Michaela Bavis and assistant director Wil Hingston—started on July 5th and will conclude at the end of August with its annual dance. 

Each day at the Harry McDonough Center, kids have sailing lessons with lifeguard-certified instructors from 9am to 12pm, take a break for lunch, and then start another set of lessons until the day ends at 4pm. There’s also the option to free sail in the afternoon, so “if there are some kids that don’t make the morning sessions, they can go out with the staff to sail,” Bavis said. One of the center’s traditions is its family night, where parents can sail along with their kids.

The fun doesn’t stop with just sailing lessons: sailors have the opportunity to swim, kayak, and paddleboard. In the past, the program has also raced against other local groups, most recently the Yacht Club last year. And during windy and rainy weather, instructors find ways to make the day special, setting up board games for kids to play in the center. Students can also still sail regardless of the weather, except in the case of thunderstorms.

For Bavis and Hingston, the most rewarding part of running the program is helping the kids. “It boosts a lot of their confidence. We all try together, if they’re struggling, to motivate them and get them out there,” Bavis said. To that end, the program will continue to accept new kids throughout the summer— even with nearly 500 already enrolled—since only a fraction come on a given day. Last Thursday alone, there were seven new signups. The center’s impact on its sailors also lasts once they’ve aged out since many become instructors. “The majority of the staff members have all come here. It’s great because they also have the experience of helping their friends,” Bavis said. 

This unique program is a nonprofit that has persisted over the years thanks to donations from families and the community. Last month, the center held its annual fundraiser in the lead-up to the start of the season. The center welcomes ongoing donations via PayPal so it can keep such a unique and free summer opportunity alive for Boston-area youth.

The season ends at HDMC on August 31st. To enroll your child, visit the Harry McDonough Sailing Center between 9am and 4pm on Mondays through Thursdays. The organization is also on Facebook and Instagram for online contact.

Even this late in the season, Bavis stressed that signups are welcome from all kids—and remain free. “A lot of programs are extremely expensive—I know as a single mom it’s hard. So it’s a great opportunity for kids—of all demographics, from all neighborhoods and surrounding towns—to come and have a great safe summer.”

Meet the full Harry McDonough Sailing Center Staff here! 

One Comment

  1. Joe Cappuccio August 3, 2023 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    I can see a Pulitzer in the future.

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