Sail on: Darien Junior sailing program survives hurricane and remains popular

Call it the little sailing program that could: After suffering the destruction of its clubhouse in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, the Darien Junior Sailing Team, now operating out of a storage pod and a tent, is still fulfilling its mission of introducing young people to sailing.

Founded in 1972 at Weed Beach, the sailing program, known as DJST, is a non-profit organization supported by, but not affiliated with, the town of Darien. The town provides the use of Weed Beach, but DJST is self-funded and organized by parent volunteers. The program runs for two three-week sessions, and is open to Darien children ages 8-14, most who come into the program with little or no sailing experience.

“The most amazing thing about this program is we have the ability to take kids who have almost never been out on the water before, let alone sailed, and then put them in boats, and put them in one of the most beautiful places certainly in the East and get them sailing,” Jeff Hudson, chairman of the DJST board, said. “And that impact stays with you for life.”

Sailors must pass a swim test, and then start sailing in small boats called Optimists, moving through four levels of experience before moving on to the bigger, faster 420s. And while the program, which is a member of the Junior Sailing Association of Long Island Sound, competes in local regattas, racing is not the focus. Here, the goal is to build leadership and community skills while having fun.

“We have great relationships with our fellow yacht clubs, so when I speak about racing it’s not a pejorative thing,” Hudson said. “But kids are different, some kids are not ready for competitive sports. If you’ve never been in a sailboat, to go from zero to 60 in terms of getting out and racing is overwhelming. We are dealing with kids who are scared of what’s in the Sound. It’s a very family friendly, very easy way to get people introduced to a sport I grew up doing.”

Central to the program is the longevity of the counselors, many of whom grew up in the program. Cam Cirillo, who graduated from Darien High School in 2016 and now attends Elon College, started sailing with DJST at eight years old; this summer, he is the head instructor.

“This is more of a family feel. A lot of people are intimidated by the yacht club culture — it’s extremely demanding and can be intimidating,” Cirillo said.

As opposed to a traditional racing program, where the day is structured around training on race courses, DJST counselors build young sailors’ confidence on the water by incorporating games, swimming and theme days, while also teaching skills like resilience and collaboration.

According to DJST chairman Hudson, these skills are vital to the mission of the program.

“You watch these kids and they help each other pull the boats out of the water, rig the boats, do everything,” Hudson said. “Most of the counselors came through the program themselves and there’s a spirit here of ‘help and get it done’ and I think it has been instilled in the longevity of the program. None of these kids want to let their friends down on anything.”

Despite the enthusiasm of the current participants, the effect of the storm remains fresh.

Prior to Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, the program enrolled 170 sailors; this summer, there are 60 sailors. Christopher Deak, who oversees the program as site director, blames the attrition partly on the destruction of the two-story building, which was owned by the town and featured garage storage as well as office space, a boat rack and a deck.

The current Darien Parks and Recreation master plan calls for a new waterfront boating center at Weed Beach.

According to Pamela Gery, director of the Darien Parks and Recreation Department, any decision on a new building is up to the Parks and Recreation Commission. The commission is currently considering several options for the Weed Beach space, including a new facility that could house DJST in the summer, but no decision to build has been made.

“Our travesty is Hurricane Sandy,” Deak said. “It came in and broke the back and spirit of the program. The building was the central focus. Imagine if Noroton Yacht Club’s building was never built back, what do you think would happen to the club?”

Yet, Deak said, the popularity of the program endures.

“You get an 8-year-old and have them for eight, nine years — I call that a legacy. I have parents who come down here all the time that are in their late 30s, early 40s, and they are bringing their kid who is 10-years-old and they say ‘I did this program, I want you to do this,” Deak said.

For longtime DJST sailors like head instructor Cirillo, the program remains a vibrant, and important, part of Darien, building or no building.

“There’s a lot to learn from the hardships we’ve had in the past,” Cirillo said. “Kids love coming back, and I think people feel at home here. That’s how I’ve felt for the past 12 seasons, with instructors being really open and sailors coming back every year. It creates a bond.”