April 13, 2024

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Treasure Island sailing club lets kids enjoy San Francisco Bay

Treasure Island sailing club lets kids enjoy San Francisco Bay

The main sail of the fiberglass J/24 keelboat coursing through bay waters just off Treasure Island flitted in the wind with a nervousness that told 2016 Olympics mariner Caleb Paine what was coming next. 

He pointed to dark choppy waters ahead, called for his novice passengers to scurry over to the windward side and began counting down: “Five, four, three, two … .”

With a snap, the sail filled like a massive lung, shooting the vessel forward, past a fleet of kayakers and cormorants ducking their heads below the surface. His passengers cheered.  

“Nothing beats being on the water,” Paine called out.

San Francisco Bay is a roughly 500-square-mile ecosystem, a thoroughfare for commuter ferries and marine life where fresh water coming down from the Sierra and Pacific Ocean saltwater mix and swirl.

Sofia Morgan (left), 11; her dad, Thomas Morgan; sister, Olivia Morgan, 9, and mom, Asel Orunbaeva, of San Mateo, wait to take kayaks out from the Treasure Island Sailing Center on Saturday in San Francisco.

Sofia Morgan (left), 11; her dad, Thomas Morgan; sister, Olivia Morgan, 9, and mom, Asel Orunbaeva, of San Mateo, wait to take kayaks out from the Treasure Island Sailing Center on Saturday in San Francisco.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

The bay can appear like a playground for the wealthy to landlubbers gazing out at those tipsy faraway white triangles sailing past Alcatraz Island.

But for 24 years, the Treasure Island Sailing Center has tried to shake that image and get more people onto the water. The nonprofit brings roughly 3,000 children each year through school and summer programs onto boats to learn this watery world is theirs, too.  

“I was spellbound,” said Neerja Sundar, 29, marveling at the sea level view of San Francisco’s stunning skyline as she paddled a kayak.

Saturday, the center hosted its annual open house, giving people free tours on sailboats or kayaks. Hundreds lined up by noon. Coast Guardsmen fitted children with free giveaway flotation vests. Sailing center volunteers zipped adults in loaner vests.

Volunteer Neha Bazaj — a sustainability nonprofit worker from Oakland who races a small dingy called a Vanguard on weeknights — held a clipboard and a large stuffed unicorn left behind by a 3-year-old out on the water with her family for the first time. Bazaj, 34, caught the sailing bug while a student at UCLA, and on Saturday explained the difference between fleet racing and team racing — one involves “messing with other boats” by taking advantage of wind patterns and other maneuvers, she said with a wink.

Olivia Morgan (right), 9, and her sister, Sofia Morgan, 11, look at sailboats from the Treasure Island Sailing Center.  “I’m thinking there’s lots of water and I’m kind of scared to get on the boat,” Olivia said before her first kayak ride.

Olivia Morgan (right), 9, and her sister, Sofia Morgan, 11, look at sailboats from the Treasure Island Sailing Center.  “I’m thinking there’s lots of water and I’m kind of scared to get on the boat,” Olivia said before her first kayak ride.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Toddler Bahia climbed out of a boat and up the plank to reclaim her unicorn. Her mother, Giza Anarbeava, gasped at their “fantastic” sail, something she said they would not have done without this free experience.

The event was meant to bring people from throughout the Bay Area to a place they may not be able to go otherwise, said Doug Paine, the center’s executive director. The organization focuses on children from low-income communities for its school programs and offers scholarships during the summer.

The center’s teachers train children in critical water safety skills, like what to do when a sailboat capsizes. They also offer science lessons alongside basic sailing skills. Paine said the organization aims to imbue children with a sense that the world might be bigger with more opportunities than they thought before setting sail. And maybe a few, hopefully, will become lifelong mariners.