Pierre Dupuis has spent countless summers sailing Shediac Bay. First as a student for five years and more recently volunteering while his children learn the sport.
“My parents never had a boat, so I was lucky enough that there was a sailing school,” he said. “Now I’m still sailing at the age of 48.”
For more than 60 years, the sailing school at the Shediac Yacht Club has helped young people get out on the water. As the only program of its kind in the region, and one of only a few established schools in New Brunswick, it helped many kids become certified sailors and instructors.
But in recent months, past and present students say the yacht club forced an abrupt and sudden closure of the school. The building it operated from was torn down, and the boat launch was filled in with gravel.
Without access to the facilities, the school will close.
Dupuis is working with a group of parents to find another location willing to make space for a school. He said the lessons children learn are not just about sailing.
“What you learn there, and learning about friendship and learning about boat handling, goes on for the rest of your life,” he said.
“Now we’re losing that opportunity here for future sailors.”
The school taught children and young adults both basic and racing skills, advancing through six levels.
Yacht club responds
The Shediac Bay Yacht Club operated the sailing school, but has often relied on parent volunteers to help coordinate the program.
Dupuis said once it became clear that club management wanted to stop running it, he and other parents tried to step in and offered to organize the school themselves. He said parents received an email that it would be closing, and there was no interest in having it run by an outside organization.
Gerry O’Brien, the yacht club’s general manager, said the closure was the result of several financial decisions made by the board at annual meetings.
“If you want to run a sustainable sailing program, there was a big injection of cash that needed to be put in there,” he said.
The yacht club hired an engineering firm, which determined the building used by the sailing school would need “a couple hundred thousand dollars” in repairs following storm damage. It also recommended the boat launch be filled in, to protect against storm surge.
O’Brien said the school needed more revenue to hire an adult dedicated to managing it, to repair and upgrade boats and to construct a new building. Club members were told there would be an increase in fees to keep the school and they voted no, he said.
“It’s a summer camp with kids, but the instructors are older kids. You’re on the water, there’s liability issues that come with that,” he said.
He said the yacht club remains open to having an outside organization operate a sailing school, and it is in preliminary discussions with two interested groups.
Parents and students are left wondering what will happen to the equipment. The fleet used by the sailing school belongs to the yacht club, but was largely purchased with donations. It remains in storage in a shipping container.
Many former students have gone on to become certified instructors themselves and work for the Coast Guard or at Able Sail, a program which offers sailing to young people with disabilities. Sailors from the school also competed in regattas and went to the Canada Games.
Cara Cripton-Ingalls started at the school when she was a kid, before becoming an instructor and working for the Coast Guard. She said the opportunity to learn something hands-on helped her grow as a person.
“When I started at 8 years old, I was too afraid to take my life jacket off at the swimming test, and I was clinging to the boats for dear life. Now I work in search and rescue and I really attribute a lot of the confidence that I gained from the sailing school,” she said.
Cripton-Ingalls said she was “devastated” when she heard the school was closing, leaving generations of history behind. Both of her parents are also former students.
“I know a lot of children, including myself, who were able to come out of their box socially, in an environment that’s outdoors rather than indoors in a classroom.”
‘There is a strong need’
Jamie Storey has been involved in the sailing school from the start. He started taking lessons in 1962 at the age of seven, the first summer it opened. As a university student, he ran the program and later signed up his own children.
Storey said he’s disappointed the school won’t be operating at the Shediac Bay Yacht Club, but is confident it won’t stay closed.
“There is a strong need, and I think there’ll be a strong call for it,” he said.
Still an active sailor, Storey said the school taught life lessons through the sport.
“You’re becoming more and more independent as the day goes along and the weeks go along, and your level of confidence builds tremendously,” he said.
“You have to take what you’ve learned and navigate your boat reading the wind and the waves.”