- Associated Press - Monday, June 12, 2017

OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) - The saying never gets old to Steve Eliasen: “This is the best day of my life!”

The executive director of International Youth Sailing of Oshkosh hears it every time he introduces a group of students to sailing and water sports, USA Today Network-Wisconsin (https://oshko.sh/2ryIoAs ) reported. At least 10,000 students in six communities across northeast Wisconsin have given sailing a whirl with the organization, which marks its 10th season this year.

While the milestone itself is cause for celebration, Eliasen has his sights set on another, loftier goal: He wants to see sailing embedded into Oshkosh culture.

International Youth Sailing of Oshkosh, or IYSO, started as a field trip in 2007 for ALPs Charter School, where Eliasen and his wife Sara’s children went. Steve Eliasen credits a rare alignment of adventurous ALPs staff members and perfect weather conditions for the day’s initial success.

About 60 ALPs students learned how to sail that year. That number has since grown to a cumulative 10,000 students in at least six communities. Besides sailing in an O’pen Bic sailboat, kids can also try kayaking, canoeing, paddle-boarding and go on a keel boat.

The style of the O’Pen Bic makes it more fun to learn how to sail, Sara Eliasen said. Adults today who learned to sail as children might recall that most of their learning was spent bailing water out to avoid capsizing. The boats IYSO uses are open-ended in the back and therefore self-bailing, so students can focus on nailing down the concepts. And, there aren’t a bunch of knots to tie or attachments to deal with.

That’s a key piece of the introduction, as students can first enjoy sailing, then return to shore to learn the technical aspects of it, she said.

All fifth-grade classes in Oshkosh experience sailing in the fall, a partnership with the Oshkosh Area School District. Winneconne and Neenah fifth-graders get in on the fun, too, in the spring. The Oshkosh school district’s after-school program Lighted School House, a leadership program at Oaklawn Elementary School and the Recreation Department’s summer offerings all include sailing with IYSO. A science, technology, engineering and math program at Webster Stanley Middle School has students designing their own sails and even racing them in a regatta.

Julie Conrad, director of curriculum and assessment for Oshkosh schools, said teaching science or math concepts with the sailing component keeps students more engaged and gives them hands-on learning experiences, resulting in stronger connections to the material.

The day on the water with IYSO also gives every student a chance to experience Lake Winnebago in the same way, regardless of one’s demographic. You never know who will discover sailing as their passion, she said.

And, its benefits ripple far beyond academics, Sara Eliasen said. Student sailors are gaining grit, becoming quick thinkers on their feet and growing skills that will carry them through life.

Students might start the day with IYSO leery of the water, timid to try something so new or maybe even resistant to it altogether. The same students come out of the lake transformed, she said.

“It’s empowering to a lot of kids,” Sara Eliasen said, adding it gives them a sense of control and the freedom and courage to take a risk. She’s seen bullies transformed into heroes while turning over capsized kayaks for their peers they might have otherwise laughed at, and shy students confidently step up to take the lead.

IYSO offers programming through private schools, Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services and even with senior residents at Bella Vista.

IYSO set sail outside of Oshkosh, too, catching wind in Sheboygan, Green Bay, Shawano and Oconto, to name a few. Children participate through school trips, after-school programs and clubs, summer programs, recreation departments and more.

Steve Eliasen, who is also involved in Dr. Eric’s Skate Club, an after-school ice skating club in Oshkosh, even started a ski trip in 2016 where he and students go to Mont-Tremblant in Quebec to ski in the mountains.

Sailing is in high demand in Green Bay after IYSO helped launch a program last year that quickly took off. Green Bay Sail and Paddle taught 250 students how to sail in 2016 and boosted that number to 2,000 for this summer. It’s a partnership among Green Bay schools, Girl and Boy scouts, recreation departments, the YMCA and other organizations, said Wendy Townsend, project and program manager for the city of Green Bay. Organizers in Green Bay are following the Oshkosh format to incorporate sailing into school curriculum.

They’ve had such early success that Green Bay Sail and Paddle is offering classes for adults this summer in response to an overwhelming demand for it.

The efforts in Green Bay have good timing, too, as water cleanup efforts there will near completion in 2018. Sailing has been a great way to re-introduce residents to the water, as well as inspire them to take care of it into the future, Townsend said.

Green Bay seems to have surpassed the endeavors in Oshkosh. Meanwhile, Steve Eliasen scratches his head over why the same enthusiasm hasn’t caught on here.

Partnerships have been key to every sailing program’s success, he said. Boys and Girls Clubs, healthcare organizations and even banks have all provided support. The Shawano community is offering free sailing to residents this summer with the help of a generous donor that offered to cover the costs of it, Steve Eliasen said.

Yet Oshkosh could lead the pack in sailing - and other water recreation, for that matter - because of its geography.

Lake Winnebago is 30 miles long, 10 miles wide and excellent for sailing, said Mike Karrels, an architect and a lifelong sailor from Oshkosh who races with the Oshkosh Yacht Club. The lake is known to be an equalizer for regattas - with big waves, a lack of shoreline obstruction and a lot of water, there is no “home field advantage” for any team.

Karrels, 28, first began sailing in fourth grade and has competed in inshore races on numerous Wisconsin lakes as well as offshore races on Lake Michigan. Sailing is a lifestyle, he said, and it’s given him skills relevant on and off the water: mental strength, ability to lead a team through high-stress situations, communication and confidence.

Not to mention, he connects with a community of people not limited to geographic boundaries.

“It’s fun to learn new things and meet new people,” Karrels said. “There is no shortage of either of those things in the sailing community.”

Oshkosh has a historic place in the sailing community, and for generations sailing has been kept alive through the Oshkosh Yacht Club. The organization has been around since 1869. While IYSO’s focus is on the introduction of sailing, the yacht club is focused on competitive racing, said Beth Wyman, who chairs the yacht club’s youth sailing program.

She suggested residents might not realize the opportunities that are at the water, especially if they don’t spend time on the east side of town.

The Eliasens, too, speculated it’s a matter of awareness. People might see sailing as an elitist sport, or water quality may be a deterrent to some. If one can never afford to own a boat or live on the water - why bother with Lake Winnebago?

“All along, one of our biggest motivators is that sailing is for everyone - it should be for everyone,” Sara Eliasen said, adding there needs to be an alternative, inexpensive option available for residents to get on the water.

“We see that as saving sailing,” she said. “If it can’t be for everyone, then it’s going to go away.”

Steve Eliasen dreams of IYSO race teams and more traveling opportunities. But he recognizes that in order to reach any of those goals, developing a succession plan for the program is key. Eventually someone else will have to step up to take the program over, he said.

Short-term, he hopes to introduce another 2,000 students to sailing this year.

Lake Winnebago is already beckoning to young sailors, and as they grow up, the hope is that that efforts to boost sailing in Oshkosh will, too. That’s a major teaching focus of both IYSO and the Oshkosh Yacht Club, though their formulas for doing so may look different. Each are supportive of the other’s efforts.

Planting that seed with younger generations may be what knits sailing - and the bigger picture, appreciation for the water - into the culture of Oshkosh.

The Eliasens and Wyman agreed sailing is just one activity Lake Winnebago has to offer residents. Each of them shared they’d like to see more opportunities in Oshkosh for residents to take advantage of the water in any form.

IYSO this summer will offer free sailing sessions on Sundays, made possible by donors in the area. See the Oshkosh Recreation Department 2017 activity guide for more details. Steve Eliasen said turnout for those sessions will be a good indicator of residents’ interest in such an option.

Wyman noted there used to be more options to rent equipment through the Pioneer Resort; that void has gone unfilled since it closed. But she pointed to the recent developments that have already increased appreciation for the water, such as the Riverwalk. Use of the beach at Menominee Park has grown over the years, and she foresees that the incoming Bucks D-League and ensuing development on the city’s south side will stir up even more interest.

“As appreciation for the water grows, people will venture out more,” she said.


Information from: Oshkosh Northwestern Media, https://www.thenorthwestern.com

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