Seventh- and eighth-grade students at St. Michael’s School in Ridge, Maryland took to the water at the end of the school year to put into practical use the knowledge they learned in an innovative sailing program that is offered in no other school in the Archdiocese of Washington.

“What better thing is there for the children of Southern Maryland – surrounded by water – than to learn by sailing our waterways,” said Lila Hofmeister, principal of the St. Mary’s County school. “We are proud that we are the first school offering this.”

As part of its expanded STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program, the school brought in experienced sailors to provide instruction in sailing techniques, navigation, wind velocity, and sailing terminology.

“This is huge for us and such a unique thing for the archdiocese to have a sailing program attached to STEM,” Hofmeister said. “It’s exciting because in addition to this being our 100th year of education, we are continuing to broaden our innovative programs.”

Through the program, St. Michael’s students were taught all aspects of sailing. The course was offered through a partnership with Sailing Center Chesapeake, a St. Mary’s County-based group founded in 1999 by Stovy Brown to introduce sailing to students. 

It was funded by a grant through the US Sail REACH program, which uses sailing as a way to encourage students to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math careers. 

Terry Farman, a former science teacher in a public school who is also a sailing trainer, helped teach the course at St. Michael’s. 

“As a former science teacher, I love when they (students) ask questions,” she said. “It is wonderful to see how interested they are” in learning about sailing and water safety and the environment.

The students learned how to tie knots, to create an anemometer (a device used for measuring wind speed) and to make sailing maps. “This is high level stuff,” Farman said, adding that the students’ taking to the water is “a practical application of what they learned.” 

She said students also learned how to measure the surface area of a sail and how to use protractors to calculate navigational courses.

“When we get these kids on the water and give them a chance to be on a boat, they are hands-on using what they have learned,” she said. “Even learning how to fit their life jacket is important for the students to know.”

Students took to the water on boats volunteered by members of the St. Mary’s River Yacht Club. They took a nearly two-hour cruise departing from Church Cove on St. Inigoes Creek.

“Sailing is a clean sport,” Farman said. “It depends on the wind. There are no fumes and no impact on ecology or the eco-system.”

She added that “environmental safety” is a major part of the course and students learned how oysters are important to the health of rivers and bays and how run-off from farm chemicals can harm the bay.

“We want these students to be stewards of their environment,” she said.

Pointing to Laudato Si', Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical that calls on Catholics to care for the environment, Hofmeister noted that the sailing program complements St. Michael School’s Catholic identity. 

“The pope has reminded us that care for the environment and respect for God’s creation is part of what it means to be Catholic,” she said. “With this sailing program, we combine STEM classes with Catholic teaching. That could not happen in a public school.”

For eighth-grader Jonathan Dameron, his time in the class and on the water “taught me a lot about knots, high tide, low tide and what angle the wind needs to be for a sail.”

“Sailors have some pretty neat tricks,” he added.

Student Mya Wise said she was most fascinated learning “how to use the device to find out how deep the water is – that is a good experience to have.”

“It’s awesome to know how to put up sails and where to put the ropes and other small details,” said Eivin Gonzalez, also an eighth-grader at St. Michael’s. “Our school is close to the water, so this is a great opportunity.”

Mark Gyorgy, president of the Southern Maryland Sailing Foundation, helped secure the grant to bring the program to St. Michael’s School.

“We wanted to bring science and technology to students through sailing,” he said. “Learning buoyancy, wind speed and the parts of a boat is putting science in action through sailing.”

Students in the sailing program offered by St. Michael School in Ridge depart on a sailing trip where they learned about scientific concepts related to the environment. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In the program, students learned about vectors, thrust, drag and lift, hydrodynamics, weather prediction, and “all kinds of physics things,” Gyorgy said.

He said it was his hope the classes would “help the students develop a love of sailing, a love of the environment and promote environmental awareness and stewardship.”

He added that these classes would also help students see that “sailing is an accessible sport to them. People think of sailing as something only privileged people do.”

Gyorgy said that St. Michael’s is the first school to adopt the program and his group is anxious to “expand to other Catholic schools.”

“Those of us who have been sailing feel we are blessed to be on the water, and we want to share that with these students,” he said.