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Learning to Sail on Potomac River

Classes offered at two local marinas.

During the winter, Amy Zang is a teacher. Chip Johnston flies around the world in search of the perfect wind and kite surfing. Come summer, however, they both return to the Potomac — Zang to direct the sailing program at Washington Sailing Marina; Johnston to return to his post as vice president of marine operations at Belle Haven Marina.

“It’s a great gig,” said Johnston, who grew up in nearby Hollin Hall. He figures that he’s been working at Belle Haven Marina since 1980. During the winter, he uses Florida (where his parents live) as home base to head out to exotic parts. His favorite is Kovala Beach, located in southern India. He also likes Brazil up until January.

“It’s a good time,” he said. “It [Belle Haven] is a gorgeous place and there is a different group of kids every time, so there is plenty of challenge. It’s the flavor of life — it’s never the same.”

While Johnston has been with the sailing school the longest, there are plenty of instructors to back him up. Jotis Brownlee, Aria Warrick, Ainsley Morris, Stephanie Brown, Ethan Hertzberg, Nick Melvin and Ben Title are all instructors who work with the students taking the youth basic and advanced classes at Belle Haven Marina.

The children seem to enjoy it. Sean, Alex and Catherine Chadwick all signed up for class last week; Alex said that their father, Alan Chadwick was also taking lessons on the Flying Scot.

“We’re not sitting in front of the TV,” said Alex Chadwick. Catherine said, “I think it’s fun.”

Will Miller thought that the class was "awesome," and said, “We got to go to canoeing and sailing.

The students gathered in a group and Morris reviewed some sailing basics on a board. They were then ready to head out on the water. Brownlee said, “For the most part they [the students] do it all themselves. We assist them.”

Paige and Katie Roddy were there with their neighbor, Matt Chetti, and Paige said, “My mom sailed when she was little and we’re hoping that we can go out some time and sail.”

George Stevens, president of The Mariner Sailing School, said that the school was started in the late '70s and continues to be the only full-time sailing school on the Potomac River.

“Over the years, the school has grown from two boats and two instructors to approximately 60 vessels and over 50 instructors. The school has adapted to student demands over the years. In the beginning, we only offered a Learn to Sail course but our graduates wanted the next step. Our Learn to Cruise graduates are now sailing the BVI’s, Bahamas and Florida Keys with confidence. Fifteen years ago, we were one of the larger windsurfing facilities in the area, but demand has waned and we are no longer in windsurfing," Stevens said. “The Youth Courses have always been an important component to our success. Many of our current staff are graduates of the course and are now sharing their skills with new sailors. In August, we will be offering racing courses on Sunfish to further enhance skills of younger sailors. Every race is a learning experience and awards will be handed out daily.”

OVER AT WASHINGTON Sailing Marina, students were also gathering for the day. Zang said that they have 10 weekly sessions. Unlike Belle Haven that has half-day sessions, all of their sessions are full day — from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. She said that they offer beginning, intermediate, advanced and windsurfing classes. There are 38 Sunfish for the beginners; nine Flying Scots for intermediate students; six Hobie Cats for advanced students and eight windsurfers.

“Some kids come for several weeks,” Zang said. “We have a 1 to 6 (or better) ratio.”

Many of Zang’s staff members were students themselves and return as instructors in high school and college. She also has a regular adult staff, many of them teachers like herself.

The sailing school does very little advertising, and Zang said, “Most customers hear about us through word of mouth.”