Youth offenders teach Baltimore police to sail

Youth offenders teach Baltimore police department members to sail.

Ridge Beecher cautiously climbed down into a yellow Access dinghy named "Big" that began to shake in the rippling water as he lowered one leg.

Behind him on the dock at the Downtown Sailing Center, his sailing partner, Lisa Letren, a research analyst with Baltimore police, watched before climbing into the small boat that seemed just barely perched above the water's surface.

"We'll survive," the 19-year-old assured her.

The two were paired together on Saturday as part of the Sail For Justice program that includes eight juvenile offenders, from Los Angeles to Boston, who are learning to sail. After weeks of training, the team will compete next month in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, a sailing race that spans 2,700 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

Many of the juveniles had never been on a boat before the program started just two weeks ago, and many said they had never had a conversation with a police officer, other than during their arrests. But on Saturday, they were teaching members of the Police Department how to sail.

It was Beecher's first time out without an instructor, and Letren's first time sailing.

"They're on the boat as passengers, and our youth are in charge of their safety," said Mark Hunter, one of the founders of the SailFuture nonprofit, which organized the Sail For Justice initiative.

The juvenile offenders, ages 15 to 21, have been charged with offenses from petty theft to manslaughter. Some have been arrested numerous times, and all of the youths have spent at least two years incarcerated.

Many had never left their home city before coming to Baltimore, but next week they will leave for Spain and train for a month and a half in Europe.

They will graduate from the training dinghies to their race boat, a 65-foot Macgregor named "Defy the Odds." The name symbolizes what the young offenders hope to accomplish.

"Everyone in society has given up on these young men, so they are out to prove they are capable of change, and can do productive things in society, in fact things that another person wouldn't be able to do, like race across the ocean," Hunter said.

Their voyage, he said, will show that there are constructive alternatives to incarcerating youth.

Given their backgrounds, "you wouldn't believe that they could work together," Hunter said. But with the right mentors and the right environment, he said, they can work as a team and accomplish "impressive things."

The team is led by Hunter, along with Michael Long, the co-founder of SailFuture, and skipper Donald Lawson, the team's sailing instructor. Lawson, of Baltimore, is a professional sailor and the only African-American competing in ocean races, Hunter said.

Hundreds of applicants applied, but Hunter said they wanted to work with kids with some of the greatest challenges.

"That's what's unique about this, everybody is dependent upon someone else. If someone fails in their job, it impacts everybody to a point where it could be life-threatening, and these are people you would not typically trust with anything in life."

He said the program is not without challenges. In the first week, a team member stole a crew member's car (it was later returned); another stole $80 from Hunter's pocket, and often the kids can be disrespectful.

"There are times where we want to quit," Hunter said, but they refuse to give up. "They've never had anyone in their life that refuses to quit, that refuses to give up on them."

Beecher, who is from Peach Springs, Ariz., and a member of the Hualapai tribe, said he has been charged numerous times with offenses ranging from truancy to battery, and has lost many family members to alcoholism. He has long distrusted others from outside the Indian reservation, and had never talked to a cop outside of his arrests.

But on Saturday, before he was paired with Letren, Beecher said he would keep an open mind, adding "as long as they show me respect."

Letren, a civilian employee with the department, volunteered because it was a chance to learn to sail, but also because she said it's important for members of the department to have positive interactions with youths.

"I think it's pretty much our responsibility that we keep doing things like this," she said.

The pair seemed to hit it off quickly. Letren told him about her job and other opportunities with the department outside of becoming a police officer, and they smiled as they posed for pictures before walking down the dock.

Out on the water, the duo were challenged by upwind sailing, which left them briefly adrift in the water near the Domino Sugar building. But with a few adjustments, the yellow sails were again taut and they were careening around the buoy and heading back toward the group.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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