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All ‘aboat’ life skills: Brendan Sailing camp in Annapolis teaches kids to sail while building confidence

On Thursday afternoon, Keridwyn Zilonis, 15, got to steer the 74-foot Schooner Woodwind on the Severn River after spending the past four weeks sailing on a Topaz, a single-sail dinghy.

She is a camper at Brendan Sailing, a unique sailing camp based in Annapolis for students with learning differences such as dyslexia, attention deficit and autism spectrum disorders.

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“It’s a very accepting environment because we all have disabilities,” Keridwyn said, who began attending the camp in 2019. She said she had some sailing experience before by going to camps like the Y, but she hadn’t found a camp with other people with disabilities.

Brendan Sailing not only teaches campers ages 11 to 18 how to sail, but it also gives them an opportunity to build confidence and social skills, Brendan Sailing marketing consultant Beth Berry said.

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Brendan Sailing staff, campers and family members spent a sunny Thursday afternoon on the 74-foot Schooner Woodwind on the Severn River after learning how to sail on a single-sail dinghy.
Brendan Sailing staff, campers and family members spent a sunny Thursday afternoon on the 74-foot Schooner Woodwind on the Severn River after learning how to sail on a single-sail dinghy. (Hope Kahn / Capital Gazette)

Keridwyn said she used to be scared of heeling — the sideways tilt of a sailing boat — but now, that’s one of her favorite parts of sailing. She said she even wants to sail around the world, and her dream is to sail to and around Europe.

She said sailing might seem scary at first, but the counselors help with everything.

Will Avis, who has been a counselor with Brendan Sailing since 2019, said being able to see the progress the kids make is incredible.

“Seeing the skills that we teach them and then to see their aptitude in the water is a really nice feeling,” said Avis, 21.

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Onboard the Schooner Woodwind on Thursday was the Brendan Sailing staff, campers and some of their family members.

Matt Newkirk’s 14-year-old son, Bartley, attended Brendan Sailing for the first time this summer after meeting and talking to one of the counselors about kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The counselor told him about Brendan Sailing.

“Seeing [Bartley’s] enthusiasm to do something nonscreen-related has been incredible,” Newkirk said.

Last week, Newkirk had the opportunity to go to the camp’s parent sail, which occurs on the last day of each session.

“[Bartley] sailed me around. It was unbelievable and I’m so proud,” he said.

Keridwyn Zilonis, front, and other Brendan Sailing campers learning about the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay on Thursday’s sail on the Schooner Woodwind.
Keridwyn Zilonis, front, and other Brendan Sailing campers learning about the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay on Thursday’s sail on the Schooner Woodwind. (Hope Kahn / Capital Gazette)

Even though this is Bartley’s first year at Brendan Sailing, he’s already talking about coming back as a volunteer next year, Newkirk said.

“Kids come back year after year because they’re in a setting where they can be successful,” Berry said.

Brendan Sailing was founded in 1985 as a nonprofit by James Muldoon, who was inspired by his son with dyslexia, Jim Muldoon Jr., who became a successful sailor at a young age on Muldoon’s racing yacht, the Donnybrook.

“One day, I noticed my son give directions to my crew and he’s telling them what to do,” Muldoon said, who attended Thursday’s sail. “He was not like that on land.”

Muldoon said Brendan Sailing gives kids a chance to build their confidence and ability to work as a team, as well as the option to be judged by what they do, not what they speak or write down. Muldoon, who was recently inducted into the Boating Safety Hall of Fame, said he’s working to broaden the sport and is “not done yet.”

In addition to the Annapolis session, Brendan Sailing offers a St. Mary’s session in the summer — usually, a residential program where the campers stay in college housing at St. Mary’s College of Maryland — and biweekly after-school sailing sessions in Washington, D.C., in the fall and spring. This year, the St. Mary’s session isn’t residential because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re going to expand in a reasonable manner with the right kind of people and the right kind of goals,” Muldoon said, because the “kids are what’s important.”

Bre Browning, 16, said her favorite part of the camp is connecting with the other kids and learning how to sail more.

And capsizing, she said.

Schooner Woodwind crew members raise the sail as Brendan Sailing staff, campers and family members spent a sunny Thursday afternoon on the Severn River on the 74-foot boat.
Schooner Woodwind crew members raise the sail as Brendan Sailing staff, campers and family members spent a sunny Thursday afternoon on the Severn River on the 74-foot boat. (Hope Kahn / Capital Gazette)

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