When Kevin Riefenstahl started sailing lessons at BaySail Sailing School last year, he was hooked.
"All your cares drop off your shoulders when you get on that boat," he says.
The New Jersey-based lawyer is still commuting to Havre de Grace regularly, having progressed from the school's basic sailing course to its basic coastal cruising course this summer.
BaySail, the only facility in Harford County certified by the American Sailing Association, has been owned by Todd and Tammy Hess since 2005. The Hesses point out that most people think of sailing as a leisurely hobby, but it's also good for your physical and mental health.
"Sailing is a great activity for maintaining your mental sharpness," says Todd Hess. "But unlike power boat riders, sailors aren't in a hurry to get from point A to point B. Once the sails are up, they've arrived. The sailing experience is what it's about."
It turns out that's a good thing. A recent study at the University of Essex in England focused on "green exercise" — that is, exercise done in the presence of nature — found that exercising outdoors did more to improve mental health than indoor exercise, and the more time spent at it, the better. It also found the most therapeutic activities involved time spent on the water.
That's no surprise to BaySail student Tom Smiley, a senior test engineer for Lockheed Martin who says sailing keeps him mentally and physically fit.
"Sailing, to me, is like flying an aircraft," he says. "There are a lot of things you have to watch and keep track of. You have to pay very close attention and focus. It can be very physical."
Todd Hess points out that, even though sailing can be a slow-paced and relaxing activity, it can also be a good workout. Sailors develop good upper-body strength, since pulling on ropes to raise and lower the sails can be a challenge. And, Smiley adds, in competitive sailing, frequent and fast sail changes are necessary.
Smiley and his wife are both graduates of BaySail's basic sailing course and have used BaySail's charter service to hire a 42-foot sailboat and captain for their summer vacation. Smiley traveled from Delaware to take courses at BaySail because of its American Sailing Association certification; there are no ASA schools in Delaware and just a handful in Maryland. ASA member schools are required to meet rigid standards for course curriculum, boat safety and instructor knowledge.
"We have 13 instructors who were U.S. Coast Guard captains," Todd Hess says.
Courses at BaySail range from a one-day introduction to sailing for $195 to bareboat cruising certification, which trains someone to "act as a skipper or crew member on a 30- to 50-foot sailboat," for $750-$850. (There's a $25-per-person discount when multiple people register together.)
Baysail also offers SailTime, a sort of time-share program that allows people to enjoy the benefits of co-owning a boat while reducing their individual expenses.