WINDY HILL -- Seven-year-old Travis Ross is explaining why his boat is purple.
"This is a good paint and this is a new paint and there was a lot of it," he says, head bent over the Orca, an 8-foot scow-skiff he has built and is painting.
Such positive thinking mixed with practicality is as abundant as, well, purple paint at the Chessie Kids Yacht Club. The club, in an old Methodist church, is tucked back in the woods in Talbot County within walking distance of the Choptank River. Its founder and captain is Pete Imirie, a former basketball coach who grew up in St. Mary's County. His purpose is to teach children the rules of boating safety.
"Safe boating is a family affair," he says. As he talks, about a dozen children are painting boats they have built and named -- Ol' Sunflower, The Blue Streak, The Simpsons. The smell of paint and the rhythmic sound of brushes on boards mix with childish chatter as the young boaters work. A chalkboard in front of the club gives the day's forecast and the tide times.
What Imirie's series of courses does -- "We're not a camp, we're seamanship courses," he emphasizes -- is teach children how to survive when the unexpected happens in a boat. To that end, Chessie kids learn boating basics such as signal flags and the importance of always wearing a personal flotation device.
Imirie has devised a series of weeklong courses that can be taken singly or cumulatively. The classes are taught by him with help from a parent or two and his assistant, Julie Minchillo.
Participants pay $70 the first week, $60 the second and $50 for any additional weeks, plus the cost of materials if they build a boat ($150 for an 8-footer, $200 for a 10-foot boat). The club began in Talbot County eight years ago and has grown to include chapters in most of the states along the East Coast.
The need for boating safety is obvious. In 1995, 14 people died in boating accidents in Maryland and 118 were injured. The leading cause of death, cited in six of the 14 fatalities, was falling overboard, according to Richard McIntire at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which monitors boating accidents and deaths.
What is less obvious in the Chessie Kids program structure is equally valuable, Imirie says: Children learn to work together, to rely on themselves and each other, and to solve problems.
"The first thing they do is take a boater safety course," Minchillo says. "Then it goes on to the boat building. From there, it goes to paddling skills, sailing skills."
Paddling and sailing are a way to teach the math that sailors must know, Imirie says -- the geometry of arranging a sail so the wind will push the boat in the desired direction. Building the boats, with a simple design created by Imirie, becomes the foundation for water safety and self-reliance.
"At first, they resist the boating safety," Minchillo says as she watches the activity around the yacht club. "When they get to the water, they like the freedom and the empowerment it gives them."
The scow-skiff, as Imirie has dubbed his design, can be paddled or sailed with a simple mast-and-canvas addition. Each child over the age of 10 who completes the boating safety training gets a state certificate. (Imirie is a state-certified instructor.) All those who complete the course get a Chessie Kids certificate.
"With this boater safety, we can't guarantee they'll do the right thing, but they'll know the right thing to do," Minchillo says. "The point is, do they know how to survive? The water doesn't care if you are 6 or 60."
It's a lesson not lost on Travis Ross. Taking a break from painting, he goes to the water and pushes out alone in one of the finished boats. He paddles into the river, out to where one of Imirie's assistants is teaching boater safety to a group of children in boats. Next, he paddles away into the middle of the river alone, his life vest a bright speck in a little white boat as he maneuvers his craft. After 45 minutes or so, he paddles back in with a satisfied look.
Seamanship courses will continue through August at Chessie Kids Yacht Club in Talbot County. For more information on boating safety courses, call Pete Imirie or Julie Minchillo at (410) 822-8568.
Pub Date: 8/09/96