EUGENE — Sigrid Jones' 15-year-old son, Nick, has a mild learning disability.
He sometimes takes a little longer than others to pick things up or understand a math or reading problem.
Despite that, his mother enrolled him in the city of Eugene's River House outdoor program youth sailing camp out at Fern Ridge Lake two weeks ago. For five days, Nick spent hours out on the water with Charlie Johnson, the program's sailing instructor. And the effect of those days was more profound than Nick, his mother or Johnson expected.
"He has been interested in sailing for a long time," Jones said. "We used to live in Tucson, Ariz., and he had been thinking about all these water sports he could get into when we moved up here."
After passing over the program a year ago, Jones decided to register Nick for the first session of the eight-week program. She says she was a little anxious, but ultimately thought it was a good opportunity for him. "He was definitely a beginner."
After a week on the water, Nick was hoisting the mainsail of the RS Feva sailboat assigned to him — and showing off his new skills to his mother.
Johnson said that although he was aware of Nick's learning disability, he treated Nick like all the other kids. He let him learn from trial, error and close instruction, just as Johnson himself did when he was learning to sail in his hometown of Newport Beach, Calif.
"It's like going from zero to hero," Johnson said. "I know what the kids were like at the beginning of the week, and I know where I can take them."
Jones was impressed with her son's skills. She says that sometimes with a new sport, learning the rules and procedures frustrates him.
But sailing was a different story. "When I went to watch I was so amazed and proud," she said. "He could sail the boat by himself, sink it and get it back up. It's a pretty technical stuff."
Approximately four years ago, Merry Petitclair and the outdoor program staff were lobbying for a new youth sailing camp. They had the boats, courtesy of Merry's employer, the Yaquina Bay Yacht Club, and she wrote a grant request to the state Marine Board for funding.
The city had access to Fern Ridge Lake. It had the demand for kids to sail during the summer. The only thing missing was an instructor who would be as enthusiastic as the kids.
They found Johnson, who recently won the program's Mel Jackson award for excellence.
Petitclair moved to Wisconsin three years ago and handed over full control to Johnson and the River House program. She believes the program is in the right hands.
"He's an awesome coach," she said of Johnson. "He's so good with the kids and running around with them on the water."
Wes Service, a 20-year-old student-instructor who sails competitively at the University of Puget Sound, says that the kids who come through the program are very excited about sailing — so much that they don't even blink when it's 54 degrees and raining sideways.
This is his second year working with Johnson. "This is the coolest job I'll probably ever have. This is what I would do even if I wasn't working.
"Sail, swim, shoot each other with water guns and jump off the boat," Service added.
Johnson said that without the help of the city and Lane County, which operates Richardson Park and its marina, the program wouldn't be what it is today. "The county has been so supportive by providing the space," he said. "They love these kids and the energy they bring to the park."
The program takes up four or so dock slips at the Richardson Park marina, all provided free of charge. The county also lets Johnson's students store their gear in a shed not far from the marina.He would like to expand the program to offer more spots for kids. "We'll probably add one or two more weeks next year," Johnson said. "That's the easiest way right now."
Jones said she'll bring Nick back for another session. "It's a real esteem-builder for these kids. I'm amazed the city owns these beautiful boats and has these amazing instructors."