Teenagers and community team up to create sailing team and club in Georgetown

For The Sun NewsMay 30, 2014 

By the time an eighth-grader wondered “All this water and no teams to sail on it?” another teenager had hatched a plan that involved all that water and creating a team to sail on it.

Sydney Register, the eighth-grader, moved to the Georgetown area with her parents from Hampton, Va., in 2013.

A competitive sailor since the second grade, she immediately noticed something was missing and she asked the question that had become the mission of Griffin DesMarteau, 16, Michael and Jacob O’Tuel, 16, and Register herself, 14, the four teens who ultimately brought a youth sailing team to Waccamaw High School in Georgetown.

“All Griffin knew was that he wanted to sail and he wanted to compete in regattas, and he wanted his friends to be able to do it with him,” said Ashley DesMarteau, his mother. So she told him to “go make it happen.”

Team mom/manager Jan O’Tuel, mother of Michael and Jacob, now calls Griffin “the driving force” behind the creation of a team.

Jan O’Tuel’s grandfather, Johnny Weaver, is a founding member and president of the Harbor Historical Association, the 501(c)3 parent of South Carolina Maritime Museum.

Michael and Jacob met Griffin at the maritime museum where they were helping Weaver build wooden boats known as Opti Prams. The boats are on display annually at The Wooden Boat Show held in October.

After the twins met Griffin, he asked if they would want to help get a sailing program started that would teach others who wanted to learn how to sail.

“Once you’ve learned the basics, it’s easy,” said Michael.

Although Michael had two years of sailing experience prior to meeting Griffin, it was Griffin who persuaded him to become involved with implementing a the sailing team at the school.

With the help of Susan Sanders of the maritime museum, Len Anderson and a few other locals, Griffin and his dad put together a plan to build more of the wooden boats to sail.

The first sponsor was Coastal Eye Group and the summer of 2013 marked the first SCMM Opti Camp, designed to teach young sailors to sail the Optimist Prams, a sailboat designed for youth under 16 years of age.

“We had a group of 78 children show up – all ages and up to 11-12 years of age plus the (O’Tuel) twins who were 15 at the time,” said Weaver. “We built boats (to sail and compete) but we wanted to take it to another level.”

With Griffin and the O’Tuel twins approaching age 16, Griffin thought that then was the right time and he proposed his idea for a sailing team to Waccamaw High School Principal Dr. David Hammel.

Dr. Hamel agreed “to consider” the idea of adding another club to an already extensive list.

“At the time, we had 72 clubs – of which 37 were sports teams,” Hammel said.

For Griffin, taking his proposal to Hammel was just the first step; more approvals were needed and, according the Winyah Bay Sailing Club website, “after two school board presentations, meetings with potential sponsors, presentations to SCMM and the search for a coach, the two groups were formed: Winyah Bay Sailing Club and the Waccamaw High School Club.”

Winyah Bay Sailing Club operates “under the 501(c)3 status held by Harbor Historical Association,” explained Weaver. “This enables them to accept donations, take exemptions and get the boats fixed up among other things, (such as) insurance.”

The focus of WBSC was fleet management (taking care of the boats and finding a place to put them) and increasing the growth of sailing throughout the community while WSC focused on the students.

What started as a force of four now included parents and the generous support of a community. In July 2013, Charleston Sailing Community donated six boats, which are now being readied for the water one by one by the WBSC.

“We were glad to help and offer another way for them to grow,” said Hammel, who admitted sharing in the excitement sans any sailing experience.

Hamel’s limited sailing history came to light after Griffin’s mom mentioned that Griffin felt “a kind of kindred spirit” when he went into his principal’s office and noticed the nautical décor, but, Hamel said, “I think I’ve been on a sailboat twice in my life.”

However, Hammel added, “We’re very supportive of the students and they deserve all of the credit,” noting he was “amazed at the number of students (who took an interest)” when the program really got going “in the fall around September or October.”

Griffin, whose mom says he’s a bit on the modest side and hesitant to take any credit for his accomplishments, couldn’t conceal the excitement and pride evident in his voice when talking about his teammates.

“We competed in our first Regatta in November,” said Griffin. “It was in North Carolina and Sydney took a first place.”

But the proud mom who spoke for the group gave credit where it was due.

“Four instrumental kids involved in the early stages – Griffin, Sydney and the O’Tuel twins, Jacob and Michael – were the ones who were there from day one, cleaning the boats, helping to get them rigged, presenting to the school board (twice), talking it up to their peers, and helping to build interest,” said Ashley DesMarteau. “Griffin and Sydney worked during registration and handed out information about the sailing club and talked to parents and kids about it. Griff and Sydney helped their new coach by skippering boats at every practice and helping to mentor their new teammates.”

Looking back, she said “there was so much we didn’t know, but speaking only for myself I will say that ignorance was bliss. We took each hurdle, figured out how to go over it, around it, sometimes through it and then got to the next one: Boats, check. Marina, check, etc.

“Once Amy Jones and Dr. Chris Register and their sailing daughter Sydney came onto the scene in July, we had more answers because of their previous experiences in Hampton, Va., with competitive youth sailing.

“As Griffin planned to put together the presentation and met with Dr. David Hammel, we had been talking with Jessica Koeing at Charleston Community Sailing for about six months, asking questions about sailing teams, trying to figure out the first step.”

One of those first steps came from those at Charleston Community Sailing who donated boats to a cause they believed valid.

DesMarteau said used Vanguard 420s cost “around $2,500 each” while Koenig, executive director of Charleston Community Sailing, said purchasing the boats brand new would cost “around $7,000 each.”

Koenig explained the reason for the high-dollar donation was “because that’s how we started –with donated boats. And we had boats we were not using, so it just made sense. It’s all about people helping people [Our] belief is you have to start somewhere.”

Additionally, Hazard Marine in Georgetown donated dock space for the boats because, well, every boat must have a home, er, marina.

“Without a friendly place to put your boat, it’s hard to have a sailing team,” said Ashley DesMarteau.

These days, four of the six Vanguard 420s are manned by students who compete on the Waccamaw High School sailing team.

“It’s hard to believe so much has been accomplished in such a short time,” said Ashley DesMarteau, now the president of Winyah Bay Sailing Club, who noted “it’s a shared sentiment among many.”

“It’s a lot more exciting than it looked at first,” said Jacob O’Tuel.

Jan O’Tuel said Amy Jones handles logistics and back-up.

“She knows where everybody is – even when they’re out on the water. If there’s a problem, she jumps right in (yes, into the water) and fixes it. She gets us registered, in the right line-ups and can keep score, too.”

Jan O’Tuel, who makes sure everyone is outfitted properly and fed, conceded she has “the best of both worlds.”

“I could have had 20 children. I just love watching (the kids) learn, I could sit on the dock watching for hours.”

The fast fun and comradery is amazing, said Jan O’Tuel as she emphasized sailing is a “little different than going to basketball or baseball games and sitting on the sidelines.”

“Being a sailing mom means arriving at 8 a.m., finishing at 5 – all while standing on a floating dock – that’s often in chilly temperatures of 40 degrees,” give or take a few.

Now the four plus a few more – about 33 students total – are gearing up for training two times a week called chalk talks, races known as Regattas, and sailing camps that are set for summer.

The camps are “are great opportunities for sailors of all ages,” according to the Winyah Bay Sailing Club website. This summer, the club will offer “Intro to Sailing” and “Advanced Beginner Sailing,” which will be taught aboard the fleet of Vanguard 420’s, have a 2:1 ratio and each boat will be staffed with a junior counselor.

More information about upcoming events and the camps can be found at www.winyahbaysailingclub.org.

In addition, they’re “hoping other schools, including Horry County, will add sailing teams,.” Weaver said.

To date, there has not been any word from Horry County administrative offices to confirm whether or not they are considering adding a sailing team in the future.

Jan O’Tuel, Jones and Ashley DesMarteau said having other teams to compete against in the area helps to cut back on traveling all the way to Charleston and it gives the kids more competitive practice.

A dedicated instructor and coach on board helps, too; Emily Livingston is teaching students the skills that enable them the ability to read and respond to the wind, critical thinking methods and water safety – with time to hit the water for fun.

“All they need to participate is a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket and a physical,” said Jan O’Tuel, noting while most students had little or no experience (on the water) when they started, theirs is a safety record that remains unblemished.

“No one has gone overboard,” she said.

These days, whether they’re sitting in sailboats waiting on the wind or standing on the dock at Hazard Marine, it’s “full steam ahead,” said Ashley DesMarteau.

The Winyah Bay Sailing Club now has its own official burgee – a flag bearing the logo of the sailing club.

Designed by Tee Miller, the logo will be transferred to T-shirts to be sold in the gift shop at SCMM.

According to Ashley DesMarteau, “proceeds will help support outreach efforts such as the Tara Hall Home For Boys, scholarships for summer campers and high school sailors who need additional resources to support their sailing development.”

That development teaches students leadership and self-confidence, as well as science and math skills.

“It’s our ultimate goal,” said Koenig, “to get kids outside, on the water and to teach them the valuable skills that enable them to learn from the educational platform using science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

The teens who set sail on a mission and stayed the course remain modest and optimistic.

“We put together the team to get our feet wet,” said Sydney, who is “hopeful” for more good to come like summer regattas, more teams and more students.

Jacob O’Tuel thinks it’s “interesting” and wants to keep sailing and learning while he’s amazed at “how much fun we’re having,” and Michael said the best part of all “is leaving school at the end of the day and being able to get in a boat.”

As far as future plans, the possibility of sailing on an Olympic team someday “would be cool,” Griffin said, then admitted plans to attend the Coast Guard Academy and become a pilot, adding that he also wants to see the WSC name “get out there” to create a “strong, competitive” future.

Sydney, the competitive sailor since age 10, replied with “definitely” without hesitation when asked if she sees being part of a competitive racing team in her future.

Jacob is undecided on his long-term sailing future for the moment and Michael is going to continue sailing while working toward medical school.

“Our students/children learned a valuable lesson. When you set a course and stick with it, you can make anything happen,” Ashley DesMarteau said.

Griffin added: “We couldn’t have done it without the community who supported and believed.”

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