Detroit charter academy system mixes math, science, swimming, sailing

A half-dozen dinghies slowly sliced through the still blue-green water, their young captains trying to angle the sails to catch a breeze.

The wind wasn’t cooperating. But that didn’t faze Josiah Walker, 14, who watched his classmates from a motorboat Friday morning as he awaited his turn to sail solo around the lagoon at the Detroit Yacht Club.

“I feel free, relaxed, independent,” the Hazel Park boy said. “I feel wonderful when I sail.”

Josiah and 20 other students from University Prep Science & Math in Detroit just completed a new program that mixes academics with swimming and sailing. It was launched in July through a first-of-its-kind partnership between the University Prep Schools charter school system and the yacht club, which generally offers its junior sailing courses only to members.

The four-week program was so popular and successful that school officials are discussing the possibility of developing a competitive sailing team.

The principles of math, science and engineering abound in sailing, said UPSM teacher Ellen Mey.

“We’ve talked about buoyancy and boat design. We’ve built wind anemometers, and they took those to different spots around (Belle Isle) to measure the wind,” she said. “We talk about current, wind speed and wind direction all the time.”

An anonymous donor who belongs to the club gave $100,000 to launch the program this year and pledged another $150,000 to keep it going over the next four years. The school system has also created a fund-raising page on the website Indiegogo.

Middle and high school students paid $150 to participate — a fraction of what a comparable sailing course would cost, said DYC board member Ron Gmeiner.

“We think it’s important for young children to be given an opportunity to learn about boating,” an experience the students might not otherwise have, Gmeiner said. “It’s a life sport, and it teaches confidence.”

Guided by Mey and a handful of DYC coaches, the program started with swimming lessons in the club’s pool. Students then learned the basics of sailing before hitting the water in various types of sailboats.

Nicholas Morton, 13, of Detroit could barely swim when summer started. Now he feels comfortable both in and on the water. “I learned how to rig a boat, though I still need some practice,” he said Friday, his feet dangling off a dock. “I know how to launch. I know how to steer with the rudder. I know what to do when I capsize.”

Josiah carefully pulled a rope — er, line — to gently guide the coaches’ motorboat to the dock.

“We don’t call it a rope. It’s a line,” he explained, smiling in the bright sunshine. “If we call it a rope we get in trouble. Someone called one of the lines a rope, and we all had to do 10 push-ups.”

He said one of the program’s key lessons is the importance of teamwork.

“When you’re on the boat,” he said, “everyone has to do their part.”

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Contact Ann Zaniewski: 313-222-6594 or