Less about the boat, more about self-esteem

By Lisa Truesdale

There is one important concept that Diane McKinney wants her students to realize after they finish her four-day sailing camp: She doesn’t care one bit whether they actually learn to sail.

That’s because ABLE to Sail, part of the Longmont-based nonprofit ABLE for Youth she established in 2012, is a youth empowerment camp that just happens to use the challenges of sailing as an analogy for the challenges of life.

“We deal with the ‘self’ in self-esteem, to help at-risk kids who are about to fall off the cliff and into high-risk behaviors,” she says, adding that she believes all kids are high-risk. “If you can change your thinking, you can change your behavior. What we think drives what we do.”

Sailing, then, according to McKinney, is perfect for illustrating these concepts to the 11-to-18-year-olds she teaches.

“In sailing, you steer left if you want to go right, which doesn’t make sense at first,” she says. “But then they get it, and they realize, sometimes you have to steer the opposite way in order to not crash your life.”

There’s also an area on the sailboat where no one is allowed to sit, called the “no butt zone,” so she uses that as a clever backdrop for explaining that kids need to have a “no BUT zone” in their lives.

“We talk about how they have to stop themselves with their ‘buts,’ such as ‘I’d ask her out, BUT…,’ or ‘I’d try out for the team, BUT…’,” she explains. “Clearly, a lack of self-esteem causes the word ‘but’ to come into play.”

When you’re sailing, you also have to keep looking ahead to navigate.

“Keep your head up and watch where you’re going to see what’s out there for you. It’s about letting go of the past and looking to the future,” says

McKinney. “Plus, sailing is essentially a solo endeavor. In life, you don’t have to rely on anyone else to tell you that you’re ‘enough.’ You have to believe it for yourself.”

The “ABLE” in ABLE for Youth stands for “A Better Life Experience,” and after a week of camp at Union Reservoir, McKinney hopes she has opened the kids’ minds to the possibility of a better life experience for themselves, having built up their self-esteem and self-love while developing team-building and leadership skills.

The amount of time the class actually spends on the water depends on the wind, yet she has discovered that it makes no difference whether there’s enough wind or not.

“Last summer, there was one full week without any wind at all, and one of my instructors said to the kids, ‘Not sailing is part of sailing,’” McKinney recalls. “One of the kids said, ‘Oh, then not getting it is part of getting it.’ That’s when I knew that the wind didn’t matter, and the lessons didn’t matter, and I don’t care if they ever sail again.”

ABLE to Sail, which won U.S. Sailing’s 2018 award for “Creative Innovations in Programming,” doesn’t turn anyone away if they can’t afford the registration fee. But that doesn’t matter to McKinney either, since she’s definitely not in it for the money.

“I just want to connect with these kids and be something for them,” she says. “I want them to know that I’ll always be a safe place for them. I love the village that raises the children.”

To learn more about ABLE to Sail, visit www.abletosail.org.