EAST CHICAGO - Charlene Mazalan meticulously maneuvered the 32-foot sloop
through the gray waters of the Robert A. Pastrick Marina, carefully weaving the
sailboat toward Lake Michigan.
Without blinking, Mazalan, 16,concentrated on the bow, where her crewmates
were untying the ropes and preparing to hoist 500 square feet of canvas sail.
A serious Mazalan, who was the captain of the vessel on this particular day,
steered into the northeasterly wind. The sails ballooned with a loud, whooshing
sound, and a triumphant smile of satisfaction spread across the young woman's
Such fierce determination and skill isn't usually expected from teens like
Mazalan, some of whom face family problems, failure in school or trouble with
But somehow, when students at East Chicago Central High School enroll in the
school's sailing class, their attitudes toward education - and life - change.
"Nothing will build people's self-confidence more than sailing," said
skipper Geoff Barrow, a Spanish professor at Purdue University Calumet who
teaches the sailing program, now in its fifth year.
"Sailing is a marvelous experience, something you remember all your life,"
he said. "You're bombing along on the open water. There's nothing quite like
For Mazalan, the sailing class is a way to escape from pressures at home and
school and earn much-needed credit toward graduation.
"I've never been into stuff like this before," said Mazalan, who has been
shuffled between her parents and, as a result, flunked one semester. "Once I
get out onto the lake and don't have to worry about running into other boats
(in the marina), I feel pretty good - relaxed. It's like going camping."
Barrow said he is amazed at the way some of his students "come around"
during the course of the sailing class.
"A month ago, (Mazalan) was worried because the dock moved when she stepped
on it," he said. "For the last three weeks she's been hulling the tiller,
running the boat, telling the others what to do, telling us when to let go of
lines and raise sails, turning the boat around, tacking, jiving ... People sure
About a dozen teen-agers will go through the program this summer. In a
matter of weeks, they progress from tying knots and learning safety rules to
taking the boat out for a cruise.
The class is what Barrow calls a "collaborative community partnership." The
marina donates dock space, the high school offers class credit and other
support, the Indiana Sailing Association helps with basic sailing necessities
and Barrow volunteers his time and sailing skills.
The Mischief, which was built in the 1960s to race to Bermuda, was donated
by a member of the Burns Waterway Coast Guard Auxiliary.
In-class preparation includes seamanship, navigation and maritime history,
and it is designed to enhance skills in geography, math, science and
technology. But the most valuable lessons students learn have little to do with
sailing, Barrow said.
"They may be at-risk in the high school, but they're at no risk here," he
said. "I have no trouble motivating them to learn ... The essence is teamwork.
I think it builds their self-confidence and self-respect tremendously."
Valerie Alicea, 17, walked through graduation ceremonies this spring but
needs one more credit to make it official.
"My choices were sailing and print shop," said Alicea, who plans to attend
college to become an X-ray or computer technician. "I thought sailing would be
As it turns out, the class gave her more responsibility than she ever
imagined would be placed on her shoulders.
"You have to be really strong, or at least try to be as strong as you
possibly can," she said. "The wind is stronger than you are. You've got to pay
attention when the wind takes the sails. If you don't, they'll rip, and it
could cost thousands of dollars."
John Gandara, an 18-year-old who will enter the Army in November, said the
class appeals to his wilder side.
"The water can kind of get rough sometimes, but that's what I like about it.
It's rough," he said.
It takes a lot more than choppy water to keep the sailing class docked, much
to the chagrin of crew mates with weak stomachs.
"The only days we won't go out is when there is imminent lightning or there
is virtually no wind," Barrow said. "We're not like those lazy weekend sailors
who go out for a couple hours, and come back in and drink some beer. We're
dedicated to the water and to sailing."