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LITTLE BOATS, BIG THRILLS

On any clear Suncoast day, beach horizons are splashed with sails, brightly colored or clean white.

Some are skippered by young sailors racing the wind in a kind of soapbox derby.

One of them might be Katie Whitman, an 11-year-old seventh-grader at St. Johns School in Tampa. She is a member of the U.S. Optimist National Team, 35 of the top young sailors in the country, who are selected at the Optimist Nationals each year.

"It is quite an honor to be part of the national team," Katie says. "The national team was organized to help bring up the level of sailing for youth, and not everybody makes it. Our meetings allow us to travel so we not only learn new techniques, but we have fun and get to meet a lot of new people."

The team meets around the country six to eight times a year for training, including seminars and instruction in all aspects of sailing as well as physical exercise.

"I used to be involved in soccer and ice hockey, but I like sailing exclusively now," Katie says. "It requires more dedication and commitment, I believe. Plus I like to compete."

Clark Mills of Clearwater designed the first Optimist sailboat as Florida's answer to the soapbox derby he was familiar with as a youngster in Akron, Ohio. With few hills in Central Florida and plenty of water, Mills basically put a sail on a soapbox design to race in the wind. They are 8 feet long by 4 feet wide, with one sail plus a square bow and stern.

"They are small, but a lot of fun to sail most of the time," says Dan Coryn, 13, another Tampa skipper. "Sometimes they are boring too, which balances out everything."

Traveling and meeting new friends are offshoots of competition that attract Dan. He is in the eighth grade at Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa.

In addition to competing with other youngsters in Tampa Bay and along the gulf coast, the local sailors have traveled to ports on both coasts of Florida and north on the Atlantic Ocean for national events. Other local skippers are 15-year-old Calyn Brown and her 11-year-old sister, Evan; and Katie Whitman's two brothers, 11-year-old William and 9-year-old Ben.

They are all members of the Davis Island Youth Sailing Foundation, an organization for children and teens established seven years ago to "promote safe boating for community youngsters and foster love for sailing." The program is not restricted to Davis Island Yacht Club members.

Each summer the foundation works with the Tampa YMCA so children from needy families can learn to sail for free.

Optimist race teams are separated into three fleets by age to balance the competition. The white fleet is for ages 8 to 10; blue, 11 to 12; and red, 13 to 15.

"I first started sailing almost two years ago, because my grandfather used to sail and talked about all the fun involved," Calyn Brown says. "I took a two-week basic course where I learned to rig the boat and do basic maneuvers."

Calyn, a sophomore at Plant High School in Tampa, also enjoys running track. Her events are the 2-mile, 1-mile and half-mile.

"I got bored with sailing for a while after my initial lessons and dropped out," she said. "Then my younger sister Evan started sailing and talked me into going back. I did and now I just love it. It is exciting to be in the sun in the little Optimist, going fast so close to the water."

Calyn is now sailing a different class of sailboat, a radial Laser, which requires more skill and allows her to compete against adults.

Up next:OBITUARIES

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