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Program pitches rehabilitation of juvenile offenders through sailing

DUNEDIN — It's an idea worthy of a summer blockbuster: seven juvenile delinquents racing across the Atlantic Ocean in one sailboat.

But for Tyler Howell, an 18-year-old from Dunedin who has spent the past several years bouncing from one juvenile justice program to another, it's about to become reality.

Howell — and six other "high-risk" juvenile offenders from across the country — have been chosen to take part in a five-month sailing boot camp that pitches itself as an alternative to incarceration. Founded by a college student from Sarasota, the organization called SailFuture plans to train the crew of teenagers for several weeks in Baltimore before entering them in a 2,700-mile international race called the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers.

In addition to Howell, the group includes two American Indian teenagers who grew up on reservations, a boy from Chicago's South Side and a teenager from Los Angeles who has been held in solitary confinement on a manslaughter charge. None of them knows how to sail, and more than half cannot swim.

"Everyone in the juvenile justice system says these are going to be lifelong criminals," said SailFuture co-founder Mark Hunter, 34. "They've been incarcerated for the majority of their teenage years, and that's why they were selected for the program. We are trying to do something different by teaching them confidence and teamwork."

They have named their 65-foot vessel Defy the Odds and, naturally, it will carry a film crew along with a handful of supervising — and seaworthy — adults.

For founders Hunter and Michael Long, 23, a member of the state advisory group for Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice, persuading juvenile justice centers across the country to hand over their charges has not been easy. To some, their proposal reads like a script for mutiny.

But after three years of running an after-school sailing program for troubled teens out of Sarasota, the organization is starting to gain traction with judges, parents and parole officers, Hunter said. Along with teaching the teenagers to sail, the program's leaders say they want to help every participant earn a GED.

Howell's entry came through a public defender, who recommended him for the program just as he was leaving a youth facility in Fort Myers for one in St. Petersburg.

As a white teen from a comfortably middle-class home, he is an unusual choice for the program. But a string of fights, small-time thefts and addiction to a marijuana concentrate have earned him years in the juvenile justice system.

"I was willing to do it right away," he said of the SailFuture program. He was released from the St. Petersburg center on Monday.

"I never want to see the inside of a facility again," he said.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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