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Despite Hurricane Sandy damage, Darien Junior Sailing Team enjoys successful season

Updated 1:59 pm, Thursday, August 1, 2013
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Nothing -- not even Hurricane Sandy -- can stop the Darien Junior Sailing Team.

Some 10 months ago, Darien's Weed Beach felt the impact of Sandy's destructive path, and the Darien Junior Sailing Team, an all-volunteer, self-funded competitive team, was hit particularly hard.

"We took a hit in the storm. A lot of the boats were hurt badly, but we were able to recover and restore everything. Our plans for expansion this year were a middle boat, and we had done a pilot program for adults," said Linda Hannett, co-commodore and program chair of the DJST. "The plan was to try to work something like that in, but that would involve bringing in a bigger boat and we just didn't have the capacity. We didn't have anywhere to put them, so next year we're hoping to be back full strength. It helps that we have full support of parks and recreation behind us."

That isn't to say that some adjustments didn't have to be made.

The team's boats now are located right on the beach, but if there's one post-Sandy silver lining, it's that the exposure has sparked the curiosity of Darien residents who are visiting the beach.

"The boats being out on the beach is a little tentative for us because they're exposed. The good news is that the sails were locked up in the pod (metal storage bin)," Hannett said. "Being here exposed like this was actually a good thing because people got to see what the operation was all about. It was more user-friendly with people coming up and asking us questions. It piqued the interest of a lot of people."

The DJST and its 125 or so sailors weren't about to let the storm ruin their season, however. The DJST has grown in membership since its inception in 1972, increasing from 25 sailors in the late 90s to 125 today, with another 30-50 waitlisted. The DJST has grown not only in number, but in variety.

"We own 25 opties, people can bring their own private opties to use and we have six 420s," said Pam Ha-Stevenson, commodore and program chair. "We can accommodate up to that many."

"When it first started, the kids who came into the program had to have their own boat, and they were here mornings only," said Hannett, who added that the program used to only feature Optimists, though it has since added 420s. "From 1972 through the late 90s, they had maybe as many as 25 kids in the program. We have about 125 kids registered and anywhere between 30 and 50 on the waitlist."

The DJST sometimes loses sailors around the age of 10 because often times they've outgrown the opties but haven't gotten big enough for the 420s.

"It wasn't a long-range plan; it was for this summer," Ha-Stevenson said. "We were going to bring in the middle boat until Sandy took over."

The DJST, which competes in the Junior Sailing Association on Long Island Sound, now features several instructors who were at one time students, some as young as 8, making it a "life sport" for some of those who participate.

"Once you pick up this sport, it kind of becomes a sport for life. When you start young and have a passion for it, you have the ability to progress all the way up and continue sailing until you're very old," said Venetia Stanley, a Staples High graduate in her third year of instructing the DJST. "We're pretty much running out of a tent so I think it's quite impressive that we're still going and functioning just as we were (before Sandy). It's been difficult but we've all pulled together."

The DJST is also the premier "feeder program" for Darien High School's varsity sailing team. Mac Bartram, who graduated in the class of 2012, is a former captain at the high school.

"I sailed here as a kid when I was going into my freshman year of high school. Even now on staff there are three of us who grew up sailing here," Bartram said. "(The high school team) was very competitive. It was a great environment. Everyone is friends on the team. I'll probably instruct for another summer or two, but I'm definitely always going to be involved coming by."

Darien's Kim Crosby has four children ranging from ages 8-16 and can attest to the fact that sailing runs in the family, though she herself didn't compete in the sport.

"I had toddlers and planted them on the beach here. We saw all the opties out there and it looked so sweet," Crosby said. "It was an easy gravitation. By age 8, they could just go out on a sailboat. It was easy to just walk right over there and sign them up."

Bradley Hughes has qualified for the regatta championships and will be representing DJST this Friday and Saturday at the Stamford Yacht Club.

Hannett and company are hopeful that their site will be rebuilt back to where it was before Sandy, but for now, the DJST is taking it all in stride. Its season will conclude on Aug. 10.

"We're heading in a good direction as quickly as we can. We had sheds that collapsed, but we can run the operation out of a tent if we have to," Hannett said. "The reality of it is this is a small part of the big plan of things they're trying to fix. Pear Tree Beach took a major hit, more so than here. This is on the agenda of the big plan, we just don't know time-wise where it will fit in, but we're ready to operate."

jchik@bcnnew.com Twitter: @jchik17