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Building Confidence and Community through Sailing

Updated: Apr 10

By Meghan Coburn

On the surface, it would appear that Evan McCarthy is your average, talented sailor. With years of experience on Broadneck High School’s racing team and a US Sailing Level 2 Instructor certification under his belt, it’d be easy to think that he was born in a catboat wearing a life jacket!

Yet a peek behind the curtain reveals a different story: One of an individual with learning differences who discovered how the sport of sailing could change his life forever. “I have severe but properly treated Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and anxiety,” said Evan, “I was diagnosed around first grade, back in a time when little was known about these learning differences.” School, home, friends, everything was complicated by the constant struggle for my attention.

At the time, Evan was labeled an undisciplined problem child. The approach was to punish without trying to work with and understand him. It became obvious early on that punishment was not working as a motivator. Instead, it only created anger and loss of self-esteem. With the help of his child therapist, Evan discovered that helping others gave him the confidence and pride he was seeking. It was now time to find him an outlet for his energy and something that would build his self-confidence.

How did Evan develop this passion for sailing? Kids with ADHD can have a hard time keeping focused and sitting still. They crave activity. They may also struggle at team sports. With that in mind, Evan became involved with martial arts. “I did martial arts as an outlet for my energy,” but it wasn’t much fun anymore because I had been doing it for so long, and it wasn’t keeping my interest.” Since his family members were boaters, it was natural that he gave it a try.

When Evan joined Brendan Sailing, he said he was finally introduced to people in the “same boat” as he was. Before the program, Evan had gone through traditional public primary and secondary schooling where kids with learning differences were few and far between, and instructional methods often left kids like him behind. That first summer, however, marked a major change in Evan’s life: “It was one of the first times where I was in an environment of people just like me, and I felt like I fit in,” said Evan. “They were just other friendly kids that I was sailing and having a good time with.”

These new friends, coupled with passionate instructors and a teaching approach that allowed him to learn and thrive, brought Evan back to Brendan Sailing summer after summer. Through different program directors, kids, and lessons, his love for sailing and his skills grew until eventually, the Brendan instructors began placing him in boats with newer sailors. It was acting as this helping hand that sparked a passion for teaching sailing and ultimately what fueled Evan to accept a position as an instructor. “I finally got to show off my skills and pass those skills that I had worked hard to develop on to new kids and see the happiness on their faces when they finally grasp them,” reminisced Evan. “I got to think back to how I felt during the first time that they trusted me to be on a sailboat by myself and that joy—I wanted to give that to more people who had had similar experiences like me.”

While his journey, which spanned five summers as a camper at Brendan Sailing, three summers as a counselor, and two summers as head instructor, was not always easy, Evan persevered and gained the tools to not only to become a successful sailor but to conquer every obstacle in his path.

While passing on a skillset is rewarding in most circumstances, the environment at Brendan Sailing makes it even more satisfying: “I had trouble working with other people and keeping my attention focused. These kids have a lot of the same troubles. They struggle to grasp a lot of the material being presented by schoolteachers or cannot focus on homework as well as the other kids. In sailing, you practice, learn a skill, and someone trusts you to be on that boat doing it all yourself. It’s such an amazing feeling that’s so rewarding from having to work harder and practice a little bit more. It is exhilarating to realize I can focus on something and complete it without having to drag myself through it. I remember the moments where I experienced that, and I get to be the person that passes that on to them.”

This genuine zeal for teaching motivated Evan to become Brendan’s head instructor. In this position, Evan has aided in creating a curriculum unlike any other. Building on his experiences as both a camper and an instructor and on his love of the sport, Evan has made it a point to emphasize creative methods of teaching that build on every sailor’s unique strengths by blending pre-existing ideas for teaching sailing with lessons learned in practice. “I really make sure that we’re working with the kids in different ways that stimulate the unique ways that they perceive information,” reflected Evan, “They can find their own paths to performing these new skills. Because the immediate skills that you need for a traditional style of learning are ‘memorize this,’ ‘do this,’ is not a process, for success for youth with learning differences.”

One of the most important skills Evan likes to develop in his Brendan campers is to accept the unknown—a lesson that has proven valuable both on a boat and inside the classroom. “Maybe the process of slow-motion drills on the boat isn’t going to be the same as figuring out how to do a math problem,” he mused, “but the critical thinking and comfort with the unknown are so incredibly valuable. When sailing, no two days on the water are the same. Learning to expect the unexpected, be flexible with responses, builds confidence.” According to Evan, in sailing and in life, confidence is the key to bridging the knowledge that you can accomplish something in the classroom, just like you accomplish it in the boat if you set your mind to it.

The confidence that Brendan Sailing built within Evan has been essential to overcoming a multitude of events in his life and has been especially useful in managing what he calls “those big, overwhelming firsts.” Sailing successfully means managing a variety of stimuli. “You’ve got to take into account the wind, the other boats, so many different things to think about at once. When I was at Brendan, I was really taught to take steps to problem-solve without getting overwhelmed by anxious thoughts or all that stimuli. Instead of becoming flustered, I can use the things I’ve learned, and then I’m able to keep going and accomplish my goals.”

Confidence is not the only thing he has gained from Brendan Sailing. To Evan, becoming a Brendan sailor means joining both a community and a family. “We’ve just got so many people that have experienced success and lives that we’ve touched over the years. Many Brendan alumni return and give back to the program. We’re not just a program that caters to youth with learning disabilities— we’re also bringing them into that whole Brendan family fueled by years of passionate sailing.”

Through his time at Brendan, Evan has grown as both an individual and as a sailor and has gone on to shape the program in incredible ways. Next year, he will graduate from Washington College with a dual major in Mathematics and Computer Science. A huge accomplishment for someone previously deemed a “problem child with no discipline.” Brendan Sailing helped make that possible. To Evan, Brendan Sailing is synonymous with family—and he would not have it any other way. After all, “There’s no better place to be than in the same boat as me!”

For free resources on managing diagnoses, mobility, and accessibility support, self-advocacy, personal rights, educational rights, occupational therapy, mental health support, schools and camps, transitioning to adulthood, job opportunities, financial planning, supporting the family/caretakers, subscribe to Exceptional Needs Today. Subscribing to our award-winning e-magazine is free, and it enables us to connect with more readers, helping us support the special needs community more effectively. We publish a new issue every quarter - delivered straight to your email.

Meghan Cobourn is a writer, a marketer, a typography lover, and, most importantly, a proud sister to a brother with autism spectrum disorder. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a BA in Communications with a concentration in Digital Media in 2021 and currently works as a Marketing Associate at an advertising agency. When she’s not writing, Meghan is playing with her Goldendoodle Finn, experimenting with different art mediums, or reading a good, creative-focused nonfiction book.

Article adapted from one originally posted on Brendan Sailing’s website.

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Mar 15, 2022

Thanks for sharing with us, Brendan Sailing!

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