A 36-year-old Iowan now living in Denver, Brandon Kass is perhaps the most unlikely sailing instructor in America. Kass learned the sport at age eight, on his home state’s Lake Okoboji, and continued sailing while attending the University of Iowa. But his big-time ocean experience in the rigging came when he crewed boats in Southern California as a trimmer and got beat up working the foredeck.
“I got a lot of bumps and bruises, but I learned a lot,” he says. “In 2008, I traded in the ocean for the Rocky Mountains to be closer to family, but didn’t want to give up my love of sailing, and particularly my interest to share that love with the younger generation.”
Kass’s passion for the sport led to his appointment as executive director of the non-profit Community Sailing of Colorado (CSC) in 2010. Equipped with a fleet of 100 sailboats ranging in size from eight to 18 feet, CSC offers sailing instruction for kids and adults alike. Kass and his instructors, based at the Boulder and Cherry Creek reservoirs, have taught some 6,000 Coloradans how to sail.
Each season, which runs from April to October, the organization teaches upwards of 800 kids, ages five to 17, how to catch the wind and man the rudder. But the skills kids learn run deeper than just operating the boat: Mastering the basics of sailing requires relying on nature rather than motors. What’s more, sailing transports kids far away from the technology bombardment of 21st-century life.
Those kids who take to the sport can then join the Junior Racing Team, which practices weekly sessions at both Boulder and Cherry Creek reservoirs. It’s not an elite club as much as it is a way for beginning sailors to hone their skills and have fun out on the water. Race team members also have the opportunity to participate in regattas, including the Rocky Mountain Junior Olympics on Lake Dillon.
“Sailing teaches competence, communications, teamwork and leadership. Our students may arrive shy, or without a lot of friends, and it’s amazing to watch their development. We build them up as individuals, increasing their confidence, by teaching them this new physical skill,” Kass says. “We don’t take them for sailboat rides. We teach them how to master their own boats safely in a nurturing environment. It really transforms young people. They’re mastering the wind, Mother Nature herself, and it’s an empowering feeling for them.”
The program also hosts free family sailing nights, where budding salts can show their parents what they learned during the week and expand the community. Furthermore, CSC provides adaptive programs for the physically and mentally challenged. “We want to make sailing as inclusive as possible, and offer scholarships to reach out to those with financial, physical or cognitive challenges,” Kass says.
Young sailors may not have to worry about sharks or getting lost at sea, but Colorado does present one big challenge to landlocked boaters—that infamous wind that whips down from the mountains, creating instant gales.
“Colorado weather can provide a little bit of everything, so we never take anything for granted,” Kass says, remembering the time a cold front pushed through Cherry Creek. In the middle of practice, winds hit 30 mph, boats crashed, and kids were rescued by a chase boat.
“There were no injuries, but we were retrieving boats beached along the shore for hours,” says Kass.
To learn more or sign up for sailing programs head to communitysailing.org.