Oakland Youth Learn Marine Biology and Get Exercise

Natalia Aldana

Dashiel Johnson, a boating instructor at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, watches his wards kayak.

At the Lake Merritt Boating Center, sailing becomes an outlet and enjoyable experience for kids, as they develop important life-skills and an awareness of the abundant ecosystem that surrounds them.

Oakland Parks and Recreation provides an after-school program where young children can gain hands-on experience in marine sports and an education in physics and biology, an opportunity 10-year-old Franklin Elementary student Daniel Gblah says he’s glad to have.

“I love it because I can become king of the boat,” said Gblah, with a wide grin. “I like having control and then helping others learn how to be safe on the water. Sailing teaches you to become a great leader.”

At the after-school program, children are often brought to the center directly from their schools, where they enjoy a two hour period of boating training and instruction.

Students learn basics such as water safety, rigging, how to sail, trim and tie knots, as well as how to communicate with others and develop leadership qualities.

“Kids can see where the infrastructure ends and where nature begins,” said Alex Johnson, a Lake Merritt employee.

“It’s important that kids just keep learning in general,” he said. “Here, they not only learn how to be disciplined, but also gain an appreciation for our earth and everything it has to offer.”

In partnership with the Oakland Unified School District, fifth graders can also partake in Sailing Into Science, a hands-on program that utilizes Lake Merritt’s unique environment setting for education and recreation, exposing students to the unique nature in their neighborhood.

San Francisco State University student Dashiel Johnson, who has been working at the Boating Center since 2006, first learned how to sail on the same waters where he now teaches, saying his love for the sport has carried over to his love of teaching kids.

“Through sailing, they learn to rely on themselves and to trust their capabilities, all the while fostering an ability to become independent and mature adults,” said Johnson. “Seeing them feel empowered and accomplished that they learned something important is the most rewarding and exciting part of my day.”

Sailing Into Science, Dashiel Johnson says, offers youth entrance to the waters and its inhabitants through an adventurous education in Environmental, Nautical and Life Sciences that facilitate kids with an understanding of their world in relation to their surroundings.

Covering 155 acres, Lake Merritt, also known as the “Jewel of Oakland,” is a man-made creation of both fresh and salt water, which serves as a focal point in the heart of urban Oakland.
In 1869, Dr. Samuel Merritt, then Mayor of Oakland, declared the lake a National Wildlife Refuge, the first of its kind in North America.

The large tidal lagoon is home to countless species of birds, fish and shellfish, in addition to ducks both green and brown, where large numbers of Canada geese can be seen wandering proprietarily through the lake’s paths and adjacent parks year-round.

Ten-year old Jonathan Torres says he loves coming to the lake—not only because he gets to pilot his own kayak, but for the amazing wildlife he gets to see on each of his journeys.

“Every time I come here, I see something really cool and new,” said Torres. “The birds and fishes, and everything else around the lake makes it like a new adventure every day, and that is the coolest thing ever.”

Upon entrance into a boat or kayak, students both young and old can feel the tranquility of the still waters as they enjoy a remarkable view of downtown Oakland and the San Francisco Bay.

The center teaches sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, canoeing and rowing throughout the year.Children can sign up for a Youth Camp in the summer or for lessons throughout the year.

The boating center offers equipment rentals daily, as well as an opportunity to join their junior sailing team or Dragonboat races, which the after-school kids say is a lot more fun than people would normally think.

Sailing and boating, albeit a well organized and recognized sport in primarily coastal areas of the United States, is not very popular among youth in urban areas such as Oakland and its surrounding communities, as its association with clubs and money pushes it behind other sports as a recreational outlet for children.

Financial assistance is available to those who apply for a fee waiver, but staff says that even though the aid is in short supply, the significant experiences children gain from sailing are worth a lifetime.

Boating Program Director of six years, Sarah Herbelin, says that students who go through the sailing program receive a free pass to sail upon completion, as well as an opportunity to return with their families.

Herbelin encourages individuals to enroll their kids into the after-school programs, saying it gives them an engagement with nature that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

“It gives them a way to spend time in a beautiful environment,” she said. “A boating experience opens doors to a connection with our natural environment, and that is definitely needed in kids today.”