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New England Science & Sailing Charts the Smarts

A retired captain of Wall Street with a passion for the sea has navigated a small yacht club sailing program in Stonington into a non-profit organization called New England Science & Sailing (NESS). It is opening new vistas of learning, fun and leadership for youngsters through much of Southern New England.

From buildings and a dock on the Stonington waterfront that once housed a lobster pound and oyster hatchery, NESS has extended its reach with school programs as far away as Providence, RI, Norwich and Hartford. If the need and support arises, the group might seek a permanent satellite on the Connecticut River in Hartford.

The wind in the sails of NESS is its founder and president, Michael “Spike” Lobdell, a former top executive at financial powerhouses JP Morgan Chase and XL Capital. While NESS reaches youngsters of all socio-economic strata, Lobdell is candid about one of the main motivations behind his zeal for its mission.

“There are kids in cities like New London who live a couple of hundred yards from the sea and never really experience it, who don’t even know how to swim,” Lobdell says. NESS is out to change that through water and adventure sports such as sailing, kayaking, power boating, swimming and fishing.

While students are having fun, they are also getting a dose of academics. NESS’s curriculum is keyed to STEM – a national initiative to encourage learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

NESS has programs year-round but warmer weather is high season, with myriad activities, many centered on the group’s fleet of small boats including kayaks, sailboats and power craft. Students pay for summer programs, although many of those who attend are on scholarship. Programs bring together kids of many different backgrounds, but their goals are the same.

Lobdell describes NESS’s core values as:

  • Engaging students in learning through hands-on experience, which can range from raising a sail to wading to look at horseshoe crabs
  • Personal growth by encouraging students in activities that take them out of their comfort zones, such as learning operate a power boat
  • Inclusiveness that promotes diversity
  • Teaching stewardship, not just for the marine environment, but also in one’s own community.

NESS partners with more than 60 different schools, the showpiece of which is at New London’s STEM Magnet Middle School, Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. Funded by federal and private grants, NESS programs at the school provide educational and recreation activities often inaccessible to youngsters from low-income homes. NESS also was given the helm of the city’s community boating program, and operates a classroom in a building at Ocean Beach.

NESS operates with 17 full-time staffers and 10 members of AmeriCorps, the national community service network. NESS has a benefit gala set for November 7 at the Velvet Mill, Stonington. For information on NESS visit www.nessf.org

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