Kevin Riordan: Smooth sailing - for the most part

Sailing on the Cooper River sure is different from driving around it. And pushing a tiller is nothing like turning a wheel.

This I discover thanks to the patient young instructors at the Cooper River Yacht Club in Collingswood, where 20 other landlubbers and I recently survived our maiden voyages.

"There are no brakes," Aaron Sirken, 17, tells me, referring to the two-person Precision-15 sailboats used for introductory sailing classes.

Sirken, of Cherry Hill, is right. Trying to slow down the nifty little craft for the first time feels like trying to control an icy skid.

At one point, only quick action by the unflappable Allison Oberg prevents the SS Kevin from crashing head-on into the dock.

"I've been sailing since I was about 4," says Oberg, 22, and I believe it. Her mother, Judy Lazo, is a past commodore of the club, and her late grandmother Crystel Passauer was the first woman to serve in that post.

The club was founded in 1945 and has 200 active memberships. Families have been members for generations, and some parents taking the evening learn-to-sail classes enroll their children in the afternoon sessions for youngsters.

"Sailing is a lifetime sport," says Lazo, who lives nearby in Haddon Township.

Although sailboats retail for $4,500 and up, images of snotty yachties sipping Cape Cods don't jibe with the down-to-earth vibe of the clubhouse and boatyard complex on South Park Drive.

Leased from Camden County by the club, the facility is unpretentious. And my fellow students are an eclectic crew of men and women with whom I feel an instant camaraderie.

As we wait our turn to head out with an instructor, the Cooper sparkles with late-day sunshine and the atmosphere on the dock has a nervous charge.

"It's a little scary," says Phyllis Bozek, 53, of Bellmawr, who won the class in a Salvation Army 50-50. "But it's great."

Many of us are in that part of midlife when we think about taking chances. Or get encouraged to do so.

"You could say this is No. 10 on my bucket list," says Jack Hueter, 56, of Haddon Heights.

Laurel Springs resident Jack Nixon, 59, says he received the lessons as a Father's Day present - "after, in an act of insanity, I bought myself an old sailboat."

Although I couldn't fit one of those in my apartment, I do share Nixon's eagerness to set sail.

"Tonight we're sailing a reach, which is when the wind is perpendicular to your boat," Mary Morgan, 19, an instructor from Shamong, tells us.

"We're going to sail from the dock to the tetrahedron."

The what?

"It's that big orange buoy," she adds, helpfully.

I eagerly clamber/topple into a dinghy, where Anne Warburton is at the tiller.

The Cherry Hill mother of four, 49, is so relaxed I take her for an instructor.

Turns out this is Warburton's first time on the water, at least in this class, and I'm supposed to be her . . . crew?

Perhaps sensing my alarm, the homemaker-turned-sailor is most gracious. I adjust my life jacket yet again as she tacks and trims, pausing only to comment on the scenery.

"Really lovely," Warburton says. "OK, we've got to switch sides."

Despite the steamy, soggy air, the wind billows, particularly on the water. Our little boat rushes across the lively surface with a speed that alarms me, even though the river is barely four feet deep in places.

While I am a capable swimmer, nothing compares fright-wise to skippering for the first time.

Fortunately, Oberg is aboard. She delivers all her instructions with a smile, and no wonder: The only thing funnier than trying to steer with a stick is watching someone else try to do it.

And even when I find out that "trim your sail" has nothing to do with scissors, I still can't seem to cut it as a skipper.

Didn't we just pass that tetrahedron?

Moving across the water with the wind is exhilarating, however. Almost like flying, without having to go through the Transportation Safety Administration.

"It doesn't matter how good you are," Oberg says, reassuring me yet again.

"Anyone can learn to sail."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at