By Kevin Greer, Lakeside Communications Manager

Sailing is one of the most popular activities on Lake Erie. You’re never too young to do it, just ask any member of the Society of Old Salts (S.O.S.).

Every Sunday from Father’s Day to Labor Day weekend, S.O.S. volunteers, with the help of Lakeside sailing instructors, run Kids Setting Sail to get youngsters ages 5-10 interested in sailing at no cost. Since the program started in 2003, over 10,000 future sailors had the thrill of a Sunfish ride on Lake Erie. The boat rides run from 2:30-4:30 p.m. each week.

In 1991, Tony Apotsos formed the S.O.S. as a sailing support group, which currently has over 200 members. Apotsos credits Dick Swanson for coming up with the idea to start Kids Setting Sail. Things got off to a slow start, but the line of kids grew much longer in the fourth year. The first three seasons never hit a total of 400 sailors, now the only things keeping the numbers below 600 for the summer are weather can-celations and COVID-19. The most riders in one day were 129 on June 26, 2011, and the season high was 947 in 2012.

“Actually, when we start-ed that there were so few, we would let them run the boat or take them out one at a time and let them turn the tiller or hold the main sheet,” Apotsos said. “But it’s gotten to be so popular through (S.O.S. member Bill Maenner’s) efforts that we just don’t have the manpower or the boats to take them out one at a time.”

Maenner, who heads Kids Setting Sail, says there were some obstacles the program had to overcome at first, but now it’s, well, smooth sailing.

“We were very disorganized,” Maenner said. “We have the system that I’m running now, and I have modified it over the years. Quite honestly right now, it’s like clockwork.”

It takes about 12-20 volunteers to help every Sunday, depending on the number of kids. Some Lakeside sailing instructors got their first experience on the lake through Kids Setting Sail. One of them is Jack Prior, a 17-year-old from Cincinnati, who has been coming to Lakeside with his family for several years. He got hooked on sailing at the age of 5 through the program.

“I did Kids Setting Sail when I was really young,” said Prior, who is a rising senior at Milford High School. “A few years later, one of my neighbors, Bob Bruce, suggested that I take the sailing class and I was like, ‘no, I really don’t want to do it.’ Then I went the first day and had a blast.”

Before kids head out on a boat, a parent or guardian must sign a consent form. Maenner’s wife, Charlotte, is in charge of administrative side of the organization and hands out the paperwork.

Maenner said children younger than 5 are allowed to sail as long as a parent is on the boat. That’s when things get a little tricky for him since the vessels have a weight limit.

“I have to ask females how much they weigh, and I don’t like to do that,” Maenner said. “I don’t think I insulted anybody, but once they understand why I’m asking, they freely tell me. The men don’t care when I ask them their weight. It’s critical because if there’s too much weight, it doesn’t work for the safety of the boat.”

Other than weather conditions, the only Sunday Kids Setting Sail is canceled is during the Lakeside Regatta, which this year is Aug. 6-7. If the winds are over 10 miles per hour, Maenner feels the water is not safe for the kids.

“All the experienced sailors can handle almost anything,” Maenner said. “But when you have two little kids on a boat, I always look at safety first.”

Several kids are regular Sunday sailors and get in line every week. The distance they go out on the water depends on how many kids are waiting. One thing is certain, the kids are never out of the adults’ sight.

Apotsos says it’s a mixed reaction before kids get on the boat. Some are excited, while others are a bit apprehensive, especially first-timers. But when they get back to shore, most have infectious smiles.

“If you’re from (for example) Thornville, Ohio, you’ve never been on the water, you’ve never been in a boat, you’ve never gone sailing,” Apotsos said. “All of a sudden, you’re in a sailboat on Lake Erie. Then you go home and see your friends and say, ‘Guess what? I was on a sailboat. I sailed on Lake Erie.”