Head coach Mia Troisi, right, leads her students through a turn.

Thanks to the generosity of community donors and an agreement with the city of Marathon, the Middle Keys Sailing program has it made in the shade … literally.

Visitors to the 33rd Street boat ramp in Marathon will immediately notice an upgrade to the street’s gulfside peninsula, made possible by the sailors and their supporters. Once a largely neglected eyesore, the point is now landscaped with pea rock and covered with a massive shade structure providing respite from the brutal summer sun. Brand new adirondack chairs sit underneath, allowing visitors to take in the views in comfort.

Since its inception in 2013, Middle Keys Sailing has been funded largely by the Marathon Yacht Club Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that also provides scholarships for high school seniors pursuing careers in marine-related industries. Its programming, mostly focused on teaching the sport of sailing to kids ages 7-15, relied on the generosity of the Marathon Yacht Club next door for use of its patio as a home base for teaching. But after seeing the prime location at the point go largely unused, the program approached then-City Manager Chuck Lindsey with plans to redo the area, eventually leading to a long-term lease from the city under current manager George Garrett.

“What we really needed was a place with a breeze where we can really see what’s going on and rig the boats,” said Betsy Lefler, chair of the Marathon Yacht Club Educational Foundations. 

Through the generosity of donors including the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys, the U.S. Sailing and Power Squadron, the Marathon Yacht Club and Crane Point, along with a hefty discount from shade designers Texstyleroofs, the group raised the $25,000 necessary to put up the structure and fill and level the point, completing the project in early June 2022. Though the finished area came about because of the sailing program’s efforts, Lefler says the group loves to see the beautified point being better used by the public.

Zofia Gross won’t shy away from a photo op.

“With community support, we’ve created a beautiful community place, and that’s been our goal all along,” she said. “We leave the chairs out for people to enjoy, and we love the fact that people come out and use (the point).”

Now boasting 67 students in its camps and instructional programs, along with about 25 boats in its educational armada, Middle Keys Sailing aims to buck sailing’s reputation as a largely inherited and exclusive sport. The group is happy to make accommodations for students with disabilities and facilitate translation where possible for students who do not speak English.

And though its tuition costs are already reasonable in relation to other comparable programs around the country, Middle Keys Sailing accepts students with financial hardships for a mere $1 in tuition fees, no questions asked. 

“None of these kids came from sailing families,” said Lefler. “Anywhere else in the country, sailing families have sailing kids. For our kids, this is a community effort introducing sailing and environmental sciences.

A tired and wet but happy bunch of sailors from Middle Keys Sailing’s intermediate and advanced class.

“Honestly, in the beginning, we were told by many people that kids only want to be on their devices, they don’t want to do this. But we’ve never had a problem. We’ve been over-sold every summer since we started.”

The dedication to teaching sailing to locals has paid off, as all four of Middle Keys Sailing’s current coaches have come up through the program’s ranks. At just 20 years old, head coach Mia Troisi said she “basically grew up” in the program throughout her 15 years in Marathon. She already has a strong command of her students, but looks forward to the opportunities the redeveloped point will bring for those who follow after her.

“There’s quite a bit of freedom that comes with it,” she said. “I’m not having to deal with feeling bad about using someone else’s property.”

Middle Keys Sailing’s annual regatta, open to all Keys youth sailors, is tentatively scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 13. More information is at mycef.education.

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.