Sailors from the Keys and as far away as the Philippines take to the waters of Islamorada’s Founders Park on Feb. 3. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

A sea of Optimist dinghies were spread across the lawn at Founders Park in Islamorada as a wave of young sailors, eager to compete in the annual Buccaneer Blast Regatta, rigged their small boats and prepared to hit the water.

“It helps you organize, it helps you stay on task,” said 10-year-old Gianmarco Meyeringh of the skills he’s learned through youth sailing. Meyeringh competes for the Coral Reef Yacht Club out of Miami. His grandfather, Robert Meyeringh, tries to make every regatta and has become somewhat of a team mascot. 

“My grandfather loves photography so he’s always out there on the boats taking pictures, it’s lots of fun to have him out here,” Gianmarco said.

“I didn’t show up for two weekends because I was editing pictures and everybody gave me a lecture about not being available,” added Robert Meyeringh with a laugh.

Meyeringh’s coach, Maykel Alonso, brought a team of 28 sailors to this regatta. He says youth sailing is about more than just winning or losing; it’s about molding the next generation.

“All of the kids can benefit from the core values we are trying to establish with them: respect, kindness, love, compassion, integrity and honesty,” Alonso said..

The Buccaneer Blast youth sailing regatta, organized by the Mark Sorensen Youth Sailing Program (MSYSP), brought in 221 sailors ranging in age from 8 to 18. Most came from yacht clubs throughout Florida, but some sailors came from as far away as Mexico, Bermuda and the Philippines. 

Weather conditions for the two-day event were less than ideal. Very little to no wind on Saturday made for a shortened day of racing. Tornado warnings and dangerous squalls canceled competition for Sunday. 

Still, spirits were not dampened.

For Malissa Benade, this was her first time experiencing a youth sailing regatta. After moving to Key Largo three months ago, Benade immediately enrolled her 11- and 13-year-old sons in the MSYSP at the Upper Keys Sailing Club.

“You can’t live here and not sail. This was one of the first places we got involved with,” Benade said. 

And she’s glad they did. Both of Benade’s sons competed in the Buccaneer Blast.

“It’s just nice to see lots of little eager sailors with dreams and families involved and everybody is supporting everybody. The community is really awesome,” added Benade, who also volunteered to work the event.

She and roughly 80 volunteers from the Upper Keys Sailing Club joined forces to make this regatta a success.

“The volunteer effort was just so phenomenal and so appreciated,” said Karol Marsden. Marsden and her husband Dominic organized this year’s event.

“You start months in advance, you work hours a day on it and you try to think of all of the logistics, everything from the parking to the launching,” Marsden said.

Dominic Marsden recently took the helm of the MSYSP. 

“It’s fantastic. It’s a new lease on life for me and it’s great for the kids,” Marsden said.

He ran the program back in 2011 but stepped away when his daughters began sailing for Coral Reef Yacht Club out of Miami. Both Marsden girls competed on the U.S. International Optimist team. The younger of the two, Ella Marsden, received a sailing scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.

It was Emma and Ella Marsden who came up with the catchy name for the regatta roughly 13 years ago.

“We asked our kids if they would come up with something that had a piratical theme and they came up with Buccaneer Blast,” said Marsden.

This year’s winners received coveted buccaneer-themed trophies and medals.

Dominic Marsden believes teaching kids to sail is beneficial because it can be a lifelong sport.

“I’m now 70 and I’m still learning. Every time I take out the boat I learn something else,” he said.

Becky Silvan’s 9-year-old son Sebastian competed in his second Buccaneer Blast as a member of the Coconut Grove Sailing Club’s team. Silvan says the experience was irreplaceable.

“When they’re here as a team, they act as a team, they’re always as a team, they support each other as a team. And through good, through bad, they’re a team and then they still compete individually. I think that’s pretty nice,” Silvan said.

Upper Keys residents interested in learning more about youth sailing lessons can contact the MSYSP at

Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.