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Sailing through the desert: High schoolers try a different tack

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TEMPE – On a breezy spring day, high school sophomore Maddie Cordova is doing everything she can to make sure the wind doesn’t tip over her one-person sailboat.

She’s racing a fellow student and has less than three minutes to sail through several sets of white buoys on Tempe Town Lake.

Her face wrinkles in concentration as she grips a red rope to manipulate her sail against the wind, hoping to steer her way through without any sudden gusts that would throw her off course.

“Madison’s doing pretty darn good,” says one of her sailing instructors, Don Hubele.

But her opponent, Daniel Moore from Arcadia High School, is gaining on her, and it’s going to be a close finish.

Even though Cordova is on a manmade lake in the middle of a desert city, she said the excitement from sailing is just as real.

In the end, Cordova, a student at Veritas Preparatory Academy, crosses the buoy line 10 feet ahead of Moore. A few minutes later, she starts another race.

“It’s a powerful feeling to know that you’re controlling this 100-pound piece of fiberglass,” she said.

The Arizona Sailing Foundation, a nonprofit education organization, gets landlocked teens on Tempe Town Lake every Tuesday starting in January for high school sailing lessons, working toward the Arizona High School Sailing Championship in late April.

From practicing the basics of racing a sailboat to getting back in the boat when it’s tipped over, the students learn from drills on land and in the water.

“People like water. And if this is the only water they can get, they take it,” said George Tingom, the instructor for Cordova’s class.

Tingom, president of the Arizona Sailing Foundation, said it’s an unexpected sport in the desert but a great reason to get outside and learn something.

“It’s more mental than physical, especially in Arizona,” he said. “Making the boat move is more skill than you think.”

Students must adapt to different gust speeds, which that day varied from five to 20 miles per hour, and get their boats where they need to go. But sometimes that’s easier said than done.

“People think, ‘Oh there’s wind, there’s a boat, all I have to do is jump out in the body of water and I’m gone,’” Tingom said. “But it doesn’t work that way.”

A class with the Arizona Sailing Foundation costs $195 for the season, cheaper than other programs offered in other cities or near the sea, he said, such as $700 in San Francisco or $300 in Seattle.

Tingom said he’s not aware of any other high school programs in the state for sailing, but any high school student is welcome to enter the Arizona High School Sailing Championship.

Cedric Lorch, a sophomore at Valley Lutheran High School, has been sailing for most of his life and has participated in sailing classes with the foundation since middle school. Last year he earned first place at the state championship.

“It’s the odd sport of Arizona,” he said. “When you’re thinking Arizona you’re thinking desert, hiking.”

Sailing is meaningful because it lets him escape from life for a while.

“It’s relaxing point of time, it’s getting away from reality, it’s having fun, if I’m with my dad it’s bonding time with him,” he said.

As for Cordova, she’s just glad she can feel the wind in her hair, learn some teamwork and win a few races.

“It’s energized, just plain and simple,” she said.