JACKSON PARK — Charles Szymanski, a fixture of Chicago’s LGBTQ sailing community, was used to having people approach him for lessons. He always said no; he wasn’t a teacher and didn’t have a boat to teach on.
But the messages kept coming. Now, with a donated boat and a passion to introduce more people to sailing, Szymanski is ready to pass along what he knows. His nonprofit Rainbow Races, which promotes equality and awareness in sailing within the LGBTQ+ community, is starting an LGBTQ sailing school in Jackson Park harbor next month. It’s believed to be the first school of its kind in the Midwest.
“I went to the board and was like, ‘Hey, can we do a sailing school?'” said Szymanski, a Woodlawn resident.
Some told Szymanski it’d take years to start the school.
“I did it in two months,” he said.
Szymanski’s goal is to reach LGBTQ+ sailors and people who may have felt excluded from the sport — and to show the public you don’t need to be rich, white, male and straight to enjoy sailing or be part of a yacht club.
The classes will be at Jackson Park Yacht Club, 6400 S. Promontory Drive. They will consist of four students and one instructor for a 16-hour U.S. Sailing Basic Keelboat class on weekends. The price is $550 per person, which Szymanski said is one of the cheapest programs in the area.
If the program grows, it could expand to Belmont Yacht Club, 3600 N. Recreation Drive, where there is more space and where Szymanski has more connections among queer sailors, he said. Other classes will be offered as more people sign up and as more teachers apply, he said.
To sign up for a class, apply to be a sailing teacher or receive updates on registration, email email@example.com and sign up for newsletter updates. Folks can also stay updated on Rainbow Races’ social media.
Classes begin July 1, and registration will open in the next few weeks. Students of all ages, orientations and genders will be able to learn how to sail on a 1979 Scampi 30 sailboat that was donated from a friend in Detroit.
Mark Linenberg, vice president of Rainbow Races and who taught himself how to sail at 12, said the nonprofit’s members hope to use the school money to create a scholarship fund for queer people who can’t afford sailing classes.
“The water is an amazing place, and there are so many people who live in Chicago who have never been out on the water. … They’ve been to the lake [but] have no idea what it’s like to be out on a boat,” Linenberg said. “Everybody thinks that to sail or boat, you have to be super rich. There are a lot of gay people who aren’t, and they don’t have these opportunities because they don’t see that it’s there for them to have.”
‘Wait, We Can Do That?’
Rainbow Races started four years ago as a charity to bring awareness to LGBTQ rights through sailing events.
The nonprofit’s classes line up with its mission to break stereotypes about the sport, make sailing more inclusive of LGBTQ people and underrepresented groups and give them a way in, Szymanski said.
Szymanski’s goal is already materializing: He’s reached out to local LGBTQ groups to gauge interest for the sailing school, and people have already asked, “Wait, we can do that?” he said.
Much of Szymanski’s determination to bring more people into sailing is shared by Karen Harris, president of the Jackson Park Yacht Club Foundation, which provides outreach, education and resources about the sport.
Harris is one of the few Black women sailors in the Chicago area and has been working for more than a decade to increase access to sailing, specifically for Black Chicagoans, low-income youths and families.
When Szymanski pitched his sailing school to Harris, the two organizations quickly partnered. Rainbow Races will share its teaching keelboat with the Jackson Park club program during the week, which will allow youths eager to continue their sailing education a chance to learn on a bigger boat, bring their families to see what sailing is like and increase access to career opportunities on the lake.
“We have similar missions, just different demographics,” Harris said. “We both love sailing, and we want to see more people have the opportunity to try this out and to help diversify sailing.”
‘Let’s Start Looking At Building Bridges’
Rainbow Races’ Pride Flotilla, which launched in 2020 to increase visibility for Chicago’s LGBTQ sailors, returns noon Saturday with about 10 sail and power boats. The parade will precede Sail GP, a national sailing race kicking off at 2 p.m. at Navy Pier.
The Pride boat parade starts at Ohio Street Beach and ends at Monroe Mooring Field near Shedd Aquarium. Those who don’t have their own boats but still want to be part of the festivities can watch from land.
Linenberg, who is excited to participate in the float for his first sail of the season, said the best spot to view all of the boats decked out in Pride colors is at Queen’s Landing, 500 S. Lake Shore Drive.
Szymanski, whose boat, Seventh Heaven, will lead the parade, remembers boaters who spotted his Pride flag on the parade’s inaugural route and then purposely hung a Trump flag in response and put down their anchor — which is proof of how much more needs to be done to create an inclusive sailing community, he said.
Since then, Rainbow Races has reached out to international LGBTQ sailing clubs to find ways to partner, promote events and offer support and mentorship. It has had success in improving the diversity, equity and inclusion within the sailing community, Szymanski said.
The nonprofit board would like to open a Rainbow Races arm in every city that has water, Linenberg said. The group wants to be around “for the long haul” and to benefit marginalized communities through sailing, its members said.
They’ve also partnered with groups that have not always welcomed LGBTQ sailors, which hasn’t always gone over well but is necessary, Szymanski said.
“I get flack from my own community — when I tell them we’re working with the [Coast Guard] Auxiliary or the Chicago Police Sailing Association, they [say], ‘Why are you working with places that don’t want us?'” he said.
“And I go, ‘Because there are our people working in those organizations, and we’re not going to get any better unless one of us starts to build a bridge. So let’s start looking at building bridges.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: