Sucking Salt with the Sea Shells

Learn Sailing and Smarts with the Santa Barbara Sea Shells Association

<b>WIND AND WISDOM: </b>The Sea Shells learn about sailing and life every Sunday down at West Beach.
Paul Wellman

The wind was already whipping a few Sundays ago around noon as a small army of kids and their parents rigged up small Sabot sailboats and slightly larger Fevas on the ramps of the Santa Barbara Harbor. By the time I hopped onto one of those Fevas with my 6-year-old son, Mason, and our skipper-to-be, Marco Scussat, serious gusts began pushing us out of the harbor and toward the shore of West Beach, where the sails of anchored boats snapped in the breeze.

I manned the jib as we tacked past the pelicans and seals perched on the bait docks, which forced me to recall sailing lessons from a decade ago. As Scussat patiently reminded me what to do, I ducked the boom repeatedly and flopped like a fish from side to side in the cramped hull of the boat, trying not to flip us. Mason, meanwhile, smiled from ear to ear, his face sprinkled with saltwater, his hair blowing wildly as we raced through the waters off Stearns Wharf.  

We were on deck to check out the weekly running of the Santa Barbara Sea Shells, an all-volunteer organization of about three dozen families who meet every Sunday from April to October to teach their kids, aged 7-18, how to sail. Along the way, the kids learn to respect the ocean, help each other when in trouble, and find strength in themselves. “We’re not only training the sailing skills of the kids but also their personality,” said Scussat, who’s seen his own two kids gain confidence, self-esteem, patience, and more. “These are all values that we believe sailing can help foster.”

Matt Kettmann

Now in its 68th year, the current class of Sea Shells includes some families stretching back three generations, many parents with multiple kids involved, and an international flair, with members originally from Ireland, France, Sweden, and Italy. There’s no formal coaching but plenty of helping hands, especially for parents who have little to no experience. Now that the club offers 13 boats to rent for $125 a season ​— ​rather than the old mandate that each family own a boat, which costs from $500 to twice as much ​— ​there’s hope more new families will come aboard in the years to come.

After rigging in the harbor and sailing to West Beach, where beach towels, coolers, and family members line up near the anchored boats, the Sea Shells gather around the mast to start organizing their four half-hour races for the day, which start around 1 p.m. for the youngest novices and move on toward the more skilled classes, plus a round for parents. By 4 p.m., the sails are typically coming down back in the harbor, and stored away in the lockers that the club’s $235 annual fee covers.

Though the winds were a bit too strong to throw Mason on a boat with a teenager, I did hop on the Feva again with Katherine from Brittany. Soon I was riding high on the side of the boat as we sliced through the water, a brisk reminder of how exhilarating this sport can be. Then we passed her son as he aimed for the next buoy. “I’m winning!” he yelled excitedly to his proud mom. “Keep your focus!” she hollered back.

For all the competition and positive side effects, though, having a good time on the water remains the Sea Shells’ greatest charge. Said one freckle-faced girl to me as we watched the next race, “You have no idea how much fun it is!”

Watch the Santa Barbara Sea Shells in action every Sunday until October, and look out for next year’s season at


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