Written by Susan Wade
April 2016

Imagine places where your children can …swim with dolphins in a tropical lagoon, paddle their kayaks by the light of the moon, build wooden sailboats that are sturdy and sleek, explore hidden shipwrecks that have sunken down deep.

This might sound like fanciful dreams in Peter Pan’s Neverland, but it’s a taste of what’s happening in today’s summer boating camps. It’s more than s’mores accompanying campfire sing-alongs. Counselors at seaside retreats artfully blend whimsical summer past times with unforgettable water adventures and hands-on marine science discovery.

The good news for parents who love boating: Summer camps offer options to fit your family’s maritime style. You can deliver children to professionals who lay the groundwork for lifelong fun on the water. Girls can live the life of a mermaid or a marine biologist, and boys can be swashbucklers or scientists — whatever suits their fancy. When their summer boating session is done, kids’ new-found knowledge of the seas will prevent them from being bored on board your family vessel.

You can also dive in and get involved with activities that forge family bonds. Combine a summer vacation with camps where parents build sailboats with their kids or snorkel with colorful fish in coral reefs. You can fuel a sense of ocean excitement, bolster boating skills and instill a sense of environmental stewardship in the next generation of boaters.

So, let’s get kids off the couch and on the water to share in family boating experiences this summer. The accompanying sampling of camps illustrates the variety of water-related activities available around the country.

NEW ENGLAND

The Wooden Boat School – Brooklin, Maine (207-359-4651, thewoodenboatschool.com) The 64-acre saltwater campus of The Wooden Boat School is located on the gorgeous coast of Brooklin. For 36 years, the school has presented hands-on classes on boatbuilding and seamanship that foster maritime traditions. Family Week (July 31- August 6) o ffers day courses that bring families together for fun boat-crafting experiences. Adults and children age nine to 15 work side-by-side on vessels and can choose to construct a Bevin ski , wood duck kayak or Echo Bay dory ski . Families can also learn how to sail, and your classroom will be on the water.

The WaterFront Center – Oyster Bay, N.Y. (516-922-SAIL, thewaterfrontcenter.org) The WaterFront Center is dedicated to educating people of all ages to become active stewards of the marine environment and promoting community sailing to enjoy and protect the waters of Oyster Bay. Junior Summer Programs run from June to August, with half- and full-day classes available. All ages are welcome to sign up, from Bay Buccaneers (grades 1 to 2) to Mariners (grades 9 to 12). Camps fall into two categories: Marine Discovery & Taste of Sailing and Sailing Only. Enroll for a week-long session and you’ll want to come back for more.

The Whale Camp – Grand Manan Island, NB, Canada (610-399-1463, whalecamp.com) Established in 1984, The Whale Camp takes kids age 10 to 17 on board a 64-foot sailboat to gain hands-on experience hauling lines, raising sails and charting a course through the Bay of Fundy. The campus is located in the crystal clear waters between Maine and Nova Scotia and is surrounded by fishing villages, lobster boats and lighthouse stations. Campers use professional marine biology and scientific equipment to discover ocean life big and small – from whales, porpoises and seals to microscopic sea plankton. Enroll in one, two or three week sessions that run from June to August.

MID-ATLANTIC

Downtown Sailing Center of Baltimore – Baltimore, Md. (410-727-0722, downtownsailing.org) A new program at the Downtown Sailing Center proves that learning science is no longer boring. The STEM Summer Sailing Camp gets Baltimore City students jazzed up about the sport of sailing while they discover the exciting and practical aspects of science, technology, engineering and math. The session is held in July and lasts for nine days. Campers in grades 3 to 7 are encouraged to join the fun on the water. Before and after care is available for children enrolled in full-day lessons.

Eastport Yacht Club Learn to Sail – Annapolis, Md. (410-267-9549, eastportyc.org) The Eastport Yacht Club combines classroom time with on-the-water experience to teach the essentials of sailing, seamanship, navigational skills and an intro to racing. Kids age 6 to 15 and adults 16 and older learn boater safety and respect for the marine environment. Several types of sailboats are used, and paddleboards and kayaks are on hand as fun learning alternatives for days when the wind doesn’t cooperate. Classes on powerboat handling for students age 12 and older are also available. Yacht club members and non-members are welcome to take summer sessions.

Audubon Summer Nature CampCape May, N.J. (609-898-8848, www.njaudubon.org) With so many fun camps at the Audubon Center, it’s hard to pick just one. Exploring beaches, streams, ponds and forests helps kids develop a connection to the natural environment, while learning about science through hands-on activities. Session highlights: Ocean Explorers discover secrets beneath the waves from the shallow harbors to the deep sea, Macro & Mico Marine Monsters campers drag big nets through the water to investigate aquatic animals in the marine food chain, and Youth Fishing blends classroom projects with an off shore fishing trip to experience the thrill of a big catch. Children age 6 and older are grouped according to grade level.

YMCA Camp Sea Gull and Camp SeaFarer – Arapahoe, N.C. (252-249-1111, 252-249-1212, www.seagull-seafarer.org) Six-year-old little skippers to 16-year old wannabe sea captains can hone their water skills during day or overnight sessions. Activities concentrate on three areas. Fishing classes begin on piers dropping lines and nets and grow into day trips with guides who show how to handle boats, plot courses and read charts. Sailing sessions involve a range of watercrafts from small Optis and Sunfish to Flying Scots and Keelboats. Powerboat lessons are taught on a fleet of outboards from 15-horsepower Scots to 18-foot Parkers, where campers tackle land and marine skills for water skiing and fishing fun.

GREAT LAKES

4-H Sea Camp – Oak Harbor, Ohio (419-898-3631, ohio4h.org) With lovely Kelleys Island as home base, campers age 13 to 18 can explore the waters of Lake Erie. Adventures include fishing on a charter boat and feasting on your catch, snorkeling amidst shipwrecks, conducting marine science experiments at Ohio State University Stone Lab, paddling kayaks through this Great Lake’s gentle waves and sailing around the islands on a 35-foot sloop. Teen voyagers can also learn to sail or operate powerboats, with special attention to safety and rescue techniques. Full-day sessions take place in July.

Shedd Aquarium Summer Road Trip – Chicago, Ill. (312-939-2438, sheddaquarium.org) Turn your city kids into outdoor enthusiasts! Chicago-area youth in grades six to 12 use Shedd Aquarium as a launching pad for open-air summer adventures. They touch swimming sturgeons while learning about their habitat, investigate regional aquatic animals and their role in the Great Lakes ecosystem and travel by canoe or kayak to help restore local lagoons and wetlands. Campers develop an appreciation for marine life and the natural environment by working with researchers and gaining hands-on experience with real scientific tools and equipment.

4-H Great Lakes and Natural Resource Camp – Presque Isle, Minn. (906-774-0363, msue.anr.msu.edu) Your teens won’t want to text on their cellphones when they come to Camp Chickagami. Instead, they’ll be engaged in marine fun and scientific discovery. Fishing activities take them out on a charter boat to learn techniques and equipment for reeling in Lake Huron’s bounty. Watershed & Marine Debris sessions use a research vessel to collect mud samples and experience the freshwater spin on marine biology. Climate Change classes explore woods, wetlands and waterways to reveal long-term climate patterns effecting the Great Lakes. The overnight camp runs during the first week of August for kids age 13 to 15 who will enter 8th to 10th grade in the fall.

SOUTH/GULF COAST

Texas A&M Sea CampGalveston, Texas (409-740-4525, tamug.edu) Since 1986, Sea Camp has helped young mariners explore the wonders of the sea and its aquatic residents. Professional staffers engage students in hand-on experiences using research vessels, oceanographic equipment and laboratory facilities. Activities cover a bushel of topics including marine biology, coastal ecology, nautical archaeology, sea turtle biology, ecotourism, fishing skills, marine engineering, sharks and much more. Sea Camp is overnight for kids age 10 to 18; Sea Campus Kids is a day program for campers age 6 to 11. Talented & Gifted sessions work with high-ability kids age 14 to 18.

Sanibel Sea SchoolSanibel, Fla. (239-472-8585, sanibelseaschool.org) Sanibel Sea School wants everyone to fall in love with the ocean and become good stewards of the water. Programs combine family vacations with memorable learning activities in topics such as barrier islands, biodiversity, critters from crabs to jellies, manatees and mangroves, pirate legends, intertidal zones, the motion of waves, and lots more. Summer Camp, for children age 4 to 18, teaches watermen skills, surfing, snorkeling, seining and a little biology. Just picture all this happening on one of the Atlantic’s most beautiful islands.

Marathon Dolphin Research Center – Grassy Key, Fla. (305-289-0002, dolphins.org) From a kid’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine anything more fun than spending a week with dolphins. This seven-day program introduces campers to the fantastic world of marine mammals. Dolphins take center stage, but other aquatic creatures make cameo appearances including sea lions, Baleen whales and sea turtles. Other hands-on activities: dolphin research, biology, conservation, husbandry and a dolphin dip in the water for face time with these amazing creatures. Campers age 10 to 14 are welcome to apply for classes that run from June to August.

WEST COAST

Northwest Maritime Center Youth Summer ProgramsPort Townsend, Wash. 9360-385-3628, nwmaritime.org) These summer programs offer nine weeks of day camps, and all of them are in boats. Messing About in Boats (age 5 to 10) launches kids into the maritime scene by meeting real captains and heading out to sea in rowboats, powerboats and sailboats. They also learn critical skills such as knot tying, basic weather, sea life, conservation and boat types and parts. Learn to Sail (age 10 to 16) takes kids out on the windy Port Townsend Bay to hone sailing skills on its challenging waters. Beginners start in an Opti dingy, and advanced sailors learn racing techniques. This year an all-girl beginner sailing class and a new marine biology program are available.

SEACAMP San Diego – San Diego, Calif. (858-268-0919, seacamp.com) Marine education is the name of the game in this California summer overnight camp. From June to August, three levels of programs make the most of local resources from aquariums and zoos to the cool Pacific waters. Students in grades seven to 12 experience a gamut of activities that observe aquatic life from tiny plankton to sharks and whales, kayak and snorkel to explore the ocean’s movement and waves, take trips on one of southern California’s largest live-aboard dive boats and study deep sea fish ecology.

Catalina Island Sea CampAvalon, Calif. (800-645-1423, catalinaseacamp.org) California sunshine, a fine-looking island and the pristine waters of Toyon Bay create an idyllic setting for summer camp. One-week sessions for kids age 8 to 13 spark their imagination with kayaking and snorkeling, boat trips, interactive marine science labs, and schools of sea life to investigate. Three-week sessions for campers age 12 to 17 focus on diving, sailing, learning to scuba, exploring marine biology and tackling adventure courses. Campfires, beach parties and water sports top off the experience.