Wind in their sails: youth program set to inspire  

By Darren Lum

When Tom Oliver speaks about sailing it’s like listening to instructions on how to create a state of internal calm. Sailing takes him to a figurative and literal different world where he can find peace and calm.

Oliver a Haliburton resident is working with a team of volunteers who comprise the Haliburton County Youth Sailing Association which is addressing youth mental health through sailing.

“It’s a good way to clear your mind and get yourself into a different mind state and experience the beauty of this area. … I don’t think there is a better way of experiencing Haliburton than getting on the water and just seeing it from that perspective. I know in my heart that has the potential to help these kids in whatever way it is whether it’s team building whether it’s getting them into a different head space whether it’s teaching them a skill that empowers them and makes them feel like they can do things that they didn’t previously think they would be able to do” he said.

The first year will be a pilot year for the program based on CANSail which teaches sailing and fosters a lifelong passion for the sport. Oliver describes the curriculum as a “condensed” version with focus on boat safety boat parts and the basics of sailing.

“We hope this thing goes the long run and we help a lot of kids. Any kid we help will be better than nothing” he said.

Area resident Robin Carmount is credited with the idea. Carmount started and helped to maintain after-school recreation drop-ins in Wilberforce and Minden which provide students with a safe space for physical activity and an opportunity for older kids to take on a leadership role.

Carmount started sailing two years ago learning on his own. He said it is great individually or done in a group.

Sailing is a natural fit for the Highlands which boasts thousands of lakes. “You can’t hit a golf ball anywhere in this county without hitting water. We have an ample supply of lakes” he said.

Oliver Carmount and a group of mentors will volunteer theoretical as well as hands-on sailing instruction to participants from eight to 24 years old. A volunteer board of directors which includes Kawartha North Family Health Team executive director Marina Hodson; and Four County Crisis Canadian Mental Health Association HKPR case manager Andrew Hodson; will lead these initiatives. HCYSA is operating in partnership with the family health team a charitable organization.

HCYSA said while similar programs have been shown to improve mental health outcomes there is no current funding available and all expenses are paid for by donations. Donations are used to direct service delivery with all administration being donated by volunteers.

The program is based at the Twelve Mile Lake at the Red Umbrella Inn on Highway 35 several minutes north of Minden. Oliver said the owner of the inn Ziad Halash has offered the use of his property and facility. Everyone involved with the program is thankful to Halash he said.

“He has just paved the road for this to be successful” he said.

Halash said he hopes the program will give youth a place to meet and have fun.

“I thought to myself that’s the least that we could do for our community” he wrote in an email.

Oliver has experienced mental health issues and feels strongly there isn’t enough for those suffering.

“My empathy for people struggling mentally is to a level that there’s nothing actually I think I care about as much as this” he said. “It’s something that I want to support and feel the need to be addressed.”

Sailing can build friendships and team skills enhance communication skills and build confidence.

This program isn’t exclusively for participants with mental health issues as it is also about offering an opportunity to sail.

“What we want to do is make sure that if there were anybody that would otherwise not have access to this – it could simply be money – we’d remove that barrier and then we’d make it possible for them to come. Even to the extent we’ll arrange to get them picked up if they can’t drive there. We just want to have absolutely no barriers that if somebody is in a spot where they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to experience this that we make sure to make it happen.”

The association says the county “suffers disproportionately from the rest of Ontario in terms of food security income and employment.” Twenty-five per cent of children up to 17 years old live in low-income households; 20 to 30 per cent of residents do not have access to transportation; and 17 per cent of the population is considered low income the association says.

Sailing is a sport that you can do all of your life unlike some other sports which demand more physical abilities that diminish as you age.“Sailing you can do it until you die” Oliver said.

He has 20 years of coaching experience and has been on sailboats for much of his life.

Born in Southampton England when he was two weeks old he went on a trip to France in a recently completed yacht with his father the boat builder. Every boat needed a “sea trial” to test the craft and no one else was available so Oliver made the journey with his father but then threw up all over the deerskin leather interior during the journey.

“It cost him like 10000 pounds on the other side so that was my first sailing experience” he said.

It wasn’t long until he started to race small boats coaching children and race teams. Sailing has allowed him to see the world racing yachts and leading people on tourist adventures across the ocean. It gave him access to the most serene place in Toronto on Lake Ontario. He grew up in the east end of Toronto after his family immigrated to Georgetown.

For a time he also worked for Spartan Ocean Racing and Training which provides people a chance to race embark on ocean crossing journeys and receive training opportunities to improve skills on 60-foot yachts.

Getting to return to small boats is a welcome for Oliver who began racing and coaching sailing with dingys. He said with his sailing instruction background he’s prepared to keep the program going even when the conditions aren’t ideal on the water.

“If we got a day without wind I’ll still have them out on the water. We’ll be doing all kinds of other things where I’ll be teaching them things in just different ways” he said. “It could even be we’re just drifting around and jumping off the water and swimming and having fun. Whatever it is. At the end of the day if they’re out on the water and they’re having fun and everybody is in a good space I figure we’ve done a good job. I don’t need to teach every one of these [youth to] learn how to sail a boat around the world by themselves.”

Volunteers are needed particularly those with sailing experience. However Oliver said individuals without sailing experience are also welcome.

“We need volunteers as much as we need money” he said.

The list of things include driving participants shore support and organization.

He doesn’t imagine attracting a strong core of volunteers will be very difficult though.

“There’s worse places to be than hanging out you know at a nice place … down by the water where a bunch of boats are sailing” he said.

For donations contact or 705-455-2876. Donations of $25 or more will be provided with a charitable donation receipt. See for more information.