Jim Koehler Trophy-winning sailor celebrates Dinghy Shop Fall Series anniversary by teaching youngsters how to sail

Jim Koehler has competed in sailboat regattas around the world – and won his fair share – but on autumn weekends he and his team teach young sailors how to get their boats moving fast on the Great South Bay.

This year they are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Dinghy Shop Fall series in Amityville. Sailors as young as 6 tub-sized boats skipper around the racetracks as the air gets crisp and the water cools.

Sailing, he says, isn’t just a summer sport on Long Island.

“It’s nice when you’re up against it and the breeze is in your face and you’re getting spray and maybe you’ve capsized a few times and it’s really tough,” he said. “But if you hang on, you’ll get it.”

The program started in 1997 with 12 sailors and has grown to nearly 70. Besides the Optimist, racing now includes Sunfish and Lasers, slightly larger boats raced by older youth and adults.

The series begins in early September and ends in mid-October. For $180, young sailors can race on six Sundays. They wear special clothes to stay as warm and dry as possible in the fall.

The most popular boat is the Optimist, which is almost 8 feet long and accommodates sailors up to 15 years old. They sail it on their own, so they learn all aspects of sailing, from piloting with a tiller to handling the sail itself.

An “Opti” racer this year is a 6-year-old girl who braved winds of more than 20 knots, said Koehler team member Mike DeMarco.

“We are completely shocked,” DeMarco said. “She’s been outside all the time. She must weigh 40 pounds wet.

The program has helped train some of Long Island’s best sailors, including Joseph “JC” Hermus of Bellport, who recently served as captain of the sailing team at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.

It also attracted top talent to help train young sailors. Amanda Clark, a Shelter Island native who sailed for the United States at the 2008 Olympics in China and the 2012 Olympics in London, is one of them, Koehler said.

But the program is intentionally not just about the winners. Koehler said it took a “Mr. Rogers approach to encourage every sailor.”

“We really follow the Fred Rogers school of ‘every kid can be a champion,'” he said. “We find something positive. Because without that positive reinforcement, kids quit.

The program operates out of The Dinghy Shop, a sailboat and kayak business that Koehler started in 1992 in a massive former seaplane factory. It is perched on the edge of Kethams Creek meters from the Great South Bay.

For years, Koehler worked as a biologist-educator at sites such as Fire Island National Seashore, Biscayne National Park in Florida, and Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Then the Amityville native decided to focus on one of his first loves, sailing the Great South Bay.

Koehler, 67, won the Sunfish World Championship for his age group in Cartagena, Colombia in 2016, among many other top results.

The Dinghy Shop series isn’t the only fall run for kids on Long Island: Westhampton Yacht Squadron and Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay also get the kids racing after summer’s end.

Koehler’s fall series attracts sailors from across the tri-state area, including some who live in Connecticut but belong to summer yacht clubs in Maine. Even guest sailors from Australia, Portugal, Spain and Ireland competed.

“Everyone from sailing meets here,” DeMarco said. “It ends up being the Long Island mixing pot. This is the only real experience where you have North Shore Sailors, South Shore Sailors and Peconic Bay Sailors all competing on a course at the same time.

Another benefit of the Fall Series is that it keeps young sailors on the water so they can potentially move on to the next stage: “freezing” or winter sailing. It happens in several places on Long Island, including Connetquot River in Oakdale.

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