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First paddleboard girls camp offered through Sanibel Sea School

By Staff | Jul 6, 2016

Kristen Donavan and Madelyn Mauro paddling in the bay. PHOTO PROVIDED

The Sanibel Sea School is holding its first Wahine Tao Girls Paddleboarding Camp this month to teach young girls survival skills and paddleboarding all while boosting their confidence as they exceed their comfort zones.

Wahine, which means strong woman, and Tao, a fierce, proud defender, translates into female ocean warriors in the Hawaiian language.

“We used the name Wahine Toa because when we first did our standup paddleboard camp for mixed gender they kind of named themselves ocean warriors,” Sanibel Sea School Executive Director Dr. Bruce Neill said. “One of the goals that we have at the Sanibel Sea School is to remove all of our participants from their comfort zone and really challenge them to the limits of their confidence. We do that because the underlining goal of ours is to allow young people to find strengths within themselves they did not know they had. And to find strengths that you don’t know you have, you have to be pushed to your limits.”

The youth are pushed from their comfort zone while participating in programs at the Sanibel Sea School to find their strengths and weaknesses. Ten young women ages 13 to 18 will experience these zones as they learn survival skills and how to paddleboard while participating in the Sanibel Sea Schools first Wahine Toa a Girls Paddleboarding Camp, which is already sold out.

Neill said he wanted to focus on just a girls camp, which came with some restrictions because he did not want to conduct the course. He said two of their female instructors – Director of Education Nicole Finnicum and Marine Science Educator Spencer Richardson – earned their U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license and took hold of putting together the camp.

Kristen Dunavant paddles the open water. PHOTO PROVIDED

“Our staff has really risen to this occasion,” Neill said. “We are institutionally driven predominately by females. A vast majority of our staff are females. We have 12 full-time employees and two of them are males. More than 50 percent of our clients are females. We would like to see women become more equal. We want to demonstrate to them to become capable, become confident and don’t ever let anyone put you in the back seat, step up.”

Although the camp will be run by the two female instructors, Neill will be involved only through logistic reasons as support.

Finnicum said she thinks it’s great that her and Richardson will be leading the camp because it will give the girls an opportunity to look up to them, saying that women can do anything.

The duo decided to do the self study version of the captain’s test, which took a few months to complete. They had to learn material, take quizzes and online exams before taking the test, as well as plot navigation on a map and learn boat handling.

“We were the only females taking the test. It felt good to be the only women,” Finnicum said, adding that she is proud to be able to use her license.

She said although most females are not familiar with boat parts, after going through the process, she now knows that anyone can learn.

The camp will focus on standup paddling because it is probably one of the oldest forms of paddling, Neill said, adding that although he has no evidence, he believes the Calusa Indians were the first to use the technique.

“We know they paddled canoes and built giant canoes and they lived here for thousands of years,” he said.

Neill said one of the reasons standup paddling is used is because an individual can see a long way. He said paddling is perhaps one of the most ancient ways people moved themselves across the ocean.

“We want them to understand that there is a beautiful way to engage with the ocean, even more beautiful than a kayak because you have a higher line of sight. With that higher line of sight you begin to read the waters in front of you and the small nuances of current and wind make a giant difference on a paddleboard. You really begin to think and read the ocean,” he said. “It’s also an excellent form of exercise.”

The camp will focus on such survival skills as how to make fire, build shelter and how to find food, as well as practical skills. Neill said they will teach them about the automobile and explain the major systems of how it works as a way to focus on their confidence in every day tasks.

Specifically, he said they really want them to understand how to check the fluids in the car, jump start a car and change a tire, so they do not have to rely on others to conduct the tasks.

“The vast majority of teens have roadside assistance. They can call when they get a flat tire, but they don’t have to. We want them to have the confidence to know I can solve this problem without being dependent upon a burly guy to come and rescue me from a situation I don’t need rescuing from,” Neill said. “We want to arm them with the confidence and the skills to solve easy, or maybe they are complex problems. We want to break it down and show them they are not really complex problems.”

The camp will also include some short and long distances for paddleboarding, which concludes with an overnight paddle to a secluded, uninhabited island that is about 2 1/2 miles from the causeway. The campers bring a MRE, a meal ready to eat, and the Sanibel Sea School provides a tarp to the group. Neill said they have the campers bring MREs because they don’t want to burden the natural resources, but want them to recognize that simplicity is good.

The campers sleep on their paddleboards and are rolled into their sheets to keep the bugs away and stay warm because the temperatures sometimes become cooler. The following morning the campers paddle back to the causeway first thing in the morning before paddling to Estero Island, a 5 1/2 mile paddle.

A boat follows the paddleboarders as an escape if the weather becomes bad, medical emergencies, or a place for the campers to go if the paddling becomes too much for them.

“For a beginner paddleboarder it is a very long distance,” Neill said. “It’s really hard on them. I’ve seen kids with tears streaming down their cheeks as they are paddling. They get to that other end and they designated themselves as ocean warriors.”

Once they are finished with the paddling, the campers have the opportunity to sign the inside of the trailer where the paddleboards are stored.

“My hope is that it will be the beginning to larger programs,” Neill said.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.