When not teaching captain’s classes, Rorke Miller, a recent recipient of the Old Pulteney Maritime Hero Award, can usually be found behind the wheel of Champion, a 52-foot wooden gaff-rigged cutter out of Traverse City, Michigan. His crew of teenagers scurry about on deck, raising and trimming sails and performing a litany of other tasks. Judging by their efficiency, it’s hard to believe that for many it’s their first time on the water.
The young, able-bodied crew landed on the nonskid decks of Champion thanks to Sail Champion, a first-of-its-kind therapeutic program Miller helped to create. The goal, Miller says, is to take troubled teens out of their element and provide a new type of counseling.
“What happens is the kids leave their problems, bad behavior and habits at the dock,” explains Miller.
Underway, he teaches four to five crew members the skills needed to sail while one teen is belowdecks talking with a therapist. In Miller’s eyes, replacing the proverbial therapist’s couch with a warm cabin and the sound of rushing water is the secret for unprecedented success in turning kids’ lives around.
“I think the kids aboard Champion, more than anything, need people to believe in them,” says therapist Joe Sanok. “At least for that one week with us, they have someone who is really excited about them doing well in life.”
Miller also founded Red8 Boatworks, which combines therapy with stand-up paddle-boarding and small-boat building. “It’s something else these kids can get involved with besides video games and mischief,” says Miller.
Why is he doing all of this?
“It’s what God wants me to do,” Miller says. “I love making a difference in these kids’ lives. A small push in a week in some kid’s life can not only affect the rest of his life, but, should that kid grow up, get married and have three kids, those three kids will have a better life as a result. You get an incredibly nice return on investment if you put forth the effort.”
Find out more at www.sailchampion.org