About three dozen Beaufort-area youth participated in a safe boating camp this summer through a partnership with the YMCA of Beaufort County and the Spirit of America Foundation.
Grace Lubkin saw the dolphins swimming Thursday, but the 14-year-old didn't realize how close they were until one surfaced right beside her kayak.
"There's been a lot of dolphins, and they've been up close, but I didn't expect one to come up and brush the boat," she said.
Lubkin is one of 35 teenagers participating in a safe-boating program introduced this year in Beaufort through a partnership with the national Spirit of America Foundation and the Wardle Family YMCA in Port Royal. They also take the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' boater-education course required to earn a certificate that allows those 16 and younger to operate a boat with an engine of more than 15 horsepower.
The third and final weeklong session wrapped up Friday. YMCA boating director Paul Spencer said he wants to double or triple participation next year. He had a waiting list this year but was limited by funding and volunteers.
Registration costs $50, but scholarships are available.
"Some of the kids don't have access to the water and boats, but we are surrounded by water, and they are going to end up on it one day, so what we really stress is safety," Spencer said.
Equipment will be available if the program expands, he added. Spirit of America donated three, 15-foot sailboats, four inflatable Zodiac boats with outboard motors, four canoes, 12 kayaks and two paddleboards.
As a rule, campers aren't allowed on the dock without a life jacket. Spencer said he and the program volunteers have to lead by example.
"I want to make sure none of these kids becomes a statistic," Spencer said.
Each week follows a similar pattern. On Monday, campers are introduced to the DNR boating program and spend the afternoon practicing safety techniques in the YMCA pool. Those techniques include how to get into a kayak while in the water and how to put on a life jacket while in deep water.
DNR education continues Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, with the afternoons dedicated to learning how to sail and operate a Zodiac at the Port Royal Foundation Maritime Center on Lemon Island. The campers take the DNR certification test Wednesday night at home and turn it in Thursday for grading. Then, they can take out kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards.
Family and friends are invited on Fridays, when the youth can take out whatever craft they want for practice or to demonstrate their skills.
The idea, Spencer said, is for them to get comfortable with driving or paddling their own vessels.
"It's empowering for the kids to be able to do that," Spencer said.
Parker Smith, 12, was looking forward to exactly that on Friday. The son of DNR 1st Sgt. Robbie Smith, he couldn't wait to turn the tables and drive one the Zodiac boats for his dad.
"I'm used to using the steering wheel (on a regular boat), but with (the Zodiac), you have to steer it from the back," he said.
But Parker Smith said the most important lessons are what to do in an emergency, such as "if your boat capsizes, or explodes or catches fire."
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.