Anne-Claire Merkle Scotland: Clinton Sailing Club’s New Program Director

Person of the Week – Anne-Claire Merkle Scotland: Clinton Sailing Club’s New Program Director – By Lesia Winiarskyj – Published July 20, 2016

Anne-Claire “AC” Merkle-Scotland is helping teach local kids how to sail. (Photo by Lesia Winiarskyj/The Source)

Anne-Claire Merkle-Scotland was eight when she sailed her first boat. Her parents, both avid sailors, had just moved from Philadelphia to Madison and signed their 2nd-grader up for sailing camp.

“I hated it,” she says.

In fact, AC—as she’s known—confesses that she hated sailing until she was 15 years old.

“When I was in high school, I started sailing on my own, and that’s when I really started to like it.”

In March, she applied for a job as an instructor for the newly established Clinton Sailing Club and was instead hired as the club’s program director.

“We immediately thought AC would be a great fit,” says CSC founder Alan Felgate. “She is U.S. Sailing Level I certified, studying education, had taught at three other sailing programs, and has written and implemented beginner and intermediate curriculum for some of those programs. She told us, ‘I can bring some really fun ideas to your program,’ and that was exactly what we wanted.

“She really clinched the interview with a question she asked at the end,” says Felgate. “She said, ‘I think you’re creating a great new program, and I’d like to be involved, but how much input will I be able to give?’ That was the right question to ask, and we knew we wanted her on board.”

The Crew

The oldest of four girls, AC says, “I think bossing around my three younger sisters was my very first leadership role. My mom tells me I was a really energetic and outgoing kid, and I think that still applies.

“She also points out there’s a difference between a leader and a dictator, but sometimes I forget that with my sisters. My house is very loud and always busy, which can sometimes be overwhelming, but it has really made me appreciate and love family and togetherness in our home. My sisters and I are very close, and I love having a house full of girls.”

The youngest in her family was born when AC was almost 10, she says, “so we have a pretty fun range of ages in the family. We all sail, and my sister Maeve is a junior counselor with CSC.”

Their younger sibling Jane is participating in the program.

AC grew up in Madison. After graduating from high school, she took a gap year with the nonprofit City Year, an AmeriCorps program that places 17- to 24-year-olds as full-time tutors and mentors in inner-city schools with students she describes as off-track in reading or math.

City Year took her to Philadelphia and helped her recognize her love of working with young people.

“When I graduate, I hope to work in an educational setting in some capacity and truly empower students in their schooling experiences.”

Now entering her senior year at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, AC has created a self-designed major called Community, Culture, and Race in Education.

“They don’t offer education as an undergraduate major, and I was really struggling to find a major I felt passionate about and that worked with my credits, so I created this one. I really love the classes I get to take, and I get to learn more about education in this country as a whole and the greater influences and challenges schools face every day.”

As luck would have it, Clark University has a sailing club, where AC teaches beginners to sail. Both the local high school racing team and elementary school were also looking for instructors, so she spent the fall semester last year teaching groups of various ages and abilities at a local lake.

L.I. Sound to L.A. Harbor

Anne-Claire came to sailing instruction in a roundabout way.

“I’ve been on boats all my life,” she says. “My parents both sail, and they actually met working on a sailboat for a summer youth program called Young Life. But when I first went to sailing camp and sailed on my own, I was really scared and didn’t love it. I tried to get my parents not to send me again,” she recalls.

They did anyway.

“I didn’t start off as the biggest fan. In fact, it was never something I really enjoyed until I decided to join the sailing team in high school.” Having her own fun experiences on the water, she said, changed the equation.

“I don’t know what it is specifically about being on the water that I love,” she says, “but it’s a combination of being outside in the warmth and sunshine and feeling relaxed.”

Clinton Harbor, where CSC takes place, is one of her favorite spots.

“It’s really cool. My family and I have been sailing out of here for a number of years, and now I get to teach in the harbor. It’s very special not only because of the knee-deep mud we’re learning to tow our boats through at low tide, but it’s just a very beautiful harbor with a lot of opportunities for boating and sailing. It’s only right that they have a summer sailing program.”

AC first taught sailing at Schooner, Inc., in New Haven, a nonprofit marine education organization dedicated to environmental conservation. Schooner programs included camps, Connecticut Coastal Classrooms (K-12 education programs), and public sails on Long Island Sound and New Haven Harbor, most of which took place on the Quinnipiack, a 91-foot, traditionally rigged schooner and the flagship of the city.

“I had an incredible experience teaching students how to sail,” says AC.

In September 2014, however, Schooner, Inc., announced that it was on the brink of financial collapse. No longer generating enough income to cover its operating costs, the organization had accumulated significant debt, and maintenance of the Quinnipiack had been neglected. The iconic tall ship, built in Maine in 1984 for passenger service and designed after Biloxi freight schooners, was sold. Schooner, Inc., suspended all operations.

By then, AC had cultivated a passion for sailing and working with underprivileged kids.

“I loved giving them a chance to be on the water and have that experience,” she says.

She decided to look for a job similar to the one she’d had with Schooner, Inc., and learned of an opportunity on the west coast.

“I had taken a semester off, transferring from one college to another, and decided I would apply for a teaching job on a tall ship in L.A.,” she recalls. “They didn’t hire me.”

Undeterred, AC packed her things and went on a road trip.

“I showed up at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute and asked if I could at least volunteer there,” she says.

With enough money to last three weeks, she figured she would volunteer for a short time before returning home.

“They agreed to let me volunteer,” she says, and after two weeks, they offered her a paying job.

She stayed on at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute for almost four months.

“I lived on the tall ship, which sleeps 38. We got to take students from Los Angeles Public Schools out on three- to five-day voyages to Catalina Island. It was an incredible experience. I had so much fun working with the kids that I ended up returning for a little bit the following year.”

‘I Didn’t Want to Be Sad on the Day I Died’

For now, anyway—until the sails are stripped, the boats put into winter storage, and the fall semester resumes at Clark—AC is working full-time again at what she loves. Her first day as Clinton Sailing Club’s program director was June 27.

“My first day was challenging,” she admits, “but not in a bad way. I had planned out what I wanted to do with the kids, but I had a lot to learn about the harbor itself and the boats. I think the program went very well, and the kids had a good time. A highlight for me was watching the kids get really excited about being in the boats; that energy is so much fun. We have a lot to learn, but I think we did pretty well for our first day, and we will only get better from here!”

As program director, AC is responsible for all aspects of day-to-day operations, including what the kids learn and do, which instructors and counselors handle what duties, and how the staff cleans up and takes care of the club’s equipment.

“I also do the maintenance on some of our boats if they need to be repaired, but I have support from other Clinton Sailing Club board members if we have to order parts or have a problem that needs immediate attention. For instance, today a board member and a counselor helped fix a missing part on a boat while I taught a lesson so that all of the boats could go out sailing. I have a ton of help from my counselors and junior counselors; I could not do this alone. They truly help make this program work as well as it does.”

Given her willingness to take the roads less traveled—gap year, self-designed major, driving cross country, and living on a ship—AC says folks would be surprised to know that trying new things did not always come naturally for her.

“I would be scared or hesitant or anxious. But now, when I do something that makes me a little nervous, it’s kind of this feeling of overcoming when I do it and enjoy it. I love that I can challenge myself in that way and have some incredible experiences from it. “

One of her favorite memories on the water is when she and her family sailed to Martha’s Vineyard—a trip that didn’t seem ripe for the family album.

“The weather was bad,” she recalls. “We had a lot of wind, lots of rain, and big waves. My sister Maeve was seasick, Jane was crying, and Aimee was singing songs to cheer everyone up. At the end of the day, my dad thanked Jane for stopping crying and cheering up to enjoy the sail even though it was a tough ride.

“Jane responded with, ‘Well, Dad, I didn’t want to be sad on the day I died.’

“We all laugh at that line every time we talk about that trip.”

Clinton Sailing Club is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting safe, active, and fun community sailing. The program is open to all local kids aged 8 to 18, regardless of income level. For more information, visit