Seven students in bulky life jackets huddle in anticipation on the dock, eyes darting from their chaperones to the sailboats they will soon board. Trepidation shows on their faces.

Moments later, out on the water, they perch confidently on the bows of three 30-foot UCI Shields sailboats. They’re all smiles and the enthusiasm is infectious.

“I see pelicans!” Sarah Brown exclaims. “I see the other boat coming, the sail blowing.”

A cool breeze dimples the surface of Newport Harbor. The sails catch the wind and the boats knife across the water. The students, expertly instructed by UCI volunteers, are soon steering the boats themselves.

“You get to go faster on these boats,” says student Thomas DeGroat, gripping the helm. “It’s fun to drive the boats out of the bay.”

DeGroat and Brown are part of a group of current or former students from the Speech and Language Development Center in Buena Park, a school for children with autism, Down syndrome and other learning disabilities.

The trip was organized by the Bob Koll Sailing Foundation, a nonprofit started by a group of UCI alumni primarily to introduce sailing to underprivileged junior high and high school students, at-risk youth from local group homes and shelters, battered women, and people with disabilities.

The foundation offers young people the unique opportunity to experience sailing and the outdoors, while building character and promoting leadership skills. Over the last three years, the foundation has taken more than 3,000 participants sailing, including several who went on to enroll at UCI. This is a point of pride for the foundation volunteers, most of whom are UCI alumni, students, staff and faculty.

Since UCI’s founding in 1965, sailing has been a vital part of campus life. It’s a varsity sport, classes are provided through Campus Recreation, and students run the UCI Sailing Association. These efforts have produced seven intercollegiate national titles for UCI’s sailing team.

Newport Beach native Carl Reinhart ’69 was one of UCI’s first sailors and a member of the university’s inaugural class. Over the years, he retained a deep connection to UCI sailing. When his friend and fellow UCI sailor Bob Koll died in 2003, Reinhart started the foundation by donating his 58-foot sailboat,Blacksilver.

With Blacksilver as the centerpiece, foundation director Jane Hartley ’89 began recruiting volunteers. She learned that many had relatives affected by autism and, in response, developed outreach programs for children with learning disabilities.

“The kids get really excited; this is new for them,” she says. “They see dolphins, sea lions, pelicans, whales; the experience is more interesting when it’s visual. This helps them build language skills about the ocean and animals. It gets them to learn cognitively.”

Reinhart expands on that point. “For these kids, sailing to Catalina is an adventure. It makes them feel like they’ve been around the world.”

According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 150 children in the United States has autism, a rate much higher than previously thought. Whether this is an actual increase or due to better methods of diagnosis is still unknown; however, communities are struggling to provide services. The foundation’s outreach programs are an important aspect of helping children cope with autism and other learning disabilities.

The foundation hopes to expand its children’s programs and start one for adults. There are plans to take part in a race to Hawaii with Blacksilver. And closer to home, volunteers are focusing on encouraging students who have sailed once to return for advanced classes in seamanship, including how to tie knots and trim a sail.

As the day comes to an end and the boats head in, the sea changes texture. The surface becomes mirror smooth, reflecting blue sky dappled with clouds. There’s also a new spirit of independence in the air. The students help dock the boats, tie the ropes fast and fold the sails neatly away. The docks that had supported their uncertain, timid steps just a few hours earlier now resound with confident strides.

Walking up the marina, the students turn around together to wave goodbye. Until next time.

“I would like to do it again. I just like getting out there, the way the ocean feels,” says student Randy Goodeau. “I would like to set sail, with just a few friends, on my own.”