Jim Sabatier is a straight-to-the-point kind of guy. A retired Ole Miss physics professor, he tends to approach things in life the same way he would in the laboratory—problems to be solved using logic and careful calculation. Ask him about sailing, however, and his face lights up.
“When you get out there, and you feel the wind take hold of that main sail, and your boat starts cruising across the water, that’s really something,” Sabatier said. “The feeling is pretty hard to describe to someone who’s never been out on a boat, but it’s fantastic.”
Sailing had been a passion of Sabatier’s for years when, in 2015, he came up with the concept that would become Blackjack Sailing, a summer youth sailing camp on Lake Sardis with the goal of building a sailing community in the area.
“Pretty logical idea, right?” Sabatier said. “Start a sailing camp 250 miles from the ocean? In a landlocked town in north Mississippi?”
It was just another problem in search of a solution. Sabatier took the idea to his two sons, Charley and Joe Sabatier, and a family-run nonprofit was born. Charley and Joe, both teachers at Oxford High School, couldn’t be more different from their dad in terms of personality. Charley, the older son, shares his father’s interest in physics, but is loquacious and easygoing. Joe, who teaches government, loves to goof around and has a penchant for mischief.
Despite their differences, the family often seems to share the same brain when it comes to a project.
“I’m the kind of person who tends to roll with whatever idea comes my way,” Joe said. “So when pop came to me with this idea, I was on board immediately. I had no idea what to expect, though. I didn’t know if it would work.”
More family came on board. Susan Sabatier, the youngest daughter of the family, signed on as head counselor. Linda Sabatier, Jim’s wife, joined as camp mom, distributing snacks, keeping kids hydrated, and making sure sunscreen was being used. The first summer exceeded everyone’s expectations. All three camp sessions sold out.
The name of the game since then has been expansion. Investments in new boats and staff members increased capacity each summer for the 2017 and 2018 camps.
As plans got underway for summer 2019, however, a new problem presented itself to the Sabatier sailing lab. That initial goal—building a sailing community in north Mississippi—had been achieved. Now there was a whole generation of campers with advanced skills that could no longer be challenged by the small boats that made up the fleet.
Whenever he shares the obvious answer, Jim summons a famous movie quote and cracks a smile.
“I said, ‘we’re gonna need a bigger boat.’”
Blackjack 2019 will feature one, a 14-foot Topaz Argo. That, along with opportunities to spread out on the smaller boats due to the expanded fleet, provides new opportunities for veteran campers like Jenna Kate Lampton.
“You learn to sail,” Lampton said. “I like that you get the experience and get to get out on the lake.”
Camp has evolved in other ways as well. After starting out on the smaller lower lake access area beneath the dam, Blackjack moved to a berth at Sardis Marina and now has access to the entire 98,520 acres of the main lake. Campers can explore islands, sandbars, and peninsulas in between skill-building drills.
“We care about three things: safety, fun, and learning—in that order,” Joe said. “So we spend time on shore teaching important things like how to assemble a boat and discussing the maneuvers they’ll be doing on the water, but we don’t want anybody sitting still for too long. The whole point of sailing is feeling the freedom of being out there, so even a first-year camper will be on the water practically right away.”
For Charley, the mission of the camp during the summer is just an extension of his mission as a science teacher during the school year.
“I just love it,” he said. “I’ve always loved sailing, and getting to see the looks on these kids’ faces when they get out there and they realize they can actually do this makes all the work worth it. When that doubt starts to turn into confidence, that’s really special.”
The work keeps the already busy Sabatiers occupied year-round. In addition to the flagship summer camp, Blackjack has hosted regattas and led sailing excursions for adults in every season. Boat sharing and providing services to other summer camps that don’t offer sailing are part of the long-term vision.
The true core of Blackjack Sailing, though—the thing that has made such an improbable idea such a rousing success—is the tight bond of the Sabatier family, that ability to work together almost seamlessly. It’s something Joe comes back to as he prepares for his fourth summer on the lake.
“At the end of the day, I love sailing, sure,” he said. “But getting to do this with my brother and sister, my mom and dad—it’s great. I don’t know that it would have held together this long, or certainly grown like it has, if it wasn’t an idea that this family bought into. And we really have.”