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Norwich - A small crowd of supporters waiting at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park Saturday afternoon burst into cheers and applause as the 32-foot sloop Interim sailed into Norwich Harbor, its crew waving vigorously in response to the on-shore greeting.
"Look at Cesar," someone on shore shouted. "He looks like he belongs on a boat."
Cesar Antonetti, 38, of Jewett City sat confidently on deck smiling at the gathering on shore as the boat was tied to the city dock. His teammates call him "Captain Cesar."
"I had a great time," Antonetti said, adding later, "It's peaceful being out on the water."
For Kimberly Miller, 53, of Norwich, learning to sail aboard the Interim did more than prove she has a steady hand with the telltale lines. It taught her how to trust her teammates.
"The hardest thing for me was to trust someone else," she said. "I'm an independent person. You kind of build a wall around you."
Antonetti and Miller, along with Ron Horvath, 63, of Norwich and Brendon LaRose, 51, of Norwich, are members of the Teamworks Sailing Club, founded this summer by Teamworks counselor Sarah Lombardo. The program is run by Reliance House, which provides services to people throughout southeastern Connecticut with mental illness.
Teamworks partnered with Sea-Legs Inc., a New London-based nonprofit founded in 1998 by Capt. Richard Lathrop to "make the water accessible to people who otherwise would not normally have access to water," Lathrop said Saturday.
The Teamworks participants went on four sailing excursions with Lathrop, mostly in Long Island Sound out of New London. For their final trip, Lathrop wanted to take them from City Pier in New London up the Thames River, a tricky sailing channel that would require precision and concentration, to Norwich Harbor.
"I turned it the wrong way once," LaRose admitted.
During a post-sail picnic at Brown Park, the sailing club members called the program "exciting" and "an adventure," but they also admitted they were a bit nervous at the start that they would be steering and controlling a real sailboat.
Miller said at first she considered declining the invitation, thinking sailing would be too easy and not much of a challenge for her.
"It's a lot harder than I thought," she said. "The best part was we ended up becoming a team."
Lathrop said he was contacted by Lombardo, who had sailed with a young adults group on a Sea-Legs program several years ago, about six months ago asking if Sea-Legs would be interested in working with Reliance House. Both parties were excited by the proposal, and Lathrop said it could have lasting benefits if Teamworks members want to try to turn boating skills into a career.
Sea-Legs also runs an apprenticeship vocational program that teaches participants care and maintenance of vessels. Participants in the apprenticeship program get paid for their work on vessels, Lathrop said.
Lombardo said she was thrilled at how this summer's experience turned out. As the health and wellness coordinator for Teamworks, Lombardo said she always is looking for "fun and enriching" activities for the Teamworks members. She schedules guest speakers from various medical and professional fields, and members go on outings throughout the region.
The Sea-Legs partnership started with Reliance House staff members taking a staff trip on the waters off New London to see how the program would work for clients. Staff then offered the program to clients they speculated would enjoy it and benefit from the experience, keeping in mind there's an employment possibility at the end, Lombardo said.
Now that the first session is over, Lombardo hopes to make plans for a fall session and for next summer with Sea-Legs. "I absolutely would do it again," she said.