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Just Add Water: Camps That Are All About the H2O

Water camps foster teamwork, teach new skills and promote safety

Lauren Braden

Published on: March 01, 2017

moss bay
Oars in: Moss Bay Kids Camp Photo credit: Moss Bay

Lake Washington, Puget Sound, Lake Sammamish, Green Lake, Commencement Bay, your local pool: Our cities and neighborhoods are literally surrounded by a multitude of sparkling bodies of water — beautiful to look at, but even more fun to play in. Luckily, there are many local summer camps that make the most of our aquatic landscape, turning the great outdoors into a setting for learning about marine life, boosting water skills and cultivating new ways to stay active in an increasingly sedentary world.

Very young children are drawn to water, and most enjoy splashing in pools and wading into the surf. (Note that early swimming lessons greatly reduce the risk of drowning in young children; see our sidebar for essential water safety tips.) When kids are a bit older and have mastered basic water competency, they may be ready for more advanced aquatic activities. Whether it’s shoving off in a sloop or paddling a kayak through a wildlife-rich wetland, water sports combine exercise, strategy, learning and fun.

We’ve scoured our region’s youth summer camp scene to find top-notch opportunities for frolicking in the sea, surf, sand and swimming pool.

seattly yacht club
Learning to sail Photo credit: Seattle Yacht Club


Why it’s fun: As the sail unfurls and catches a breeze, the hull lifts beneath you and the boat picks up speed, giving your stomach a thrilling flip-flop sensation. Sailing is a tactile, sensory-rich activity that hones both physical and strategic mental skills in kids. And though the sport carries a bit of an elitist rep, community sailing programs makes it more accessible to everyone (such as when yacht clubs or park districts own boats that sailors can reserve and use). For attire, skip the red chinos and navy stripes popular back east; Northwest sailors prefer wool and cozy fleece.

Camp to try: Seattle Yacht Club Sailing School hosts weeklong sailing camps on Portage Bay that teach kids their way around a sailboat as well as hands-on skills such as steering, tacking, jibing, tying knots and more. “We focus on safety, learning, and fun,” explains programs coordinator Angela Frost. “Kids can gain valuable life skills such as teamwork as well as independence, responsibility and safety, problem solving and a greater respect and understanding of nature.” Wind and weather conditions can be unpredictable, says Frost, which helps children gain resilience and confidence. Frost says that instructors make the learning fun by including games, sailing adventures, theme days and the occasional dance party or swim time in class. Children must be able to swim to attend (there’s a swim test given on the first day of class).

Ages: 7–17.

Details: Camps run June 19–Sept. 1. $440 for nonmembers.

More like this: Kids can get their first sailing experience on a Sunday public sail offered by the Center for Wooden Boats on South Lake Union, on Sunday mornings year-round (free, although donations are encouraged; sign-up begins at 10 a.m.; space is limited). The Tacoma Yacht Club has junior sailing camps that cover basic skills and knot-tying techniques. Vashon Park District runs sailing camps for youths out of Quartermaster Harbor. Sail Sand Point offers a range of camps for youths on Lake Washington at Magnuson Park.

swimmerStand-up paddleboarding and kayaking

Why it’s fun: Stand-up paddleboarding (called SUP) is like surfing, combining the thrill of standing atop the water’s surface with core-building, balance-boosting exercise, but no waves are required. It takes just half a day for kids to learn basic standing maneuvers and paddle strokes, fostering confidence and building strength and balance. A kayak is a small, maneuverable boat you sit in, using a double paddle and body motions to propel yourself forward or to turn. It’s the ideal self-propelled boat for exploring on cold or windy Northwest waters because the enclosed hull prevents it from taking on water (and keeps the paddler dry!). Paddling around a wetland or sheltered bay is also a wonderful way for children to see wildlife such as herons and harbor seals up close.

Camp to try: Moss Bay Kids Camp combines kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and sailing on Lake Union in Seattle. “Children learn to kayak, paddleboard and sail while practicing water safety and learning team-building skills and confidence on the water,” says Sydney Bonino, camp director. The program is designed for “inside-out learning,” where well-trained staff members take a supportive, low-pressure approach to skill development, helping kids discover for themselves which boating activities they most enjoy. Kids wear life jackets at all times on the water.

Ages: 6–12.

Details: Camps run June 12–Sept. 1. $340/week.

More like this: Alki Adventure Camps in West Seattle mixes SUP in the mornings with afternoon excursions such as nature hikes. Kayak Academy in Issaquah offers half-day and full-day camps that teach SUP, kayaking or both along the shores of Lake Sammamish.


Why it’s fun: Rowing (commonly called “crew”) is the ultimate water sport for developing teamwork and camaraderie. There are no star players, as each participant aims to move his or her oar in rhythm with the rest of the team as a single unit. (The coxswain, who sits facing the rowers while steering the shell and sometimes shouting encouragement or directions, acts as the team leader.) Many Puget Sound–area middle schools, high schools and nonprofit rowing centers have youth crew teams, so a week of crew camp can help launch kids into one of the most fun school team sports. Rowing is hard exercise; it helps kids develop upper and lower body strength, stamina and the discipline to wake up well before the crack of dawn to get out on the water for practice.

Camp to try: Lake Union Crew offers a comprehensive introduction to rowing. Participants are schooled in the technical aspects of crew, from stretching to sweeping to sculling. After practicing on training barges, kids move up to multiperson rowing shells (doubles and quads).

Ages: 12 and older.

Details: Four consecutive two-week camp sessions are offered, starting June 26. $295 half-day camp, $645 full-day camp.

More like this: Seattle Rowing Center hosts half- and full-day rowing camps for two-week sessions, grades 4–10. Everett Rowing Association features several introductory rowing camps for ages 12–18 at an affordable cost.

Four girls in life jackets a swim camp
Little fishes Photo credit: Safe N Sound Swimming

Swimming and water adventure

Perhaps your child isn’t quite ready to settle on one water sport for an entire week. If that’s the case, try a water adventure camp that provides an assortment of boat-based water science, and swimming activities for sampling. Here are a few standout offerings around the region.

Mount Baker Rowing and Sailing Center hosts weeklong Youth Adventure Camps, which include swimming, paddling, small-boat sailing and water-based field trips to visit the Seattle Aquarium, explore tide pools and comb sandy beaches for treasure. Ages 11–14. $300.

Safe N Sound Swimming offers 10 weeks of awesome water-themed adventure camps, which kick off on June 26. No swimming experience is required, and its unique one-on-one swimming lessons are part of the camp. Kids will also play pool-based water games, learn to snorkel, and try out kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Union. Ages 6–10. $450.

SAMBICA is a nondenominational Christian camp (the name stands for Sammamish Bible Camp Association) in operation for nearly a century that hosts water adventure camps on Lake Sammamish. Campers swim every single day with tubes, banana boats and cool water toys, such as a giant inflatable action tower that has a slide on one side and a climbing wall on the other. Other activities include kayaking, canoeing, SUP, wakeboarding and water-skiing. Kids have to pass a swim test to access the deep end or to be allowed to swim without a life jacket. Grades 2–12. Camps run June 19–Sept. 1. $300–$575. 

Water safety resources

American Red Cross. Find a local provider for Red Cross standard swimming lessons, read about small-boat safety and get water safety tips.

National Safety Council. Read about pool safety and special water safety tips for different age groups.

Safety first

Can your child tread water or float on his or her back for one full minute? How about exiting the pool without using the ladder? These are two of the five basic “water competency” skills defined by the American Red Cross, and these skills (or variations on them) are an admission requirement for some of these water-themed camps. (The other three critical skills are the ability to jump into water over your head and return to the surface, turn around in a full circle and find an exit, and swim 25 yards.)

Need to fast-track obtaining these skills before summer? Sign your kids up for swim lessons, but do your research. Try a swim center with a long track record and strong reputation, such as Safe N Sound Swimming in Seattle, which teaches kids ages 2–8 to swim through a unique one-on-one method; or Samena Swim and Recreation Club in Bellevue, which offers group lessons and one-on-one lessons taught according to the American Red Cross standard.

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