TRAVERSE CITY — Capt. Rorke Miller grew up in a little different world from the one where many of his summertime sailing students hale.
Miller, 37, has been sailing as long as he can remember whether it was in Lake Michigan near Chicago where he was born, raised and schooled. Or on his brief run at professional sailboat racing or his time captaining charter cruises in the Caribbean.
He’s taught more than 1,000 people to sail. And he’s known for portraying himself as Capn’ Rorke — a larger-than-life modern sailor who spouts stories from sailing history while manning the helm of traditionally-rigged sailboats.
But for the past three years, Miller has been the captain for the Maritime Heritage Alliance’s SAIL Champion program — a program that gives at-risk teens a chance to crew a 53-foot-long gaff-rigged cutter, Champion.
It’s an experience that changed Miller’s perspective on life and recently earned him a nomination for the Old Pulteney Maritime Heroes Award. It’s a national award decided by the votes of people who go to www.maritimeheroesvoting.com and cast a vote by Dec. 1.
“You see someone in his life, he was doing great things, but they weren’t making a profound impact on the community,” said Joe Sanok, clinical director for the program and the person who nominated Miller for the award. “I don’t know what he is going to do over the next 10 to 20 years but I know it is going to impact our community in a profound way.”
Sanok watched Miller transform from an animated captain to a man who has dedicated himself to helping the teens, many of whom were born on the other side of the wrong side of the railroad tracks.
“It’s the job that I was born to do,” Miller said. “Together we can all set these kids on the right path. I’m not a counselor, I’m just a regular guy.”
Yet Miller’s persona meshed with the therapeutic objectives of the program. SAIL Champion is an experience-based therapy program that removes at-risk teens from their environment for a week and combines intensive group and individual therapy sessions with an experience many of them would never have if not for the program — sailing.
During the past three years, he’s become as integral to setting the teenagers on the right path as any member of the program’s team.
Champion is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter whether a kid was a bully or never set foot away from a TV and video games, everybody is equal aboard the ship, he said.
And most of the teens’ perception of what a captain of a sailing vessel is comes from Disney movies.
“I love these kids,” Miller said of the teens who he continues to keep tabs on. “They’re definitely rocked. When it happens, their barriers just break down.”
That’s why Miller, whose day job is running classes to train and license other captains, teamed up with a handful of others to found RED8 Boatworks, a non-profit organization that will teach at-risk teens to make custom stand-up paddle boards.
During recent months, after parting with the SAIL Champion program, Miller began planning to start the program that will offer teens skills and therapy year-round, not just during the summer.
RED8 is the continuation of an effort sponsored by the SAIL Champion program two years ago that brought together some of the program’s alumni and volunteers to make three paddle boards during spring break.
“I knew, these kids, when spring break hits, they have nowhere to go,” he said.
The result of the pilot project was three high-quality paddle boards and a handful of teens who walked away with pride and confidence from the week.
In addition, the program gives the teens an opportunity to hit the water with high-end custom boards to try what can be a very expensive sport.
Since then, Miller recruited wooden boat builder and instructor Adam Burks to help lead the program. Burks will help teach groups of teens build paddle boards during several sessions throughout the winter. Then, in the summer, Miller has planned for RED8 to run a paddle board livery that will rent and sell the custom wooden boards it makes.
Burks and Miller hope the program that starts with donations will sustain itself one day through sales of the custom boards and rentals. In addition, it could provide summer jobs for some of the teens who attend the program.
“It can be life changing for them,” Burks said. “If you can build a boat, you can build a cabinet, you can frame a house.”
But more important than the woodworking skills Burks and Miller will teach the teens are the life lessons. Many of the students have never followed a project from start to finish.
“Our goal is not to turn them into boat builders,” Burks said. “They don’t have any opportunities. It’s just the first step along the route, but it gets them on the path. That’s where they’re going start.”
To begin, RED8 will be housed in one of the MHA shops, but Miller hopes it will quickly get a permanent home. Miller already has received good response from several paddle board racers.
Miller already has some pre-orders for the $2,500 custom boards. But buying a board is much more than getting a premium paddle board, Burks said.
“They’re handmade by at-risk youth in northern Michigan, not in China,” Burks said.
If you would like to learn more about RED8 Boatworks, go to www.red8boatworks.org.