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CHICAGO — Charles Szymanski wanted to introduce sailing to the LGBTQ community and create diversity in the sport. And although COVID-19 may have tested the waters of his newly formed non-profit, the avid sailor was committed to helping others while inspiring change. 

WGN first introduced you to Szmanski a few months ago, when he and Chicago’s Very Own Leslie Travis used their sailing sewing skills to provide personal protective equipment to frontline workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago when the pandemic hit.

“Sailors help each other we don’t leave other sailors behind,” he said. “Someone goes overboard everyone stops and looks for him and in this case some sailors were healthcare workers and they were overboard.”

With that in mind, a few years back, he couldn’t help but realize that the sport he loved so much, wasn’t as inclusive as he’d like it to be. Szymanski’s had a love for sailing for years, but he knew that there was something lacking in the sport.

“Sailing by and large is a very white straight male side of sport and we’re trying to invite more people in,” he said.

In an effort to better connect with the LGBTQ community, he and his friends had a bright idea. 

“And the suggestion was, why don’t we have a pride regatta?” he said.

And so he did. Szymanski founded Rainbow Races Inc., a non-profit geared toward equality and diversity in the sport of sailing.

In the summer of 2019, Rainbow Races hosted its first annual Rainbow Regatta, a fundraising event to support LGBTQ organizations like Chicago House and Rainbow Railroad. The event was a huge success.

“There were cruisers, there were racers, you know all different skill sets all different kinds of boats came and it was an awesome time to get people who were new to the sport out on boats learning what things were,” he said.

Things were smooth sailing at first, until the pandemic hit. Last spring, he was forced to cancel some of this year’s events. However, that didn’t stop him completely. In fact, Szymanski held a social distancing Pride Flotilla on Lake Michigan last month. 

“The next step was bringing in LGBTQ community and saying, ‘Hey we’re here too, this isn’t just a one person kinda thing, let’s bring everybody into this,’” Szymanski said.

Although this year he has struggled to keep the non-profit afloat, Szymanski isn’t giving up. By holding these Pride events he has already reached his goal of introducing the sport to some who may never have given it a whirl. 

“We brought out a bunch of people that had never been on boats before and we paired them with other boats and new friendships were born,” he said.

And as word continues to spread about the unique non-profit Szymanski said the feedback has been great. 

“It makes me feel great. Iget a message every day from someone who says, ‘Hey I want to learn can you guys help?’ Or, ‘My husband and I are new to boating can you help me?’ Yes we can,” he said.

Szymanski is one of Chicago’s Very Own.