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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v10n23 (06/09/2011) » Five Questions With...

Rich and Kate Mini Hilliman: Waterfront Entrepreneurs

Get to know a Buffalonian...

Rich Hilliman and Kate Mini Hilliman: Waterfront Entrepreneurs

Rich Hilliman is the captain of the Spirit of Buffalo, the 73-foot topsail schooner that makes Erie Canal Harbor’s Central Wharf its summer home. Kate Mini Hilliman, his wife, is executive director of Buffalo Urban Outdoor Education, which uses the boat as a floating classroom for science education programs for youth. She’s also Rich’s part-time co-captain, running cruises and private charters, and drawing people and attention to Buffalo’s underused downtown waterfront.

How did the two of you come to operate the Spirit of Buffalo?

Kate: Rich and I were working as captains of educational sailing vessels in Baltimore in 2008 when we started talking about what was next for us personally and professionally. Rich mentioned that his family was considering buying a schooner and starting a sail charter business in Buffalo, their hometown, and asked if I would be interested in joining in the venture in some way. As my passion is experiential education, I decided to start my own educational nonprofit—Buffalo Urban Outdoor Education (BUOE) as part of this endeavor. We started operation in Buffalo in May 2009.

Describe a typical cruise.

Rich: Passengers board the Spirit of Buffalo, hear a brief safety speech by the captain, and we get under way. Passengers are welcome to help raise sails or simply sit back and relax with a glass of wine and watch the world go by.

Kate: There really is no typically Science Afloat education program; each day is different! Our kids circle up for introductions, don lifejackets, and then board the vessel. After helping to get the boat off the dock, they break into small groups and rotate through a series of hands-on science learning stations in aquatic and nautical sciences.

How does Lake Erie compare to other bodies of water you’ve sailed?

Kate: As a freshwater system, the biology and water quality are different, and the lack of tides took some getting used to! I grew up in New England and had never sailed in the Lakes before moving here. One of the biggest differences about running programs here—other than environmental—is how disconnected people are from the water, both physically and culturally. We are happy to be part of changing that.

You two are sort of entrepreneurial pioneers on Buffalo’s waterfront. Is it nerve-wracking, wondering how things will evolve?

Kate: I don’t think it’s nerve-wracking; it’s actually quite exciting to see it all evolve and to be such an important part of its transformation. BUOE has put almost 2,000 kids on the water since 2009, most of whom had never been on the water before. I’m very proud of that. We just need to continue to work together to celebrate the waterfront for what it is: an interface between land and water and a core of our nation’s history.

Rich: I grew up in Tonawanda and, like everyone else, listened to plans about waterfront development my whole life. I’m just excited to see the waterfront develop in new ways every day. It’s great to be a part of it.

What’s new for this summer?

Rich: In addition to our popular Wednesday Wine in the Wind, public sails, and private charters, we are starting Sunday morning brunch sails in June with food, drinks, and live music. Our Pirate Adventures are always available Saturday mornings, too.

Kate: In addition to our usual weekday Science Afloat programs, BUOE is now offering Saturday afternoon educational programs for groups from 1-3pm each Saturday, which is a new offering this year. These are open to groups of all kinds and reservations are required (796-8393 or

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