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Setting Sail

Pierre Wallinder (Photo by Cheryl Gorski)
Setting Sail
Learning to harness the wind at Sail Buffalo

Most people’s experiences with sailing can be divided into two categories: sat on someone else’s yacht drinking a beer and occasionally pulling on a rope; or took out a dinghy with a friend and ended up tipping into the water. We might know someone with sun-baked skin and an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane seafaring terminology, but to many, sailing remains an alien and foreboding realm.

It wasn’t always like that. Sailing has played a central role in our history. From the rudimentary crafts early civilizations used to fish their shores, to the mighty galleons launched by European powers obsessed with conquest and trade, boats have been a means of harnessing the earth’s waterways for dreams of wealth and prosperity. Until the widespread adoption of propeller-driven, metal-hulled vessels at the end of the 19th century, the world’s goods, people, and ideas were borne across the globe by the wind in the sails of increasingly specialized boats crewed by increasingly specialized sailors.

Buffalo Sailing Academy (Photo by Cheryl Gorski)
Sail Buffalo (Photo by Cheryl Gorski)

Boats of war and commerce expanded to boats of pleasure and sport as early as the 17th century. In 1661 King Charles II raced his brother the Duke of York and paid the Duke 100 pound sterling when he lost—a prize of over $5 million in today’s currency. Formal sailboat races became very popular in the early years of the 1800’s as a bloodless way for nations to test their naval might against one another. With the winner of these races taking home extravagant prizes and garnering international respect, the contests soon attracted private investment in boat design and crew training. Early yacht clubs were less about sailors sailing and more about wealthy sports enthusiasts building, staffing, and racing private sailcraft. When the New York Yacht Club’s schooner America beat fifteen English yachts around the Isle of Wight in sight of England’s Queen Victoria in 1851, the triumph sparked a riot of interest from the American press. Sailing became a popular hobby for the nation’s industrial elite, and yacht clubs sprang up around the country.

The very wealthy were responsible for the rise of sailboating as a leisure activity. Tycoons were gleefully grabbing a tiller and hauling on a jib sheet. In contrast to the choking smoke of the factory floor or the thinly-veiled conflicts of the board room, the open water was a respite from the chaos of early 20th century life. By the 1950’s, sailing in the United States was almost entirely for leisure and sport and still enjoyed primarily by the wealthy. President John F. Kennedy was a renowned sailor, and his 62-foot Manitou was often referred to as “the floating White House.”

With the introduction of fiberglass hulls the price of owning a sailing vessel dropped precipitously in the 1960s and 1970s. Many middle class families could now afford a boat and fiberglass sailboats quickly flooded the market. Fiberglass proved significantly more durable than their wooden ancestors, so vessels produced during this era still remain a cost-effective alternative to shelling out for a model fresh from the shipbuilders. Boats from the 70’s are still readily available, in excellent condition, for less than the cost of repairing the brakes on a car. While upkeep and fees keep sailing from being strictly cheap, the barrier to sailing is as much about a lack of knowledge and getting sailing experience as it is about being able to afford putting a craft in the water.

Pierre Wallinder of Sail Buffalo is working to make attaining the knowledge needed to sail a boat easier. Sail Buffalo operates on land licensed from the Coast Guard at the mouth of the Buffalo River, across the water from the Hatch and the USS The Sullivans. Wallinder believes that reestablishing the city’s connection to the water is a vital part of making Buffalo an attractive place for residents of the city. He says, “We’re currently going from being a blue collar economy defined by businesses like Bethlehem Steel, who were dumping and polluting, to a more tourist and recreational based economy, where quality of life is important to maintaining and bringing new people to the area.”

For Wallinder, developing a sustainable waterfront is critical for Buffalo’s successful revitalization. He has spent nearly two years developing Sail Buffalo’s multi-use facilities to attract aspiring boaters to take advantage of the city’s shoreline. There is a newly built combination classroom/lecture hall/kitchen powered exclusively by solar panels lining its roof. There are rows of raised planters growing herbs and vegetables, and also a greenhouse, newly completed fisherman’s huts for storage, and more.

As Wallinder walks me around the grounds, he excitedly describes the functions of each building while outlining his vision for the future—a small boat launch; a geodesic dome to house lectures, concerts, and maybe even yoga classes. It is obvious these aren’t merely pipe dreams: throughout the property, teams of workers are laboring feverishly away.

Wallinder introduces me to everyone. Guys on contract from a Niagara Greenway Commission grant are digging in the mud restoring the shoreline around an inlet experiencing severe erosion, carefully laying rocks and planting bushes to promote what Wallinder calls a “living shoreline.” The younger people scrubbing down a trio of dinghies, purchased as part of a “green fleet” of instructional vessels through a grant from the Margret L Wendt Foundation, are students on work exchange from area high schools and colleges. They are preparing the boats for the arrival of a student field trip the next day, which Wallinder jokingly refers to as “the invasion.”

From among the numerous programs, projects, and plans Wallinder discusses with me during my visit, I see two primary, if overlapping, areas of concentration in his work. The first is the operation of the American Sailing Association certified sailing school. As part of the ASA, Sail Buffalo is expected to maintain certain standards in its instructional fleet, classroom experience, and course offerings. They run their most popular class, ASA 101: Basic Keelboat Sailing, regularly throughout the summer. They also periodically offer more advanced classes, up through International Proficiency Certifications.

Classes at Sail Buffalo take place both onshore and on the water. In the classroom, attendees are schooled in nautical terminology, right-of-way conventions, and the principles of seamanship and navigation. Once proficiency is demonstrated, the class boards a boat selected from Sail Buffalo’s fleet, which includes two Pearson 26’s, four Hinterhoeller—HR-25’s, and one Paceship 32. If those names mean nothing to you, they are modern, well maintained sailboats of the perfect size for learning to sail. Students in ASA 101 are accompanied on-board by an ASA certified sailing instructor, often Wallinder himself or his daughter Alexandra or his son Nick who is home for summer from SUNY Maritime College.

For more advanced students, the school also operates a motorized safety vessel to accompany learners practicing solo maneuvers on the lake. Between classes, anyone who has completed ASA 101 has the option of joining Sail Buffalo as a member, which grants access not only to the sailing fleet, but to a growing quiver of kayaks and paddle boards. Wallinder repeatedly describes the price of membership as “very affordable.”

In Wallinder’s second area of concentration, Sail Buffalo seems to be positioning itself as an educational resource for kids who would not otherwise have access to the lessons that being around the waterfront affords. Presently, Wallinder has been communicating with Buffalo area schools to arrange for day-long field trips, and he has also been seeking funding options to provide scholarships to Sail Buffalo’s multi-week summer camp. Not only will a school age visitor to Sail Buffalo learn how to sail a boat, but they will also be able to gain firsthand experience with the resources that a sustainable lifestyle supports. There is a world of difference between being told to recycle and watching a discarded soda bottle float down the river while you sit aboard a floating classroom composed of 6,400 soda bottles. Wallinder has been integrating established educational programs into both the field trip and summer camp programs, including US Sailing’s Reach program, which teaches STEM field topics through sailing lessons, and Students Understand Nutrition, which will utilize the school’s botanical resources to teach students about how food is grown and prepared. Additionally, Sail Buffalo maintains the Clara Brown, a historic vessel on both the State and National Registers of Historical Places.

Wallinder’s plans are ambitious, but he seems to be asking the same of sailing that he and others are asking of Buffalo––to redefine themselves. After a hundred years of being a pastime for the rich sailing needs to transform that identity to one that says sailing is for everyone—just as Buffalo needs to transform its identity as a failing rust belt city to that of a prospering water belt city. From his little plot along the Buffalo River, Wallinder is offering a good contribution to both causes.

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