Opening Up The WaterEdited By Ann Dermody
Published: February/March 2013
Meet three people who have devoted their careers to giving everyone access to recreational boating.
You'd think someone dedicated to building boats and taking a bunch of kids out onto the South Bronx River in all kinds of weather must have some deep-seated childhood love of all things nautical. Not so in the case of Adam Green. "I don't have that much boating history," he says. "My parents were involved with the Clearwater sloop on the Hudson River, but that was really my only involvement in sailing, as a kid." While in college at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, New York, Clearwater's headquarters, Green volunteered as a crew member. There, he met a teacher from East Harlem's Maritime School, who dreamed of building a boat with his eighth-grade students, but had no time to do it. Green volunteered for the task even though he had no boatbuilding experience. The resulting 14-foot plywood-and-epoxy boat was a huge hit when the students floated it in the school's basement pool. The project was so inspirational to Green that in 1996, he created Rocking The Boat as an after-school program in the South Bronx. The inaugural boat was a 14-foot Whitehall built from scratch in an office. The one thing Green hadn't planned for was that when the boat was finished, they'd have to break down a wall to get it out.
"We're a youth-development organization," he explains. "That means we're not just here to stop kids [from] getting in trouble. We want them to be real successes, and to empower them by giving them real maritime, environmental, and boatbuilding skills." The program has built 30-plus boats to date, many of which have been the original 14-foot Whitehall rowing boats, the primary small craft used throughout New York Harbor in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Other designs they've completed include a Cape Cod oyster skiff, a colonial river ferry, a Rangeley Lake boat, and a Melonseed skiff (the decked sailboats traditionally used in New Jersey tidal estuaries). The on-water programs mean literally that. The participants are on the river every day from March through December that weather allows — and even on some that don't. "We've been known to do snow-rows," says Green. As the organization grew, it moved to a 6,000-square-foot building in the South Bronx that they took over and restored. "Best of all, the majority of our kids, 74 percent, go on to college" — a phenomenal statistic considering Green says the demographic in the South Bronx shows that only 10 percent of adults attend college. "Several participants have gone on to environmental studies and into the boating trades. Others have worked as crew members on tall ships, or gotten involved in carpentry." The program also hires its former students. "We have 14 skilled former students earning a living here. They're responsible for running our programs."
Brad Avery And The School That Launched
If Helen of Troy had the face that launched a thousand ships, for the past 33 years Brad Avery has had the school that launched 100,000 boaters — both power and sail. The Director of Marine Programs for Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship hasn't always had as nice an office as the one he has today, but the great view of Newport Harbor has been the same since I was a student there two decades ago.
Avery's own entry to boating came when he was much younger. After growing up in a boating family, he began teaching sailing part-time after college to supplement a poorly paid journalism job. "I came here because I liked the idea of getting paid to go sailing, but I stayed because of the support the college and our community offered," he says. "We have a remarkable workplace culture that's fun, hardworking, and team-oriented."
OCC Sailing is one of the nation's largest nonprofit public boating education institutions. A fee-based, self-supporting community program that serves approximately 2,500 students annually, their mandate is "access." They deliver with a $45, five-week, 20-hour introduction to sailing that gets many newcomers out on the water and hooked. "Our approach is to introduce as many people as we can to sailing or boating," says Avery. "We offer a range of classes from powerboat handling, beginning to advanced sailing, navigation, maintenance, and U.S. Coast Guard Master license preparation. We're a good value all around."
That's not an overstatement. Elsewhere in the country, similar introductory courses for adults, even at nonprofit schools, can cost several times that amount. The school estimates that 20 percent of all their students make it from beginning sailing through all the classes, and go on to join a yacht club or buy their own boat. Some people just come back year after year because it's the least expensive way to get into the sport, and not have to maintain, insure, and berth their own vessel.
It would be hard to duplicate what Avery has built. The land is a free lease from Orange County. Legal services, human resources, and insurance are mostly provided by the parent school, Orange Coast College. There's a local affluent community that donates boats and funds on a regular basis, and a large harbor without any bridges, which means pretty much anything goes as far as vessel selection.
"We're a fee-based self-sustaining program, so we have to keep our cashflow going," says Avery. Course fees and other income make up about 70 percent of their annual budget; the remaining 30 percent come from gifts made to a foundation. The school manages more than 40 power and sailing vessels, ranging from 14 to 92 feet, used seven days a week, as well as 45 part-time instructors and seven full-time maintenance people.
The program traces its roots back to the 1950s and a Quonset hut on a strip of beach that served as headquarters. In 1970, 12 Shields sloops were donated, and a seawall and docks were built. In 1980, the first fee-based courses were offered to the public. When Avery joined in 1979, he organized boat donations, including that of Alaska Eagle (a Whitbread round-the-world winner formerly named Flyer), which went on to become OCC Sailing's flagship. In the past 30 years, she's logged 300,000 sea miles, and carried 3,000 students to destinations like New Zealand, Europe, and Antarctica. A 92-foot Hargrave named Nordic Star is the most recent donation and she's destined to become the new flagship. Like Eagle, she'll be her own school offering multiple powerboating courses. The list of vessel donors includes the late Roy Disney who donated his 86-foot Pyewacket, Kelsey Grammer who added his Baltic 37, and Dr. Laura who has made multiple donations. The gifted boats are evaluated for their fit into the program and either sold or used as classrooms. OCC Sailing also has a new 15-unit vocational program designed for college students interested in careers in the maritime industry. Once the students get their certificates, they work on fishing vessels, private yachts, and ferries, while some students continue on to maritime colleges. In addition to fee-based instruction, the school runs a summer program for at-risk kids who'd otherwise not be able to set foot on a boat of any size. Avery describes the people who come back to see him after they've bought a boat themselves: "We have people coming in every day telling us they just returned from a world circumnavigation after having learned to sail here,"
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Rich Armstrong Is Rollin'
On The River
On September 27, 2006, a driver ran a stop sign and hit longtime California boater Rich Armstrong on his motorcycle, confining him to a wheelchair and changing his life forever. But instead of taking his disability lying down, Armstrong returned to work selling steel from his chair, and started a new weekend business retrofitting boats so handicapped people could enjoy the water.
The first boat retrofitted, Rollin' On The River, (also the name of his company) was for himself. He later sold the 1985 37-foot Tollycraft to a man whose daughter had cerebral palsy. He says one of the most rewarding moments of his life was to see that father gain the enjoyment of being able to spend time on the water with his daughter. After the Tollycraft, Armstrong went on to retrofit a 51-foot Bluewater yacht, and he recently installed a hydraulic lift on a 15-foot boat with a wakeboard tower that picks the owner out of his wheelchair on the dock, and lowers him into the driver's seat.
Armstrong began his own love affair with boating at 17 when he bought a 1971 20-foot Chris-Craft for $600. "It had a 265-hp engine and went 56 miles per hour," he says. "I owned other ski boats and it was always about going faster. At 17, I also built my first hot rod and that started Automotive Creations, which was my business for more than 30 years." In 2003 he went to work for Brown-Strauss Steel in Fresno, handling sales in Northern California and Nevada.
But just three years later came his motorcycle accident. "I spent 51 days in intensive care with a compound fracture of the upper arm, both lungs punctured, and eight ribs broken. I also lost my T-11 and T-12 vertebrae, turning me into a paraplegic."
But through sheer will and determination, Armstrong returned to work for his employer, Brown-Strauss, whom he calls "my hero, because they stuck with me and allowed me to earn more money [rather] than taking disability." Getting back to work turned out to be a big factor in his mental rehabilitation. "Going out to see customers again -- even in a wheelchair -- was wonderful," he says. "The water, too, has had a healing effect on me. I knew I wanted to get back out there."
On his Bluewater, he was able to install a wheelchair ramp to get onto the boat. "Then I installed another push button to raise the ramp up 14 inches from the floor to allow continued entrance into the salon." He also added a permanent slanted ramp into the galley, cut a big hatch cover hole in the ceiling of the master stateroom, and made a lift with an electric motor winch for $2,000.
"This allows me to hook my wheelchair in four places so I can be raised to the upper deck. My wife, Kayo, swings the davit into place up there, and pushes the button to raise me." From there he's able to use another fixed ramp to reach the flybridge helm seat. "I don't think there's anything better than sitting on the bridge and running my boat. It's very fulfilling. I pride myself on being a good skipper. That's small to other people, but it's big to me."