FORT MYERS, Fla. — Poor Robert Redford. If only he had gone to sailing school, the wayward yachtsman would have known not to cross the Indian Ocean solo with the wrong lifeboat. When a cargo container slashed the port side of his 39-foot yacht, he should have immediately tacked to starboard.
“And if he had the presence of mind to cover the gash with a mattress and taped plastic over the hole, he might have made it,” says skipper Mark Turner, as he comes about off Florida’s Sanibel Island and heads toward port.
For Redford’s character in the film “All Is Lost,” it’s too late. But as Mr. Turner, fleet services director for Offshore Sailing School based in Fort Myers, explains, “Learning how to sail is not difficult if you’re willing to take a good class.”
With more than 130,000 graduates behind it, Offshore promotes the green alternative to power boating. You may be surprised to know that more than 60 percent of Americans have never climbed aboard a sailboat.
As one who has sailed his entire life, I find this to be one of life’s great mysteries. After all, as my father frequently pointed out, yachting is indisputably the secret to longevity.
“It takes about a week of training to get to the point where you can charter a yacht,” says Offshore Chairman Steve Colgate, who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the sailing school he founded in New York.
“Less, if you want to sail a smaller boat,” says his wife, and company president and CEO, Doris Colgate.
With locations in New York, New Jersey, Florida and the Virgin Islands, Offshore Sailing School’s mission is to make yachting safe and enjoyable. And, as many of the school’s students will tell you, a class could also change your life.
Learning how to run with the wind, come about, jibe and handle “man overboard” incidents on Colgate 26 training sailboats designed by Steve Colgate and Jim Taylor are all part of the curriculum.
The Colgates and their team of instructors are missionaries, talking business people, families, kids and even powerboat owners into giving sailing a try. Although you can certainly learn a lot from their books, online and classroom instruction, there’s nothing quite like being out in the Gulf of Mexico, Long Island Sound or the Caribbean.
At its headquarters in Fort Myers and other locations, the school partners with local resorts to offer a program that turns a vacation into a learning experience. Although there are short three-day courses perfect for beginners, many students focus on weeklong sessions. Upon graduation, they are fully qualified to charter bare boat yachts.
While students come from all walks of life, the current trend is toward empty nesters who have both the time and the money to take up sailing. Fuel costs have also helped persuade powerboat owners to switch to sailing. The school also attracts many students who own sailboats and want to brush up on their skills.
“Sailors tend to be very highly educated,” says Doris Colgate. “They are very inquisitive and many of them come from teaching professions.”
One of them is St. Louis-based Bill Broderick, a retired brokerage firm partner who has owned powerboats for years on the Lake of the Ozarks.
“My wife and I wanted to get a sailboat but didn’t feel we were prepared,” he said. “I had sailed as a kid, but taking this class made me realize how little I knew.”
By the end of the fifth day of instruction he and his wife were qualified to solo, and by the end of the weeklong program the couple was certified to skipper chartered boats. Now they are in the market for a sailboat in the 35-foot range that will allow them to overnight in Florida and New England.
“Powerboats are very simple,” says Mr. Broderick. “You go from Point A to Point B. Sailing is much more about the ride. It’s a much more engaging and challenging experience than power boating. You enjoy the ride more when you are responsible.”
Like other graduates of the Colgate school, they have signed on for a flotilla club cruise. The August adventure will take them to Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands.
“For us,” says Doris Colgate, “one of the secrets of our success is letting students know at the beginning of class that soon they are going to be sailing with fellow students without our instructor.
“A sink-or-swim approach keeps them motivated. In just three days, they say to themselves, you’re going to trust me to sail a yacht. That really focuses their attention.”United States - North America - Florida - Lake Superior - Robert Redford - Fort Myers