Editor’s note: The following is a story provided to The Daily News by Sail Newport as part of a partnership ahead of the upcoming Ocean Race.
An epic loss served as the catalyst for Sail Newport’s creation, nearly 40 years ago. The New York Yacht Club had successfully defended the America’s Cup in Newport for decades, but in 1983 an upstart Australian team won the Cup and flew home with both the historic trophy and the right to host the next event.
“Sail Newport was the silver lining to the New York Yacht Club losing the America’s Cup,” said Executive Director Brad Read. “Sail Newport was essentially founded the next day, Sept. 26, 1983.”
Bart Dunbar remembers meeting with Paul Buttrose at his Bowen’s Wharf office that morning and agreeing they should get together with other local sailors interested in promoting the local marine industry and discuss how to bring big-boat sailing back to the City-by-the-Sea. Historically, he said, out-of-town organizations like the New York Yacht Club and Cruising Club of America had made things happen in Newport; now, their group began meeting weekly at Seamen’s Church Institute to plot their own future course.
In February of 1984, Sail Newport’s articles of incorporation were signed by local sailors Dunbar, Buttrose, former mayor Fred Alofsin, Dr. Robin Wallace, Dr. Charles Shoemaker, Stanley Livingston, and Harry Anderson. The participation of Livingston and Anderson, former CCA and New York Yacht Club commodores, respectively, helped ensure that Sail Newport would, in time, become a valued partner to the established sailing organizations.
The nonprofit organization’s staff and board members have consistently advocated on behalf of sailing and established a solid track record of delivering the energy and economic benefits of sailing events to Newport. Over four decades, Sail Newport has hosted thousands of regattas ranging from local youth events to world championships. And it has always remained committed to provide all of its sailing programs, education and events as affordably as possible.
But it’s been an unwavering commitment to sailing opportunities for youth and adults across the socioeconomic spectrum that has earned the most respect and trust throughout the city and the state, and opened the door to enlarging Sail Newport’s base on the state’s premier public peninsula, Fort Adams State Park. The result has been a win-win, both for public access to sailing at the park and for bringing in big events like The Ocean Race, which benefits the whole of Rhode Island’s economy.
When the premier race around the world, The Ocean Race, makes an agreement to stop at ports in New Zealand, Brazil, or Denmark, organizers sign contracts with government entities. But when they want to land in North America, as they did in 2015, 2018, and will again visit Newport in 2023, the deal gets done in the smallest state in the U.S. with the local community sailing center — Sail Newport.
What started as a small group of local sailors who wanted to bring more events to Rhode Island, Sail Newport has evolved into a unique organization well-established in Rhode Island and respected globally for its world-class regatta management and public sailing programs.
Sail Newport successfully hosted the 1985 Swarovski Maxi Boat Regatta, drawing several 80-foot racing boats, but the DNA of the organization gained a new dimension when Sail Newport merged with the Fort Adams Sailing Association (FASA) in the same year and gained waterfront access by committing to public-access sailing. FASA had previously worked with the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to install boat lifts in the park, a legacy of its work in staging pre-Olympic sailing events prior to 1979.
Dunbar credits Bob Bendick, head of the DEM (1982-1990), for his willingness to support the public-private partnership, encouraging Sail Newport to launch a public sailing program from the park. Ultimately, the success of the initial lease led to additional new buildings and infrastructure, much of it for sailing education, and the installation of what are now called the Alofsin Piers.
“Our mission expanded,” said Brad Read, who was hired in 1998. “We focused a lot of our effort, treasure, and time on building out what you see now—one of the best youth sailing centers in the country. We had long waiting lists and so we aligned our efforts with what was needed to grow programs and fulfill the demand.”
Sail Newport quickly became a natural home to youth sailing and one-design racing on the protected shoreline of Brenton Cove in Newport Harbor. The organization prioritized raising funds for fleets of dinghies and small keelboats for youth and adults, offering ready-access sailing in weekday and weekend rentals and lessons. Led in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s by former executive director Lynne Shore, the organization also worked successfully with the DEM to gain lease extensions, which included the Alofsin Piers, to accommodate larger boats.
In 1999, Sail Newport doubled down on its bet to serve the high demand for youth sailing by raising money to build new docks and a youth facility named for Dr. Robin Wallace. It was a giant step for the organization in its commitment to education, the kind of ambitious exercise that would lead not only to a youth sailing-education program serving hundreds of young sailors annually, but also a realization that the organization could set its sights even higher.
By 2015, Sail Newport was on its way to raising funds and convincing five government agencies to allow them to put up an even larger building called the “Mid-Park Marine Education and Recreation Center.” Designed by past board president Mohamad Farzan to be LEED-compliant with solar power, distinctive rooflines, wide porches and architectural elements borrowed from an army post office that once stood in the Fort. The ground floor has the dock office, showers and restrooms and it’s engineered to be able to survive a major flood. Modular rooms on the second floor provide a variety of classrooms, and staff offices on the third floor have a commanding view of the Admiral’s Pier, Brenton Cove, and Newport Harbor.
Among other things, the new building made possible a unique partnership with the Newport Public Schools that enrolls every 4th grader into a 16-week fall/spring Sail Newport Pell School Science and Sailing Program. Augmented by a marine-oriented STEAM curriculum taught at Sail Newport by Pell teachers, the ongoing program takes advantage of the on-the-water classroom of Narragansett Bay—which some students have never had the opportunity to experience in a boat.
“The program naturally teaches students to learn to work together, to learn the science of the wind and the math in the sails,” said Colleen Burns Jermain, superintendent of schools in Newport. “Teaching them to sail creates conditions in which our children realize they can do anything. They are experiencing things they never thought they would do.”
Jermain highlights the vision of Donna Kelly, an elementary school teacher who was also a Sail Newport board member. Supported by the school committee, Kelly took a sabbatical to create the program with Sail Newport program director Kim Hapgood and then took the lead in training her fellow teachers to deliver on it. Supported by private donors and foundations, Sail Newport raises funds to cover transportation and other expenses, delivering the program at no cost to the City or families of school children.
Based on the success of the 4th-grade program, an after-school “Marine Exploration Program” has been added this year for Thompson Middle School students.
High school sailors also actively use the facility for practice and scrimmages, with sailing teams from Newport’s Rogers High School as well as Portsmouth, Middletown, and the Prout School.
During the summer months, Sail Newport provides free sailing programs to many community groups and local nonprofits. Particularly important to Sail Newport’s is their financial aid program which awards partial or full scholarships to participating families.
In keeping with its original mission, Sail Newport has hosted national and international events every year including the U.S. Sailing Team Olympic Trials in 1988 and 2007. But Sail Newport demonstrated what was possible at a higher level in 2012 when the America’s Cup holder, Oracle USA, approached it to host an event in the America’s Cup World Series that could be watched from within Fort Adams State Park. Over nine days, tens of thousands of sailing fans poured into the park to see the boats along the shore and watch them racing in the natural stadium of Narragansett Bay off the north and west side of Fort Adams. City officials and local merchants took notice of the significant impact on the local economy.
That experience opened the door to successfully hosting one of the biggest, longest races in the world—The Ocean Race (previously the “Volvo Ocean Race”)—in 2015 and 2018. After starting in Europe and stopping in ports such as Cape Town, South Africa; Auckland, New Zealand; and Itajai, Brazil in the winter months, the high-speed, high-tech racing fleet with several countries represented, arrived in Newport in May, as it will again in 2023.
With the fleet’s arrival, estimated to be on or around May 10, 2023, a nine-day festival of sail begins again at Fort Adams State Park. The park will be transformed into “Ocean Live Park” and open to the public every day for free. Visitors will be able to see the race boats up close at the dock, learn about the global race, and see the oceans of the world through the eyes of the crews.
The Ocean Live Park will also have many interactive exhibits, One Blue Voice Immersive Experience, a sustainability pavilion, team bases, children’s activities, music, food, and entertainment. The in-port racing on May 18-20 will draw thousands of spectators, as will the start of the Transatlantic leg to Aarhus, Denmark, on May 21.
In its first year, close to 130,000 spectators came to see the racing and the village, with a total economic impact of $47.7 million statewide. Conveniently, from a local perspective, the race arrives before Newport’s busy summer tourist season, a win for area businesses and the sailing public.
The workforce that makes staging big events at Sail Newport possible comes from people like Karen Cooke, a sailor from across the Bay who served as one of hundreds of volunteers during the 2018 Ocean Race stopover and found a sailing home in the process.
“I toured the new education and recreation facility, met a lot of full-time staff, and worked with some of the nicest volunteers I had ever met,” she recalls. “It was an amazing opportunity and an honor to be part of it all.”
Cooke often guided visitors to the dock where the “Try Sailing” program offered rides on Sail Newport’s J/22 keelboats. One day after volunteering, she went along for the ride, signed up for lessons, and learned to sail a J/22 on her own.
“Sailing has become my favorite hobby,” says Cooke. “It’s extremely rewarding to connect with nature, the water, the boat, and the wind. It is both active and relaxing, as well as food for the soul. I used to think it was too prestigious and too expensive, well out of my grasp. Now I’ve become a Sail Newport member and buy an annual “Open Card” to rent throughout the season at a significant discount.”
As host of the first Ocean Race event in 2015, Sail Newport’s board and staff continued to evolve the organization. It had long since become a model to other public-access sailing programs around the U.S. and the world, but now it began to exert a positive influence as an innovator in other arenas, such as sustainability.
Read points to the first “Ocean Summit,” an international sustainability forum Sail Newport developed for 2015, which the race organizers now run multiple times a year in various international cities, whether there’s a race or not. The Ocean Summit will again be held in Newport and at other international stopovers.
Also, Read said, “With our partner 11th Hour Racing, we developed a sustainability program for the race village in 2015 and then accentuated and improved it in 2018. The 2023 stopover will have even more sustainability programs and education. Many of those same elements will be activated at every other stopover around the world in 2023.”
Sail Newport has made a difference in the way “green events” are run beyond sailing events. Read said, “As Sail Newport, we developed systems and procedures in running big public events that have been adopted across the state and by every festival that happens at the park. Without partners like the DEM, 11th Hour Racing, Clean Ocean Access and Sailors for the Sea, there would be no such thing as green sailing events in Newport, because we didn’t think that way before.”
While strong leadership by Sail Newport staff and board members has been key, their ability to build partnerships has been vital to working with DEM and elected leaders to gain the trust to keep adding leasehold improvements that are good for the public and good for the sailing community. Leadership has also been critical in nurturing donors and building supportive relationships with organizations, from public schools to environmental organizations.
Looking back at Sail Newport’s first 40 years, Read cites the importance of gathering the components needed to increase the public’s access to sailing—the youth program, the education program, quality boats, and new buildings for growing programs and staff—as well as the funding to make sailing affordable for the community through ongoing financial aid programs from sponsors, donors, and state leaders who have consistently advocated for the organization.
“But what I think is most important is knocking down the image that this is an elitist sport and that being on the harbor is unattainable,” said Read. “The lasting image for me is of a child in the fourth-grade program who puts their hand in the water, and the sailing instructor says, ‘Have you ever sailed on the harbor?’ And they say, ‘I’ve never seen the harbor.’
“They’re 10 years old, and they live a half mile from one of the most beautiful ports on the planet. That’s the most important legacy of Sail Newport’s first 40 years.”
Editor’s note: The following is a story provided to The Daily News by Sail Newport as part of a partnership ahead of the upcoming Ocean Race.