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Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay offers sailors world-class training

Sailors from the Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster

Sailors from the Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay practice match racing in the waters off Oyster Bay on Aug. 14, 2014. The nonprofit was largely financed by Bryan "Hunt" Lawrence, center, a billionaire investor and avid sailor. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Oyster Bay compound of the Oakcliff Sailing Center was hopping, as is usually the case on a summer weekday afternoon.

In the main building on South Street near the harbor, a half-dozen employees, students and volunteers were busy in the office organizing upcoming events. In the adjacent maintenance shop, former student and now staffer Andrew O'Donnell was making a delicate fiberglass repair to the bow of a catamaran cracked in a collision.

Upstairs in a new, almost-complete dormitory, eight young sailors held a "debrief," or postmortem discussion on how their performance in a race in Newport, Rhode Island, the previous weekend could have been handled better, while a contracting crew connected natural gas heating pipes.

Across the street in the Oak-cliff boatyard, Ron Saccardo, manager of the Taj, the nonprofit's year-old repair and boat-building shed, was tinkering with the driver's seat of a rigid-hull inflatable chase boat, while outside another staffer, Oladipoolayemi Oguntoyinbo — Ladi for short — rolled touch-up paint onto a 40-footer.

Shuttling among all of this activity and keeping control of it was Dawn Riley, one of the sport's most well-known female sailors and the founding executive director of Oakcliff, established 4½ years ago.

"In the past four years, we organized what was here, then we started expanding — we added an Olympic training program, we added an additional 12 match racing events per year, we have added boatbuilding facilities, and the biggest expansion was gutting old, old office space and building a 5,000-square-foot dormitory for up to 40 sailors," she said.

Riley, the first woman to sail on an America's Cup team and the first American to be part of four America's Cup teams — including the 1992 champion and all-female America3 — was also the first woman to manage a Cup team. She got involved with Oakcliff as a consultant to the family of billionaire investor Bryan "Hunt" Lawrence of Centre Island and Manhattan.

Her job was to help figure out how to turn the family's large collection of boats sailed by them and friends into a nonprofit organization that could train people in match racing — one boat against another, as in the America's Cup, as opposed to fleet racing, when all boats in a class compete simultaneously, as is common at yacht clubs and in Olympic competition — and raise this country's low profile in international sailing competitions.

Riley, 50, initially committed in 2010 to stay for three years "because I knew how difficult it was going to be" to get the nonprofit on solid footing and she was afraid of burnout. But she's still there because of the challenges that have come as Oakcliff has expanded, not only in the number of people trained but also in the scope of its offerings.

In four years, the sailing center has grown from a budget of just over $1 million and 30 boats to 76 boats and a budget of about $2 million, with a staff of seven.

Oakcliff officials and outside sailing experts say it has become the biggest match racing training and regatta center in the country, if not the world, with 200 scheduled events annually.

"Think about it: This is the future of sailing," Lawrence said.

He and Riley have loftier ambitions, envisioning Oakcliff expanding again to be a center for America's Cup 45-foot catamaran training in the years between competitions, which are usually every three years.

"In San Francisco, there were 20 sailors — 10 on each boat," Lawrence said. "Only one American out of 20. That's ridiculous. I'd like to see half, at least."

Raising its profile

The original concept for Oakcliff was to provide only training, but the foundation has gotten heavily into sponsoring regattas, including six national championships this year.

Oakcliff has trained several thousand people, with dozens of young sailors in the full-time summer programs each year. Hundreds come for free sailing several nights a week in summer and on spring and fall weekends.

The efforts have paid off.

"When we started, there were only two U.S. sailors ranked in the top 100 match racers, which was a travesty," Lawrence, 72, said as he steered his favorite boat, Caper, in one of Oakcliff's Thursday evening races of classic yachts. "And now there are 15. A large part of that growth is Oakcliff. We have the largest collection of match race boats in the world. There are people who didn't know how to sail three or four years ago who are now sought-after crew, which is quite remarkable. But the result we want is more U.S. sailors ranked internationally."

Gary Jobson, a world-class sailor and a vice president of the England-based International Sailing Federation, said Oakcliff is filling a vacuum in American match race training.

Jack Gierhart, executive director of Rhode Island-based U.S. Sailing, the organization that oversees all sail racing in the United States, said, "They have stepped up big time to support the Olympic sailing program" last year by becoming an official training center with 24 boats in three classes — the Nacra 17 catamaran, and the 49er and the 49er FX skiffs. "They're certainly producing some good sailors."

Boost for Oyster Bay

Oakcliff is also proving to be a boon for Oyster Bay.

"They've definitely put Oyster Bay on the map," said John Bonifacio, president of the Oyster Bay Main Street Association, a nonprofit downtown development organization. "It's had a dramatic impact on Oyster Bay as seen in an increase in foot traffic to the businesses downtown."

The center teaches match and fleet racing through races and regattas, clinics and full-time summer programs for at least 45 sailors ages 15 to 30. It has branched out to teach boat repair and boatbuilding and industry management skills such as budgeting and provisioning for an offshore race to Bermuda.

Riley and Lawrence are proud of their alumni. Two young men who sailed on the foundation's offshore racing team, Charlie Enright and Mark Towill, are running Team Alvamedica in the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race. Another veteran, Jeff MacFarlane, last year was ranked number one in the world in the Mini Class, which is for solo sailing ocean crossings, an accomplishment Riley said may be a first for an American.

Colin Kennedy, 19, a George Washington University student from East Williston, is another success story. Kennedy, who started sailing dinghies when he was 8, sailed 14-foot Laser dinghies in two world championships before arriving at Oakcliff. After three summers of Oakcliff training, he's competing in offshore events such as races around Block Island, helped deliver a yacht to Bermuda and participated this summer in the Governors Cup youth match racing regatta in California.

"Oakcliff really facilitates getting to the next level," he said. "Oakcliff has not only taught me match racing but has taught me how to budget for an event, how to provision for going offshore. It's taught me the management side of sailing and the boat maintenance side of sailing. Everything that goes wrong here, we fix ourselves."

Though Lawrence is the chief financial supporter and boat supplier, Oakcliff does a lot of fundraising. It has no members but requests that those who sail regularly become supporters with a minimum annual contribution of $500. There are about 250 so far. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory recently signed on as a corporate sponsor.

The latest addition at Oakcliff is the 5,000-square-foot dormitory above the office. It fills a need Riley identified when she arrived — a lack of space for visiting students and sailors. The facility will accommodate about 20 visitors on a regular basis and twice that for big events.

The repair and planned boatbuilding operation was an outgrowth of the sailing program. Oakcliff has obtained molds to build Ker 11.5 meter yachts; Saccardo said the first one should be fabricated in a year or two as the staff expands.

Riley, who lives in Huntington and Michigan, isn't sure how long she'll stay at Oakcliff, but when she does leave it won't be to compete in an America's Cup. She's already done that.

"What I would like to do is manage the entire event, because it's the only thing I haven't done," she said.

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