Oakcliff Sailing: On a Mission to Improve the Future

Published on March 30th, 2016


Dawn Riley

Founded in 2010 by Hunt and Betsy Lawrence, Oakcliff Sailing in Oyster Bay, NY has become one of the premier training centers in the US. Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck met up with Executive Director Dawn Riley for an update.

What is the mission behind Oakcliff Sailing?

We’re building American leaders through sailing. That allows us to not worry about winning races, but to focus on giving everybody the skills required to do the big events. We work on the business side, the mechanical side, the sailing side, but the primary theme is building the leaders and trying to get people to do what’s right.

Is Oakcliff a reaction to how the sport had evolved?

Yes. It’s a little bit of self-perspective reaction, but absolutely. I was a member of the board of US Sailing and was doing a lot of sailing when I got hired to determine the direction needed. I had the luxury of somebody underwriting the effort, which gave me the time to conduct a proper study. I did a SWOT analysis, I did research, I talked to people, and nearly a year later I assembled a report on the state of the union. Oakcliff Sailing was one of the solutions that stepped forward.

Where does Oakcliff Sailing fit into the landscape?

We are the place to go after youth sailing. We don’t want to duplicate what anybody else is doing. We are the next step. The young kids that are in junior sailing are getting so much coaching now, but then they don’t know where to go next. Community Sailing programs are bringing people of all ages into the sport, but the road forward in no clearer for them either. So we’re not specific.

Are you seeking to create well-rounded sailors?

Absolutely. It’s necessary to be well-rounded sailor if you want to continue sailing. Contrary to everybody’s dream, there are very, very few people that actually get paid to only go sailing. They get paid to be a rigger, they get to deliver a boat, they are doing a business project for an owner. Of all of my friends, there’s only a handful that make their living 100% from sailing.

When trying to instill sailing into someone, to really get them hooked for life, what are some of the elements which contribute to that?

One of the biggest ones is being well-rounded, for a person to be exposed to wide swath of the sport. This contributes to their curiosity and their ability to problem solve. That’s probably the absolute single most important thing… the critical thinking needed to fully enjoy the sport.

Whether it’s figuring out how to go a tenth of a knot faster, or how to get the electronics working because your engines run out of fuel, or how to put together sponsorship package. People get connected when they can figure things out. It’s the evolution of what Dennis Connor said, something about waking up every morning, thinking about sailing, and how you’re going to screw the other guy [chuckles].

There are a lot of ways to ‘go sailing’. You seek to expose people to it all?

That’s the idea as getting people to be well-rounded sailors opens a lot of doors. For instance, the US Nacra 17 sailors were coming to us for training, and we found they were mastering the speed of the boat, but only as long as they weren’t around any other boat. So we said, “Let’s go match racing. Tuesday night’s we do match racing in Oakcliff.” Their Nacra 17 skills benefited from the cross training. It’s key.

What are some of your program options?

We’re pretty diverse, but in our hallmark acorn and saplings programs, we train inshore match racing, offshore career, high perfomance, and we just added the onboard media reporter session, which is perfect for somebody who wants to be the next Amory Ross riding onboard with one of the Volvo Ocean Race teams. In fact, Amory will be coming in to help coach the program. We see this session as also valuable for any club that wants improve their event promotion and communication plan.

One of the things we’ve learned is to be open minded about age. We were originally afraid of working with under 18s, but we soon found that some of the younger teenagers were more ready for a full summer program than some people in their 20s. We’ve also had 50 and 60-year-olds come through the program. So there’s no age limit, and it’s cool to see that interaction between the young and older sailors.

Before youth sailing got organized, it was more common to see young people sailing adults.

It used to be normal and we see the value in promoting it. The younger generation might normally see someone as old, but because everybody is in this learning atmosphere, they don’t see differences in ages, and the same goes for gender too. Especially the younger kids, there’s no issue about, especially at 15 and older, the co-ed teams are just normal. There’s no question.

Oakcliff is also a US Sailing Team Sperry Training Center.

Yes, this occurred about two years ago. We now own 30 boats used in Olympics. We have eight 49ers, eight 49erFXs, eight Nacra 17s and six 470s. We have the ability to introduce people considering the Olympics with some of the boats being used. We can lend them a boat, we can charter them a boat, we have one-on-one coaching, and group sessions. We’re helping to develop the sailors, get them to work together, and promote leadership skills. We have the ability to support the US program’s mission to build a strong team for the future.

When is your season?

We are active April through November, which this year will include our Class40 doing the Atlantic Cup from Charleston, South Carolina up to Portland, Maine. In the Newport Bermuda Race, we’re going to have five or six boats with over 50 sailors racing to Bermuda. Plus these races lend themselves perfectly to our onboard media reporter program. I’m really excited about this, and I really want to get people out there. Our sport needs to embrace this as it’s such a simple way to improve media attention and attract sponsorship.

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