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BY ZACH WILLIAMS | My first day onboard a sailboat and I was already deemed fit to assume the helm as we passed Ellis Island cruising at top speed.
The undulating waters of the Hudson River were just as big from my perspective as the assembly of steel, glass and brick of Lower Manhattan. This maiden voyage though involved something bigger than either.
The New York archipelago reveals itself within its dividing lines. Liberty Island grows more dominating upon approach, Governors Island retains the quaintness of a bygone coastal defense while the most developed of them all, Manhattan, naturally attracted my gaze as I aimed the Toreador Red J-24 sailboat named Surprise towards the home port of the largest congregation of sailing enthusiasts in the United States.
Such a craft was one-third of a small flotilla destined for Battery Park City’s North Cove Marina where the Manhattan Sailing School is assembling a 28-boat fleet and the mothership of the 900-member associated sailing club lies at anchor. All are deployed for a mission to make sailing on the Hudson an endeavor of local residents not confined to the history books.
Students will study basic sailing, cruising and racing once the season begins on April 26 while those with more experience will sail the boats which bring new people to Lower Manhattan not only for the pleasures of going with the flow but also the opportunities of America itself.
“Sailing brought me from Ireland,” said Siofra Neary, school director and boat-mate of this reporter.
Negotiating the waters of New York Harbor introduced her to a new home city though the Dublin native first learned how to sail nearly two decades ago from her grandfather.
“It’s like nowhere I’ve sailed before. The view is fantastic,” she said. “You get a unique perspective of the city both physically and emotionally.”
As we cruised ever closer to the marina tucked before the shadows of the World Trade Center, another club member Angelo Valitutti turned the Winged Racer portside. From 50 yards away, it seemed easy to remain standing as a passing ferry swept across the water at a deceptively serene speed inspiring waves which knocked me off balance soon after.
Sailing has taken Valitutti away from his native Salerno, Italy as well as the men’s clothing business. Two decades ago, he bought his first vessel after seeing the America’s Cup on television. By 1998 he was instructing others on the lessons learned after an admittedly choppy autodidactic experience.
“I never had any sailing course, it’s all me,” he said.
By 2010 his longtime business dried up as companies shifted production to China, he said. He and his American wife decided to move to New York City. Six days after arriving, Valitutti secured a position as a sailing instructor known among peers for an instinctive sense of how to fix the small mechanical breakdowns often occurring during any one voyage.
It took Battery Park City resident Bob Woodring two seasons at the school to rise from zero experience to skipper. He subsequently left his previous work to devote his life to teaching others the ways of the liberating sport.
“You experience a waterfront which most people don’t know about … if you do something you love doing, it’s not work,” he said onboard the Honorable William Wall, a houseboat which serves as both an office space and social venue for club members.
The sailing life extends beyond the water, he said. The social atmosphere of the club — which allows members to forgo purchasing their own vessels and associated financial costs — brings together people in more ways than one, he added.
“You walk in. Everybody knows your name,” Woodring said. “It’s just like ‘Cheers.’ ”
As he engaged Neary in conversation on an upcoming black tie social, the sweetness of the club’s signature drink — rum and tonic water — sunk into the reporter just as the activities of daily life and adventures across the world alike assumed growing prominence in the conversations spread among the approximately two-dozen 21st-century sailors.
Commodore Michael Fortenbaugh, who first founded the club in 1988, said events such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 economic crisis, temporarily reversed years of growth for the expanding club, he added.
However the marina’s location and the resources of the club enable a certain level of resilience to such setbacks as well as convenience to people in Lower Manhattan wishing to fit a few hours on the water into their busy daily lives, according to Fortenbaugh.
“We do things differently in the city,” he said.
He stated further confidence in the prospects of the upcoming season as temperatures continue to warm.
“After a long, cold winter like this,” he said, “I think everybody is dying to get out on the harbor.”