Breakwater Yacht Club Offers Sailing To The Masses For Three Decades

Wednesday night races at the Breakwater Yacht Club. MICHAEL MELLA

For decades, sailing has had a reputation as being a sport for the wealthy, a pursuit that is often inaccessible and prohibitively expensive for the average person, even those who may live in communities where the water is only a stone’s throw away. The insular nature of many yacht clubs tends to reinforce this narrative.

The Breakwater Yacht Club in Sag Harbor had broken that mold.

For more than 30 years, the club — which nearly all the members take pains to remind people is more appropriately described as a community sailing center — has operated under the premise that while owning a boat might be costly, sailing doesn’t need to be, and everyone should have a chance to get out on the water if they want to.

Breakwater — which is a 501(c)(3) organization — was officially founded in 1988, after a group of sailors from the area started racing together and needed to become a more official and organized body in order to host a fundraising regatta. The club has remained true to — and even expanded on — its main organizing principle at that time, to make sailing accessible to the wider Sag Harbor community regardless of age, income or experience.

The membership has always been deeply committed, in particular, to introducing the sport to children and fostering a love for sailing in the youth of a village defined by its relationship to the surrounding waters. The community sailing instruction programs that began in 1989 have only grown over the years. Breakwater’s summer sailing program typically attracts anywhere from 500 to 600 children each season; last year, with parents increasingly looking for safe outdoor activities for their children in the midst of the pandemic, the club put double that number of children in sailboats off the docks of its waterfront headquarters on Bay Street.

Breakwater has always offered 100 scholarships every year for its summer program, distributing them to school districts in the surrounding area and letting school officials decide who to give them to. This summer, Breakwater is offering a free week of sailing to every fourth grader in the Sag Harbor School District, and will then disperse any remaining scholarships to students at other schools. So far, more than 40 Sag Harbor Elementary School students have signed up.

Making that kind of commitment to foster a love of sailing in the children of the community is a mutually beneficial enterprise. Sailing Director Sean Elliott said that many of the children who have gone through both the summer program and the interscholastic competitive high school team programs it offers in the fall and spring have gone on to become counselors and instructors. Several, said Mr. Elliot, have even continued their sailing careers for college teams. As adults, they sometimes return to the club and compete in Wednesday night racing, Sunday races, and other regattas held by the club.

Kyle McArdle, a Sag Harbor resident, is an example of what that kind of homegrown effort can yield. He went to camp as a child, became an instructor, and now serves on Breakwater’s 16-member board of directors.

“He’s a kid who got interested in sailing and stayed with it,” Mr. Elliott said.

In addition to actively fostering relationships with area school districts, Breakwater has also reached out to other charitable organizations in the area and communities that may not typically have much access to sailing. For the past 20 years, Charlene Kagel has hosted the Adventure Sail program at the club, with the goal of introducing young, disadvantaged girls to sailing, and the club has worked with other organizations such as Hamptons Community Outreach, OLA, and Sag Harbor Partnership to expand scholarship opportunities.

To fund its charitable endeavors, the club does plenty of fundraisers, and each year it hosts the Sag Harbor Cup, which pre-dates the formation of the club, and is the primary fundraiser for the youth sailing program. This year’s regatta will be the 39th iteration, and is set for June 12.

While there has always been a heavy focus on youth sailing at Breakwater, there is plenty of energy put into teaching adults and bringing new members into the fold at any age. Unlike private yacht clubs, membership at Breakwater is affordable — annual dues are $150, with a one-time $250 initiation fee — and even for adults who don’t own a boat or are light on sailing experience, there are plenty of ways to get involved. More experienced sailors and boat owners are always looking for extra crew members for Wednesday night races, and even someone with barely any experience can serve as “rail meat” on board the larger boats.

Racing is a big part of the tradition and experience at Breakwater. The Wednesday night races have been well attended for decades, and the club’s rapidly growing J70 fleet (now at more than 10 boats, each capable of holding three or four people) will be exciting to watch on Wednesday nights. The club also hosts Sunday afternoon races with JY15s (two-handed boats) at Haven’s Beach, and Sunday morning races in the “Sunnies” class with Sunfish boats. That fleet races 52 weeks out of the year.

The club recently acquired more dock space and also acquired several donated J24 boats, which will aid in teaching adults to sail, because they allow for three or four people to be on the boat at once, meaning more experienced sailors can go out with newcomers until they feel comfortable manning the boat on their own. Members who aren’t interested in racing can charter boats from the Breakwater fleet as long as they can demonstrate to Mr. Elliott that they have the required skills to safely take the boat out on the water. Lessons are available for members of all ages and experience levels.

This year, from Memorial Day through July 4, new members can choose from one of two options: an extra free boat rental or three adult small group sailing lessons.

“It’s just an extra incentive for people who have been curious about Breakwater to get on the boat and join the fun,” board member and Breakwater marketing coordinator Nick Gazzolo said. “We know a lot more people out here who may have been meaning to get involved or don’t even know about us. This is the year to get out on the water.”