Getting to the Heart of Community Sailing at the Breakwater Yacht Club

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Breakwater Yacht Club sailing director Sean Elliott at the club last week. Gavin Menu photo

From his waterfront office at the Breakwater Yacht Club, sailing director Sean Elliott sees the Sag Harbor sailing community pass by in all its glorious motion. Passing through the club, which is a true community sailing center, are sailors young and old, beginners as well as grizzled veterans. Membership at the club is incredibly reasonable — just $140 per year for adults and $30 for juniors under 30 — and it comes with all the benefits of one of the most vibrant sailing communities on the East End. Elliott, who has been at the club for eight years and was the sailing director at the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett for 10 years before that, took a moment to talk about the club, the upcoming Sag Harbor Cup Regatta and the hundreds of sailors who pass through his door every summer.

Sitting here on the waterfront in Sag Harbor, not a bad place to come to work every day. Can you tell me what the season ahead at Breakwater looks like?

We’ve already started cranking along. The season for the junior program, which we expect to have another five or six hundred kids come through this summer, is in full enrollment. It’s going really well compared to previous years. I’m really excited. It looks like it’s going to be a great season right through Labor Day. 

The Blue Peter will return to defend its title at The Sag Harbor Cup Regatta on June 15. Ed Gifford photo

The Sag Harbor Cup Regatta is Saturday, June 15. Is that the official kick-off to the summer season? What are you expecting to see this year?

That regatta is open to everybody. We’re expecting 30 boats from all over the East End. We have boats from Shelter Island, the Devon Yacht Club and from Southold all participating. There’s a great party afterward with a steel drum band and Peter Ambrose Catering. It’s open to the public. The major idea of that event is, every year for the junior program we give out a hundred scholarships to local schools. The schools decide what children are worthy of the scholarships and this event raises money to cover that cost.

It’s been a great event. Last year this big yacht, a 50-footer named The Blue Peter, came from the Caribbean and won the whole thing. It was a beautiful sight and they’re coming back again this year. 

Your summer camp and youth sailing lessons are a huge part of what you do as a community sailing center. What does a day on the water look like for the sailing students?

We have half-day and full-day options and, again, we will have five or six hundred people come through here. The younger ones will do a half day, Monday through Friday, nine to 12. Every day they are learning something else and they tie it all together out on the water with the instructors. I would say 75 percent of them come back for another week, and we progress them along. We don’t repeat anything they did before.

Then we have full-day options for older crew. We do a beginner program, an intermediate program and we’ve also incorporated a racing program so the kids are learning to race on the race course. A lot of them get competitive, and a lot of them get out there and race the bigger boats themselves in the Wednesday Night Race Series against adults. It’s a really good thing for them. 

On the flip side, you have a lot of incredibly experienced sailors as instructors and members of the club, many who participate in your Wednesday night race series. What do you think Breakwater means to that community?

I’ve been blessed here. We’ve created a CIT program (Counselors In Training), where we’re training our own counselors. So when a young person  is 13 or 14 and they show interest in working here, we put them into a CIT program where half the day they are working with the other instructors, being trained to be a certified instructor, and the other half day they get to enjoy either the intermediate or racing program. I love that concept because I’m not just looking at blank resumes. I have to hire about 25 instructors every year, so it’s nice to know what I’m getting. We mold them to exactly where they need to be.

One of my proud moments just happened two days ago. A former instructor named Maxine de Havenon — I’ve worked with her since the age of eight — she was a CIT, then an instructor for us and she went off to race at Brown University. She just recently won two awards from Brown. Her team won the college championship and she got sportswoman of the year in the NCAA for sailing. Learning to sail is like riding a bike, it’s always going to stick with you.  

Like any business on the East End, Breakwater is faced with a short summer season. How much do you have to pack into three months and what are the biggest challenges in terms of the business side?

The weather is a big thing. We book a lot of lessons and we have a lot of instructors who do these lessons, and last year we had to cancel some Saturdays, which hurts. Because people can only be here on a Saturday, not everyone can come to a lesson on a Wednesday, so it is very weather related. With the junior program, obviously we’re very careful with the weather. But it does affect us drastically and it takes the whole rest of the year to prepare for it. But once it gets going, it’s a machine. What’s great about the staff and instructors we have here is they’ve been here for years. That helps considerably, the fact that we’re retaining staff.

Aside from the Sag Harbor Cup, what are some other events or regattas you’re looking forward to this summer? 

On the junior level, we just joined what’s called the PGJSA, which is the Peconic Gardiners Junior Sailing Association. It’s the seven East End clubs. So we’re going to be sending kids to race at other clubs, which is really exciting for them. In regard to adults, there’s the ELIYA series, the Eastern Long Island Yachting Association, and a lot of them tour in that. But the Sag Harbor Cup is obviously our big baby, but we do Adventure Sail with i-tri, where we bring girls out sailing, we do our Wednesday night barbeques for members every month. And the [The Sag Harbor Express] boat show is fantastic.

Attendees relaxed after checking out the watercraft on display during the Spotlight on Boating and Fishing Party hosted by the Sag Harbor Express at the Breakwater Yacht Club in September of 2018. Michael Heller photo

Breakwater has been known to throw some really great post-event parties and I’ve seen you behind the line plenty of times, cooking and pouring drinks. I guess you’re a jack-of-all-trades around here, aren’t you? 

We work really hard to make that happen. Membership costs $140 for the whole year. We try to keep the place a friendly, family atmosphere, it’s as simple as that. And every year we probably get 10 new members added because they see that, and this might sound rude, but we’re not pretentious. Other private clubs there might be a waiting list and it costs you 10 or 20 thousand dollar to join. For 140 bucks you can join us here at our barbeques, hamburgers and hot dogs, sodas for the kids and have a cold beer.

We have about 250 members and it’s growing 10 to 15 percent every year. You don’t need to be a member for the junior program, you don’t need to be a member for private sailing, we’re open to everybody. We’re a community sailing center and we want to offer access to the water for everyone in the community in whatever ways that we can. Our boat use program is very popular. For a couple hundred dollars you come down and get certified by an instructor, we see if you have experience, then you just sign the boats out anytime you want. So you don’t have to maintain your own boat.

Seriously, I think you might have the best office view in all of Sag Harbor. Do you ever take it for granted?

I say it all the time to my board — I answer to 16 board members — and I tell them I’m blessed to be here. It’s a good place to work. It’s a nice, wonderful crowd I work for. I am very lucky to be here. 

For more information about the Breakwater Yacht Club visit breakwateryc.org. For tickets and information about the upcoming Sag Harbor Cup Regatta and after party, visit sagharborcup.org.

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