Spotlight: HRCS’ Robert Burke on Teaching City Kids to Sail the Hudson River

Posted On Fri, July 15, 2016 By

Posted On Fri, July 15, 2016 By In Features, Interviews, New Yorker Spotlight, People

Sailing is an expensive sport and often requires a formal introduction at a young age. For many young New Yorkers, particularly those in underserved communities, the chances of getting this exposure are very limited, which is where Hudson River Community Sailing (HRCS) steps in.

The eight-year-old organization’s Sail Academy in Chelsea teaches sailing to 150 students from nine public high schools in the neighborhood. The students enroll in a four-year program during which they earn math and science credit as they learn how to sail, study the marine environment, and build boats. In addition to its work with high school students, HRCS offers Community Sailing, where New Yorkers of all ages can come out and learn to sail.

6sqft recently spoke with HRCS’s Executive Director Robert Burke to find out more about this unique program and what students are learning on the Hudson, and more importantly, beyond it.

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Growing up, did you sail?

No, sailing wasn’t something I had access to. I first started getting involved with sailing as an adult working in youth development for Outward Bound. I was already familiar with the water; I had been kayaking and understood the marine environment. Sailing is a pretty technical sport, so I really enjoyed the learning curve.

How did you start teaching?

Many people start by teaching on a dinghy when they’re young and in high school. Mine was very much about expedition—based travel using sailboats, so I think it’s a little atypical. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I think the big joy of it is opening up these new possibilities for young people who say, “Oh I didn’t think I could do this, but wow this could be part of my world.”

What’s it like to sail on the Hudson?

New Yorkers forget that we live on the ocean. The Hudson is a finger of the ocean. It’s a beautiful, wonderful tidal estuary, and its ecology is quite fascinating so it’s a great opportunity. But strictly speaking for sailing, having a strong current is not perfect. The Hudson River is very tidal. You have to plan every sail with the tide, which makes it a challenging place to sail and race. You have to use an additional skill set around strong tides. The winds get affected by Manhattan and the buildings, so that’s an issue. The wind in the harbor is pretty good though.

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What makes sailing a great vessel for teaching adolescents important skills and lessons?

You learn general principles that you can apply in a lot of different ways. [For example,] the idea of learning how the wind works is a general principal, but then every time you get on a new boat or a different wind situation, you have to take that principal and apply it to real, practical use. Our boats are keelboats—J/24s. They are very common racing sailboats that require multiple people to make it happen. It’s managed by professionals, but it’s still a very real environment with a lot of traffic and commercial traffic, and that real responsibility is a good tool for teaching young people.

Who designed the Sail Academy’s curriculum?

It’s a mix of DOE input and our own staff and their experience teaching sailing and in the youth development world. The curriculum is tweaked all the time. The ocean literacy is brand new. We’ve been doing STEM-based education since we started, but every year we try to make it a little better.

At the moment, our youth sail academy program in Chelsea has sort of breached its capacity, so we’re not looking to add more schools or students in Chelsea. We’re just looking to make that program better. Our goal is to add a similar youth development program to our uptown location (Inwood) in the next year or two.

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HRCS is designed to make an impact on New York City youth, but what do you learn from your sailing students?

I think the great thing about our program is how much interaction there is between the kids and adults. Our club members become volunteers and tutors. A very popular part of our program is the internship where the kids actually work with us to run the sailing school. I think it’s really important that that’s how we run things.

I’m constantly impressed by our students. They go to school in Manhattan, come from all boroughs, all walks of life, all socioeconomic backgrounds, and they have a perspective and opinions about the world that are really important for older people to hear and understand.

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At the end of the day, what does working at HRCS mean to you?

So many people say, “I grew up sailing. My dad and my uncle taught me sailing.” They love it and it’s part of who they are and it’s really powerful, but if you don’t have that access, maybe as an adult you’ll take some sailing lessons if you’re fortunate. I think we’re building an institution that in its little part and its little way of the world is changing that paradigm, and that’s what I keep my eye on.

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Hudson River Community Sailing

Hudson River Community Sailing offers sailing lessons throughout the summer and fall. To learn more about signing up for a lesson, click here. HRCS still has spots available in its City Sail Summer Camp at the Inwood location.

[This interview has been edited for clarity]

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All photos courtesy of Hudson River Community Sailing

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