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School sails into new york harbor

It started out as an ambitious idea to get more kids out on the water. But after five years of fund-raising regattas, Operation Optimist sail school in Manhattan became a reality this year.

The school teaches children ages 7 to 13 how to sail an Optimist dinghy. The simple 8-feet boats are considered among the safest boats for children under 15 to learn to use.

“Since we were using these boats for the program, the name ‘Operation Optimist’ just sort of stuck,” says Julie Smith, communications director for the program. “We always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to find an area in the inner city that kids could safely learn how to sail?’ ”

Michael Fortenbaugh, commodore of the Manhattan Sailing Club at North Cove Marina, says he was passionate about bringing sailing to the Big Apple. They found an area southwest of the Statue of Liberty where the water depth was about six feet and ideal for students to learn.

“New York Harbor is kind of tough since there is so much traffic, so we studied it intensely,” says Fortenbaugh. “We had the spot. Now all it really took was the money to make this dream come true.”

Fortenbaugh says they held a hedge fund regatta for the first time in 2004 and raised $100,000 in the next five years.

“We were able to secure enough funding to buy 10 Optimist dinghies,” says Fortenbaugh. “We also have two powerboats that we use for safety.”

The summer program is divided into nine week-long sessions that run from June 30 to Aug. 29. Students are taken to North Cove aboard a 40-foot former Navy launch that includes a head, cooler and communication equipment. The facility consists of two 10-by-40-foot floating docks equipped with tents and chairs for classroom instruction. The sailing area is separated from the shipping channels by a reef and no commercial traffic operates within the area. The shallow water provides slower currents, according to Smith.

“The program caught on quickly,” says Smith.

The Optimist is designed specifically with youngsters in mind. Each boat has three flotation bags that help make them self-righting. A typical day begins at 9 a.m. when students are motored over from North Cove marina to the dinghy docks past the Statue of Liberty. At 10 a.m., students are told what the day’s lessons and goals will be, and by 10:30 a.m. they’ve hit the water. The day wraps up at about 5 p.m. when students return to the marina. The student/instructor ratio is 4-to-1, allowing for more one-on-one time. In case of bad weather or high winds, instructors will engage students in non-sailing educational activities, such as visiting the Statue of Liberty or riding on a Coast Guard vessel.

With the success of the program, Smith says they will be bringing in 10 more Optis next year to expand their classes.

“Students can come for a one-week session or sign up for all the sessions,” says Smith. “It is rewarding to see the students that do come back week after week and see the confidence they gain.”

Fortenbaugh says he hopes they can raise enough money to build a junior sailing center that can float on the water and provide classroom space, boat storage and general facilities such as bathrooms and food service.

Tuition starts at $540 per week, but students who sign up for multiple weeks are eligible for discounts. Operation Optimist also offers full and partial scholarships on a need basis and offers a 100 percent money back guarantee. For information, visit

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.