Baltimore Guide, May 2001

Sublime sailing

Downtown Sailing Center growing fast and taking some new tacks

by Steve Purchase

The Downtown Sailing Center on Key Highway is growing by "leaps and bounds" and is headed in some new directions to serve the widest variety of sailors in the community.

In the center’s new offices in the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s newest building (the old Hercules Shipping Co. building at 1425 Key Highway), director Kirk Culbertson and assistant director Scott Livingston talked about the sailing center as it begins its fourth season at the museum.

Many exciting activities are on the center’s agenda – including an open house on Sunday, June 3, from noon to 4 p.m. Anyone with an interest in sailing around the harbor this summer should attend this event. (Last weekend, 45 people showed up for an open house in the driving rain.)

But let’s skip ahead in this story and take a moment to actually go sailing in the harbor, which is the center’s reason for being. Let’s take a ride with Kirk Culbertson in one of the sailing center’s newest boats, the Australian Access dinghy, which is designed to accommodate disabled sailors, even quadriplegics.

The little boat is 10 feet long and has an orange and white hull. Two nylon seats and a "joystick" control lever are the main components in the tiny cockpit. Orange nylon sails flap overhead on a warm day with vivid blue skies and fluffy white clouds.

We leave Dock B, on the left side of the waterfront as you look out on the harbor from the museum, and head toward the nearby Domino Sugar building.

"Just push the stick in the direction you want to go," Culbertson says to the sailing challenged reporter. He adjusts the sails and the little 120-pound boat responds immediately. This was not a particularly windy morning, but there was enough of a breeze to glide along quite nicely.

The joystick is a simple control that you push left or right to steer the boat. "A quadriplegic could operate it with a chin cup," Culbertson says. "It makes sailing accessible to everyone."

We take a quick trip around the Domino Sugar building and head toward Canton and notice that the Chase’s Wharf building is still under construction. A few minutes later we head back toward the museum on a zig-zag course (called a tack); it has been a quiet, almost sublime little sailing trip.

"The best part of this boat is that it is virtually uncapsizable," Culbertson, 46, says. The centerboard, which weighs about 100 pounds, has a sizable amount of lead in its bottom end; that makes the Australian 10’s (as they are called) extremely stable and almost impossible to tip over.

Culbertson explains that the Access dinghy is made only in Australia and is sold at cost for about $3,500. It was designed especially for disabled sailors.

"But this makes a wonderful boat for anyone to learn on," he says as we dock back at the museum’s waterfront.

The sailing center has four Australian 10’s right now, but plans to increase the number to 12 soon.

The Downtown Sailing Center was created in 1990 as a sailing club operating out of the Harborview marina. Three years later, 10 of the original members formed the current non-profit corporation. In 1998 the center moved its boats to the Museum of Industry and used a small trailer as an office.

"We want to have 500 to 550 members by the end of the year," Scott Livingston, 34, says. "We are growing by leaps and bounds." There are about 450 current members from all over the mid-Atlantic region.

One of them, Hugh Elliot, regularly drives from his home in Alexandria, Va., to use the center’s facilities and help design an adaptive sailing program for the disabled. On Tuesday morning, he rolled into the sailing center in a wheelchair (he had both of his legs amputated after an accident) and talked about his plans to put a team together to compete in the Paralympics in Athens in 2004.

"Hugh is a role model for the disabled," Culbertson says.

"We were looking for a place to train and the Downtown Sailing Center was interested in an adaptive sailing program," Elliot says. "It was an absolutely marvelous fit. You know, sailing is one of the few sports in which disabled people can compete – and even win," he said.

"We’d like to form a core group of racers," Culbertson says. "They race every Thursday night. Last week, Hugh and his crew won a third and fourth place in a race with 14 other boats. They are that good."

Culbertson said the center is trying to find wheelchair users who might be interested in learning how to sail. "We have contacted Kennedy Krieger and the Kernan Hospital [which has an amputation rehab program]," he said. "Baltimore has many hospitals, veterans’ groups and rehab facilities. This is the new wave . . . there is no other program like ours.

"We want to start a program for the blind, too," Culbertson said, adding that the National Federation for the Blind headquarters near Riverside Park would make a good partner. Blind sailors would be paired with sighted sailors and would navigate a course by heading toward buoys with different sound devices (whistle, horn, siren).

Another new program at the center is focused on spreading the joy of sailing to students and teachers at South Baltimore schools.

"We had 20 kids from Southern High School and principal Pat Blansfield at the center last week," Culbertson said. "She grew up sailing on skipjacks . . . she loved [the visit to the center] and so did the kids."

Culbertson said he hoped to expand the after-school sailing program next fall to include the Francis Scott Key Technology Magnet School in Locust Point and Federal Hill and Thomas Johnson elementary schools.

The Downtown Sailing Center has held an annual SuperKids Camp each summer since 1997. More than 1,000 inner city students participate each year in the program organized by the Parks & People Foundation.

"Working with kids is one of the things we like to do best," Culbertson says. "Our happiest times are when we are actually teaching people how to sail."

He noted that over the past year the center added five or six new boats, including a Sonar for adaptive racing and a J-30 with a red and white hull that was donated by an Annapolis woman. The center owns more than 40 boats, including a small fleet of J-22’s, Impulse 21’s and 27-foot Du Fours.

"But one of the biggest changes was hiring Scott as assistant director," he said. "He has made a tremendous difference."

Livingston, a Wilmington (Del.) native, said he is a "jack of all trades" at the center. He’s the adult education coordinator, the man behind the computer in the office and the builder of new docks. "We saved $4,000 by using e-mail and the Internet to communicate with our members," he said.

Livingston, a mechanical engineer by trade, said he has been in Baltimore for about five years and has been a full-time employee at the center since January.

"I moved to Baltimore from San Diego to work at Black & Decker," he said, "but I got more and more interested in [the sailing center].

"It has been a really good niche for me because I am working on an MBA at the University of Maryland’s University College and I can sail at the same time so that’s great."

Livingston lives a block away in an apartment on East Fort Avenue. "It is extremely convenient," he says.

"We hang out at Little Havana, which has been very helpful to us. They let us use storage space behind the restaurant to store our boats last winter."

Livingston said one of the best aspects of the new office is its window that overlooks the harbor. "We can keep an eye on what’s going on out there.

"Safety is always our chief concern, then learning, and then having fun. If there are high winds or lightning, we tell members to just park the boats as quickly as possible.

"[The Baltimore Museum of Industry] is a great spot for us with its pavilion, parking, and the museum itself. Our members love the museum," he said.

Culbertson adds: "We have a great mix of people, from their 20s to their 70s. They don’t separate into groups . . . they get along great."

A great deal of information about the Downtown Sailing Center is available at www.downtownsailing.org or you can call 410-727-2884.

The Downtown Sailing Center is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit community sailing center.
Located at The Baltimore Museum of Industry
Photography donated by Andy Herbick Photography, and others.