Imagine an early spring Saturday; frost is everywhere as we drive down to meet up along the Buffalo Ship Canal at the historical industrial end of Buffalo. We’re wearing winter knit caps and foul-weather jackets, gloves, and holding bundles of life vests.
In the morning fog, mental images of old shanty town workers from a hundred years ago dance in my head, their black boot prints tarred with waste oil, with the smell in the air of oats and wheat and whatever filled those concrete beasts along these remnants of old tracks, and I imagine the early morning sight of great heaps of fish refuse, tangles of nets, and noise of machines, trucks, ships and workers assembled and assembling to ruggedly run their hard day.
Then I sip my Tim Horton’s, see the marinas that have popped up in and among the remnants of industry, and I see there’s eight of us gathered early in this Buffalo morning’s aura of a crisp mist. We see two of our Pearson 26’s are waiting in slips next to each other. Those are ours today. Seven Seas has plenty more in other slips for others daring these early spring winds and chill. There is a light starting breeze this morning, known to pick up soon and it’s been forecast as well. The boats rest in their slips like humbly waiting dogs anticipating a run and some fun.
Let me introduce ourselves and who are we. We are the staff and students of Seven Seas Sailing School of Buffalo, one of North America’s oldest, largest, and best sailing schools founded (in all places Buffalo) 44 years ago by a First Ward born Irish-Portuguese school teacher named Bob—Captain Bob. Legend has it his first student answered an ad, met him at a marina, and helped him launch a boat from a trailer, and the school grew from there. Students loved Captain Bob– he knew everything, and he aptly told you so; he was the best teacher anyone ever had, having a remarkably large ego that shared its very confidence with his students.
There’s a special spirit to our school. One signs on as a student at Seven Seas and immediately receives a paint brush to help finish out a boat restoration; our patron saints are Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. We are, and you will soon be, members of our elite sailing collective, members of the best that boasts from Buffalo. Without dogma or titles, Seven Seas forms teams of quick friends and learners that are led by the best. We share and split chores, for many hands make light work. We listen, learn, follow, and teach and lead and share all over again, again and again, every day of the season, mingling learning with sharing and teaching with leading. This is how it has always been at Seven Seas Sailing School of Buffalo.
At Seven Seas, there’s a prime focus attention to safety and education first, with a flow of levity that joins volunteerism and community in their love of sailing. The school has two bases in Buffalo, a placid campus with its clubhouse and gardens at RCR Marina for lessons, groups, functions and rentals, and another site at NFTA Boat Harbor, with several rental and charter slips plus a mariner’s grocery chandelier shop. In addition, Seven Seas sponsors charters to the BVI’s (conducting over 50 to date), Hawaii (annual winter voyages) and Florida (each Easter spring and often Thanksgiving). In addition Seven Seas founded a sister school, the first sailing school in India, which celebrates its sixth year and thriving. Seven Seas offers dozens of courses in various sized groups — everything from a two-hour learn-cruise to Basic Keelboat (taught according to US Sailing certification) to a six-week Advanced Course for sailors interested in large boat chartering.
The best violinist will tell you the difference between playing violin and practicing violin is indiscernible, and the same goes for every life long sailor. To sail is to practice sailing, and every teacher will tell you the best teacher is the boat and the combination of wind and waves. And crew. We pick up a mooring by picking up a mooring that day, and every day is decidedly different when under sail. Each sail venue is a lesson in preparedness for the next. We learn to be prepared, assure safety, initiate inquiry, with patience, and go with the flow, the wind and the seas, to earn our rights to destiny: arrival at our point of destination, safely, and happily. The instructor protects the crew and helps to translate for the real teacher, our boat.
Seven Seas offers private lessons for those who request, at no extra charge, but it is fun to learn with other people. The idea of other people has no better or welcoming home that at Seven Seas. On one’s first morning, a newcomer first finds a rat’s nest of ropes, parts and terms without any meaning. But like Professor Kingsley says to students in the movie Paper Chase, “You come here with your minds like mush, and leave here thinking as lawyers.” Substitute lawyers for sailors, that is.
By Stage Two of Lessons, after a few hours of sailing classroom, dockside class, and knots practicing, the novice is out sailing, taking the helm, and turns into the wind, finds themselves tacking by changing angles to the wind, and finds themselves extolling to their crew: “Helms-a-lee” at the precise moment. Our boat comes about, 90 degrees from its prior course. We tacked. We are sailing. Day by day, as we take lessons, we learn to pull the sails together in minutes, jib bent on, sheets bowlined and figure-eighted, reefing lines and outhaul rigged, rudder hung. We sail, and we share, the glory of sail and comradery. Once we were strangers, and now we’re fellow crew.
Man overboard lesson arrives. It’s the most non-joking element of sailing but in instruction usually carries the most jokes. You heave an object overboard, usually a fender, and then you retrieve it. We’re usually out on the Outer Harbor for this task, and since our boats aren’t marked “school” we sometimes get a nearby boat lending unneeded assistance. Boaters are notoriously helpful, especially when you run out of gas and wind and need a tow, Friendliness is infectious, and all boaters are thankful for that.
It’s pretty much always nice to sail the Outer Harbor. Thousands of ships came through here over time to unload grains for America’s bread basket. Often called the Irish Riviera, it boasts an engineering feat of over three miles of break wall with its bookends between the Old Stone Buffalo Lighthouse and the southernmost South Buffalo Lighthouse, which Seven Seas is the caretaking partner in giving tours and access to.
Each Wednesday throughout the summer the Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club sends over 100 boats 30 feet and longer out to race on Lake Erie. One of the top sized fleets in North America, some say its because of our short season, but most know its because we unify in Buffalo, where we’re all cousins of a sort, happily crewing on one big couch.
Buffalo’s Outer Harbor sends up and then down some of the best sunsets…well, in the world. From Buffalo, we look west toward Canada. It’s odd to look toward Canada and realize we’re staring in the direction of Denver. But that is just one more element of our unique lot that offers of a lot of things unique.
Over the decades, the work has largely gone out of Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. Few commercial fishing boats remain along our Lake Erie shores, and fewer cargo ships visit our ports, save for the occasional sand and coal ships. But the harbor is increasingly popular for visiting yachts, which can anchor and watch free concerts looming up along the waterfront evermore frequently.
We’re careful when we go out, and where we go out. Lake Erie is lovely, most of the time, but she can belly up and out, like an out of shape maid running soup up the stairs. You must respect her. She has a legacy worth noting among the greatest bodies of water on Earth. And she’s ours, in this generation, to love and protect, respect and enjoy.
When the day is done, sails put away, our comradery unfolds to a barbeque and sharing of tales. Then it folds back unto night, for sleep’s sake to go under sail again tomorrow, and all the ‘morrows of life.
Like Brigadoon, Seven Seas Sailing School of Buffalo pops up each new season in the morning mist come Spring, and lasts to sail and dance upon the waters till the chill of dusk in autumn, to rest till yet another season. Our winter’s hibernation will soon lift, and luft once again upon the waters of our great lake.