The Boating Center is a 501(c)3?
Yes. Charitable non-profit. Our mission is to make boating accessible.
We are primarily a school—an educational institution. We make boating accessible through classes in cold water safety and the skills necessary for small boat recreation. We focus on human powered and wind-driven boats. There are certainly small boats that burn fossil fuels, but we concentrate teaching people to row, kayak, sail, and paddleboard.
“Small boat” means no more than twenty six feet long. That is not an arbitrary size, at least of our choosing. The Coast Guard and the State have different regulations for boats that are over twenty six feet long. That’s good for us. It saves us having to make a decision about where to draw the line because it’s been done for us.
Is handling a small boat dramatically different a larger boat? Or are the skills transferable?
The skills are definitely transferable, but the experience is different. Some really big boats are single-handed, but generally the bigger the boat, the bigger the crew.
So kids? Adults? Both?
As the organization has evolved over the last decade, we have increased our attention on young people. We have youth camps in the summer—week long day camps—and we started an after school program last year.
What advice would you give to an aspiring sailor?
Start with some reading; that way you’re not thrown off by the terminology. You can get some basic concepts in your mind ahead of time with some reading. And then take a class. Sailing is a very experiential sport, in some ways more than most. You need to tune in all of your senses because you can’t see the power. The wind is invisible. There are signs of it, but the wind itself (which is your motor) is invisible, so you have to train your senses to be aware of it. But you can bolster your success by laying down some theoretical knowledge, and then take a basic introductory class.
And it might not be right for you. Some people try it, and it’s not for them. Other people try it and it changes their life—they are sailors from then on out.
It’s the same with our other disciplines—kayaking and rowing.
Kayaking is the most popular, but people who row regularly are very passionate about it—especially the sliding seat rowers. You get that mechanical advantage, and it feels really great.
How did you get involved with the Boating Center?
I used to administer the outdoor recreation programs at Western, up in the Student Union. I was aware of the organization when it was founded, but I did not get involved until I was hired in 2012.
The fellow who proceeded me moved to the bay area when his wife got a job in a specialized education field down there. He is quite a competitive sailor, and of course San Francisco is a wonderful venue for that.
What kind of programs did you administer?
Experiential learning. Western has a strong commitment to student leadership through direct responsibility. For example: students run the radio station and book the entertainment. In my case, the students were the leaders of the outdoor programing, and my role was to provide oversight, legal protection, and fiduciary oversight. But by in large my role was to foster leadership development. And it was really gratifying work. I got to work with a number of young people who were really mature and fun-loving outdoorsmen and women.
That was a fun job. I did it for twenty years.
Is that what brought you to Bellingham?
Where are you from originally?
I am a Washingtonian. I grew up out on the coast. Montesano is my home town, it’s in the Grays Harbor area.
Olympia and Aberdeen were the big cities for us.
What do you love about Bellingham?
I’m predisposed to love the Pacific Northwest, and Bellingham encapsulates a lot of the things that I love about the northwest.
In particular, I love Bellingham because it’s an ideal size for me and my tastes. There is fabulous theater here—a bunch of very talented playwrights—there’s wonderful music, fabulous food. And there are intellectual connections. So it has all that cultural enrichment, and you can ride your bike anywhere 365 days a year. You can ride all the way across town in about eighteen minutes.
Do you ride everywhere?
Yes. Often. I love the one-way street system. I do drive a lot too though. And you can get anywhere in under twenty minutes. There isn’t a lot of traffic. You don’t have to wait in line. You can always find a place to park. And yet, I can go to the Mount Baker Theatre which seats 1,400 and standing in the lobby before the show I can be in a crowd of faces who are completely new to me. And yet other places, like the Co-Op or the breweries, and you can hardly get where you’re going because you run into so many people that you know. It’s wonderful that way.
I feel like I have a really rich community of friends and yet there’s a whole lot of other potential friends out there to meet.
And the proximity to Canada is wonderful. The southern part of BC is beautiful with the mountains. The maritime recreation in British Columbia is spectacular.
There are the things that everybody talks about—having a volcano in the backyard and the islands in the front yard. I am an outdoorsman, but for me the theater, music, and food are big for me too.
Now beyond the classes, you guys have privately-owned boats moored here?
Correct. We operate a marina. About a hundred and thirty of the boats here are privately-owned, and then another eighty or so are owned by the Boating Center.
Which get used in classes or are available to rent?
Yes. If they are not being used for classes, we rent our educational fleet. And that’s a revenue stream for us. It helps pay for our educational programs and boat maintenance.
Boats are expensive. Once you take the plunge into being a boat owner you should keep the zipper lubricated on your wallet because you’re going to be opening it a lot.
I’d heard that. Why is that the case? Do things break a lot?
Yes. Things break, and they are expensive to replace. The materials used—lots of stainless steel, specialized line, and sailcloth—those are costly. And the boats are all different, so there are proprietary components that are only available from one provider.
Do you have a preference—sailing, rowing, or kayaking?
I’ve done more kayaking in my life, and that will probably continue, but I like all of the disciplines.
What is the most common misperception about the Boating Center?
Many people think that we’re a club; that you have to become a member.
That’s mostly because boating recreation is often organized that way. There are three yacht clubs in Bellingham, and they’re all allies of ours and supporters of ours. But there’s often a level of exclusivity associated with it, which many people enjoy. People organize themselves in different times to meet their needs, and that’s fine with me. Yacht clubs are full of great, generous people.
But what makes the Boating Center unique is inclusivity. We have chosen to organize differently. Anybody can be a part.
So when people call and ask if they can join do you say, ‘Congratulations.’?
You’re in! Yeah.
You know, in spite of all the words in the English language We still occasionally fall back on words like “join us” that imply membership.
What excites you about the future of the Boating Center?
There are a number of things. We are trending very positively in our reputation as a provider of excellent educational programming.
We have agreed to terms with our landlord for a long term lease, much longer than we’ve ever had before. That’s huge for us in terms of communicating to our patrons that their investment will have long term returns in our community because the Boating Center is here to stay.
Lately we’ve gotten some grant money at levels that we haven’t had previously.
I’m excited about our new web camera. That was all grant funded.
So folks can check the conditions before they come down?
And we put it on a tower over at the water treatment plant because often the conditions out on the bay are quite different than near the Boating Center because we’re in the lee of this hillside here. That’s great for us. It means we almost always have calm water that we can ease students into while they learn, and then when they’re up for it, get people out and around the corner.
How would you describe the culture or the spirit of the Boating Center?
We are very volunteer driven. People come down and work a few hours a week doing all kinds of things from boat maintenance, to bookkeeping, to gardening, to representing us at community events. And some of our instructors volunteer. We do an annual volunteer dinner to celebrate that,. The spirit of volunteerism—which is a big part of Bellingham—has been part of the culture of the Boating Center since its inception.