By David J. Hill
You can be forgiven if the word sailing conjures images of the Royal Family sipping expensive champagne on a yacht. This maritime activity has long been considered a pastime of the wealthy. But at Sail Buffalo Sailing School, founder Pierre Wallinder and board vice president Suzanne Villacorta (BA ’87) are making sure that people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can experience the joy of an afternoon on the water.
Wallinder, a native of Sweden, launched Sail Buffalo in 2004. The school sits on the shores of Lake Erie, across from the recently revitalized Canalside area and adjacent to the U.S. Coast Guard station. In recent years, the organization has expanded its scope and mission to become a community boating center—and much more.
Villacorta, an avid sailor who grew up near Sturgeon Point, just south of Buffalo, has been instrumental in helping Wallinder realize his vision. “He’s a dreamer and so am I,” she says. “Our belief is, if you can think of it, let’s try to do it.” The two have done a lot of thinking since meeting a few years ago when Villacorta, who stored her sailboat nearby, walked over to see what Wallinder was doing with the property.
While Sail Buffalo offers American Sailing Association certification courses, the bulk of its programming is aimed at teaching children about sustainable living, the physics of sailing and whatever else seems fitting. In 2011, volunteers built and installed an eco-classroom that floats on a bed of 6,400 recycled pop bottles. Last year, with funding from the Niagara River Greenway Commission, Sail Buffalo built a houseboat that serves as an interpretative center.
Recently, another volunteer built a greenhouse on the property so that the school can further its sustainability efforts and incorporate nutrition into its programming. A former Coast Guard pavilion will soon become a science center where kids can do experiments and examine different species of aquatic life in freshwater aquariums.
“It’s like, how did this all happen?—and here it is. It’s almost a miracle that everything fell into place,” says Villacorta, whose day job is with Tetra Tech, a global environmental consulting firm.
Future plans call for Scandinavian-style fishing huts that focus on themes like art and entrepreneurship, and a fitness dome to be used for yoga, Pilates and performances. Soon, Sail Buffalo will start an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the Buffalo Aqua Bus, a ferry that will make it easier to get to Sail Buffalo from Canalside.
“Access for all. That’s what it’s about,” Villacorta says. “It’s about giving these kids hope and opportunity.”