Can a sailing school in Berkeley change the world? Anthony Sandberg, 56, the Founder and President of Olympic Circle Sailing Club, believes that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”
It’s a dream he shares with everyone who walks through the school’s doors where the company motto is “sail cleanly, leaving only your wake.”
Sandberg founded the OCSC in 1979 as a one-man sailing school. He worked from a small office in the Alameda estuary using a borrowed boat and a telephone. For the first six months, he spent nights sleeping in his Dodge van. Gradually, the business grew through word-of-mouth.
In 1981, Sandberg moved the school to the Berkeley Marina, on city-owned land that was once part of the municipal dump but which sits directly across from the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, his 10,000-square-foot-facility is the largest single-location educational sailing institution in the country.
Sandberg’s love of sailing goes back to his early childhood in the Hawaiian Islands where he grew up sailing all types of boats. The “Aloha Spirit,” an actual statute under Hawaiian law, instilled in him the importance of sharing resources and belonging to a community. He further honed his skills sailing with his family on Lake Tahoe, and at the age of 16 he was hired to sail an 80-foot brigantine sailboat around the Pacific Ocean.
After attending Dartmouth College, Sandberg participated in regattas around the world and skippered yachts for wealthy European boat owners. As a counterbalance, he served in the Peace Corps in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world.
“My experience in Nepal convinced me that you don’t need to be rich to be happy,” said Sandberg.
At the age of 30, Sandberg founded OCSC in order to share his life’s passion with others. More important, he said, “I wanted to make sailing available and affordable. Anyone with the desire to learn should be able to participate.”
OCSC members pay modest fees for access to a variety of classes and activities. They learn to sail with the most qualified professionals in the industry, acquiring both the confidence and the competence to navigate the challenging San Francisco Bay where winds of 25-30 knots and currents of 6-7 knots are common.
“We’re the most rigorous school in the country because we have to be,” explained Sandberg.
Of equal importance are the social aspects of the club.
“It’s all about community,” emphasized Sandberg. “Sailing is about teamwork and trust, both of which are important elements of the OCSC culture.”
Sandberg augments students’ time on the water with seminars, lectures, movies, organized outings, social barbecues and parties. The feelings of camaraderie and commitment extend beyond OCSC’s walls. The company is an ongoing sponsor of local youth sailing programs. Members regularly pitch in to clean the shorelines of Berkeley and beyond.
“I want OCSC to be a model for the marine industry,” said Sandberg, who teaches students the importance of using on-board holding tanks for waste and how to anchor without damaging fragile reefs. “It’s not enough to say we do no harm—we also need to ask, ‘What good can we do?’”
Sandberg formalized his commitment to the environment when he enrolled OCSC in 1 Percent for the Planet, a non-profit started by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard. As a member of the alliance, OCSC donates 1 percent of net annual sales to groups that preserve and restore the natural environment, including Seacology, the Rainforest Action Network and The Bay Institute, which monitors and protects the waters of the San Francisco Bay.
OCSC also donates five percent of vacation charter fees to local nonprofits in the countries it visits. “We must respect foreign cultures and their environments,” explained Sandberg. For instance, a flotilla charter to Belize raised $6,250 for TIDE, an environmental group that protects the sensitive reefs, wetlands and watershed in southern Belize. The money was used to repair hurricane damage to a ranger station in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve that guards against manatee poachers.
Last July, 75 OCSC members sailing in Tonga donated $13,000 to preserve coral reefs near Vava’u Island. The money will pay for the construction, installation and maintenance of mooring balls that will be placed near fragile reefs. The mooring balls will offer a preferable alternative to anchoring and protect the reefs from the damage caused by anchors and chains that are now dropped annually by visiting sailors and divers.
For Sandberg, “being green” simply makes good business sense. OCSC has grown to become the nation’s second largest sailing school in terms of revenues, a salient statistic considering that the number of sailors worldwide has dropped from eight million to three million since OCSC opened its doors 26 years ago. Reasons for the decline in sailing include the perceived expense and exclusivity of the sport, as well as people’s lack of time.
But where others see problems, Sandberg sees opportunities. He is determined to put a new face on the sport of sailing by creating a welcoming community for anyone who wants to learn.
“Every phenomenon has a counter-phenomenon,” mused Sandberg. “In the same way that the Slow Food Movement was born in response to fast food, I hope to remind people of the pleasure and relaxation that sailing offers in a frenzied world.”
With 1,000 members in the club, Sandberg’s strategy seems to be working.
Moreover, the company employs 65 people who share his passion and enthusiasm. The San Francisco Business Times ranked OCSC as one of 100 best Bay Area companies to work for in 2004 based on employee satisfaction surveys.
Despite his success, Sandberg continues to seek personal and professional growth. Guided by the true “Aloha Spirit,” he tries to put himself in other people’s places and understand their perspectives. Every year, for example, he takes up two new activities.
“I want to remind myself of what new sailors experience and what it is like to be outside of their comfort zones,” explained Sandberg. “This year, I’ve taken up open water swimming and acting. The latter is, by far, the most terrifying thing I’ve done!”