Not one to let moss grow underfoot, renowned yachtswoman Dawn Riley has swapped a successful career as a pro sailor and set her sights on creating the Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay, NY, a (relatively) new training center for those seeking a career in the business of sailing, whether it be sailboat racing or running the sail loft at North Sails.
Now in her fourth year at Oakcliff’s helm, Riley will celebrate a major milestone for the Center on August 22, with a “grand opening” which will formalize a partnership announced earlier this year with US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider naming Oakcliff as an official training center of the team. Coinciding with the grand opening, the Center will host for the first time the 49er, 49erFX and Nacra 17 National Championship. Not bad for a concept that turned a building and bunch of boats into a world-class training center.
SailBlast catches up with Riley as she catches a breath between a hectic schedule.
SB: Can you give me an idea of what’s been happening at Oakcliff over the summer, what’s been keeping you busy?
DR: We just had a grade 5 event where you would usually have three to five teams - we had ten - it was probably one of the largest grade 5’s ever. We have a woman who has flown over from Turkey to train with us, we have a youth clinic regatta next week with Andrew Campbell - two days of coaching and two days of racing. That is over subscribed. We have the youngest team ever to participate in the Farr 40 Worlds training here, and a grade 2 finale of a grand slam series. We also just had two America’s Cup Youth Sailing teams out here training - the American Youth Sailing Force and Full Metal Jacket Racing (NZ).
DR: Yes, starting August 24. This will be the first Nacra 17 and 49erFX Nationals and the first all three classes have been combined. Through the generous support of Oakcliff founders Hunt and Betsy Lawrence, Oakcliff we have been able to acquire 24 Olympic class boats – eight each of the Nacra 17, 49er and 49er FX skiffs – that the US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider will have full access to for Team level training and youth development throughout the year.
This year we’re only having one formal training camp associated with the event for Nationals but next year we expect the training camps will be more prolific. This year, we're expecting up to 15 competing in each class. We’ll have all the top US sailors here, including Anna and Mollie, many Canadians, and a couple of foreign teams.
SB: Are there other centers like yours around the country?
DR: In this format we’re the first - and only - right now.
SB: How are you funded?
DR: The yachts were purchased by the main benefactor. Oakcliff is responsible for operating and maintaining the boats. We’re a not for profit foundation so what we do is fund-raise all the time. Every fund that comes in helps, whether it's a regatta fee, a tuition, a sponsorship of one of our IRC boats, a donation - anyone who sails here makes some kind of donation - it’s all adding up.
SB: You’re oversubscibed for events and busy? What's working at Oakcliff?
DR: Before we started Oakcliff in this form I did a full consulting job for the Lawrence family (the benefactors) to research what was out there. We identified, and are fulfilling, a need, which is that people don’t want to waste their time sailing around in circles not improving. Everything we do is coaching related. People’s time is valuable but they don’t want to waste it. We have great coaches here - Sally Barkow, Nicky Souter, Kimo Worthington are some of the people who just stop in to coach, then our clients walk away stunned at how much they learn.
SB: Your long-time connections must be valuable to the Center?
DR: Absolutely but I also think it's the good people in the industry like Kimo who understand and are keen to give back, they see how this is working and it’s not a hard sell.
SB: Why was the decision made to base operations at Oakcliff?
DR: Boats and some facilities were previously here. Our benefactor’s vision was to fill Oyster Bay with sails and make it more alive as a sailing town, kind of like Newport, RI. Oakcliff is quaint and less industrial, it’s close to NYC, about 30 minutes from JFK or La Guardia. The sailing is amazing for boats up to 40-feet. There’s three different race areas we can get to within 5-10 minutes. The bigger boats can go out to the Sound.
SB: Do you have a shorter sailing season back there due to the long winters?
DR: We start racing the first week of April and we finish racing the Saturday before Thanksgiving. It’s actually a pretty long sailing season and when we’re sailing, we’re sailing pretty much Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. I would argue because of the urgency of the winter we get more sailing in than most all-year-round sailing centers.
SB: What’s been your most significant achievement at Oakcliff since its inception?
DR: I was lucky enough to be here from the beginning to create the program. One of our goals was to train young people to run boats and be good citizens and leaders of the marine industry. We didn’t know quite how that was going to happen so this evolution to become an Olympic training center has been an exciting event.
SB: When will we see this hard work translate into bigger successes, like Olympic medals?
DR: Oakcliff has multiple goals, our main goal is to give people every tool that they need to reach those goals - Olympics, being a boat captain, racing in a world championship, running North Sails - those types of goals. It’s very dynamic and it forces people to be self starters. For the Olympics, our goal is certainly to have three people in the top 50 in each one of those classes and ideally, we want at least one medal in Rio, if not three. Oyster Bay is somewhat light wind, but it’s light wind and current, with hills - cliffs, so its very similar to what they’ll be sailing in Rio. It’s all strategic...
SB: Any regrets about not being involved in the America's Cup this time?
DR: No, I’m way too busy and we’re making such a huge change here. You can’t argue that the America’s Cup is a bit of a mess right now and hopefully we’re talking about it to our students, we’re talking about how to market, what’s ethical, personal integrity when you have power, we're talking about all the things that kind of went a little wrong in this America’s Cup. Hopefully we’re making as much of a difference at Oakcliff as I could have possibly out in San Francisco.
Photos: Cheryll Kerr - regattaphotos.net