Walking the grounds toward the lighthouse on the northern tip of Fuhrmann Boulevard, there’s a plaque that commemorates the 1820 construction of the 900-foot pier underfoot, when villagers “using a pile driver fashioned from a War of 1812 mortar and powered by a blind horse” built a dam that would be washed away later by spring flooding. Then “scores of villagers turned out to work 12 straight hours before finishing repairs by torchlight.”
Checking in with Pierre Wallinder, a transplant from the sailing-rich western coast of Sweden, he immediately clicks into tour guide mode, a default setting for him as director of operations for Sail Buffalo, a company that strives to increase public access to Buffalo’s single greatest resource. “You’re walking on a small but significant piece of Buffalo history,” he says, eyeing the slip where Sail Buffalo’s floating classroom is docked. The slip once was home to the lighthouse boat, an additional beacon employed as a backup to the 1833 brick-and-mortar structure.
These are fascinating times for the historic Outer Harbor. The three-mile stretch of Fuhrmann from the Coast Guard Station to Tifft Street is illustrative of Buffalo’s revival; as private industry and transportation concerns have gone to seed, nature preserves, bike paths, marinas, a bike and pedestrian ferry, and now a state park have taken hold. A remarkable transition, the merits and direction of which continue to be debated.
But when on a sunny day in July you walk the docks at Sail Buffalo and see teenagers from the day camp learn how to sail in the calm headwaters of the Buffalo River, a main tenet of Outer Harbor redevelopment—access to water—seems attainable. Sail Buffalo keeps 23 boats for campers and members alike, and is the only American Sailing Association-accredited sailing school along New York’s northern shoreline with lakes Ontario and Erie. Sailors who earn their stripes can become members and continue to use Sail Buffalo’s yachts at a fraction of the cost usually associated with the sport. It’s fashioned far more as a community boating center than as a business, and its picturesque campus should be seen to be believed.
Pierre Wallinder and Suzanne Villacorta of Sail Buffalo.
Down on the dock, Wallinder and Suzanne Villacorta gush over their prized vessel, the John G. Alden-designed Clara Brown. Recorded on the National Register of Historic Places, Villacorta gushes about how the design of the 1952 racing sloop allows it to cut through the water. Wallinder points to a nondescript hunk of concrete at the end of the dock and says he’d love to incorporate it into the program. It turns out that bulkhead was the gateway point for new immigrants to Buffalo, something close to Wallinder’s own heart as an immigrant who relocated here to be with his children.
When Congressman Brian Higgins unveiled plans to restore public access to the lighthouse in 2011, the US Coast Guard sought a licensee to establish a complementary site on some unused prime real estate that faces the southern end of Erie Basin Marina. That’s where Wallinder entered the fray, seeking to establish a center for sailing culture that wasn’t cost-prohibitive. “When my kids were small, we drove them all the way to Youngstown so they could get on the water,” he says. “We are doing what Brian Higgins talked about: providing access to the water.”
Programming for children is very much at the heart of Sail Buffalo’s mission. The campus includes an active garden, a science pavilion, remarkable “totem pole” carvings by Cousin Kelly, and the floating classroom for sailing instruction and arts and crafts. It’s all part of Sail Buffalo’s holistic approach to teaching sailing. They’ve enjoyed an active partnership with WNY Maritime Charter School and are constantly seeking new partnerships to maximize the facility’s use.
Along the way, he’s won sustaining support from the Niagara River Greenway Commission, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, and South District Councilman Chris Scanlon. Sail Buffalo has also made an effort to unite its mission with that of its neighbors—Times Beach Nature Preserve, Buffalo Lighthouse, and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation—under the umbrella of historic preservation and waterfront access.
At one point while discussing his efforts to build bridges, Wallinder says, “The story of Buffalo is the story of partnership.” And you don’t need a blind horse or torchlight to prove it.