OCSC Founder Anthony Sandberg has been teaching people to sail — and set sail — for 31 years
By Pete Gauvin • Photos by Martin Sundberg
Sailing on San Francisco Bay is one of the iconic adventures of Northern California, combining a maritime wilderness amid a jewel-like urban setting with a robust natural wind generator that pumps out stiff breezes as reliably as Tim Lincecum unleashes a heater, which is to say nearly all the time — or in the bay’s case, nearly every day.
Yet it’s likely many more people have been to a San Francisco Giants game to see “The Freak” pitch than have been sailing on the bay, a freak of nature in its own right.
While millions scurry daily along the shores and across the bridges of this 400-square-mile inland sea, far too few ever get out on the water. It may be the defining landmark of our region and regarded as the best sailing location in North America, but for many it’s more of an inconvenience than a resource.
“Only about 5 percent of the eight million people who live in the Bay Area have actually been on the bay in any form,” says Anthony Sandberg.
And if not for him there might be a lot less.
Sandberg is the founder and president of the OCSC Sailing school and club based at the Berkeley Marina. It used to be known as the Olympic Circle Sailing Club, but when you become as established as OCSC has — widely considered the top sailing school in the nation, ranked as one of the best places to work, written up in major magazines and newspapers, featured on TV and radio — you’ve earned the right to go exclusively by your acronym.
That’s where the exclusivity ends though. Since he started OCSC 31 years ago, Sandberg has been on a mission to democratize the sport of sailing and shake the image that it’s an elitist hobby that ranks somewhere between country club golf and race car driving in its public accessibility.
At OCSC, you can experience sailing on the bay for the cost of a cheap date: For $40, you can join one of their Wednesday evening sails and barbecues, or take a two-hour introduction to sailing course.
Fittingly, OCSC’s beginnings were anything but pretentious. When Sandberg started the school in 1979, he was 29 and had no money. He rented a shack with a phone on the Alameda Estuary and launched OCSC with one boat, a borrowed J/24. He lived out of his Dodge van and subsisted on cans of tuna and baked potatoes for the first six months.
“I looked at the bay and I had sailed virtually everywhere on earth and I thought I could reinvent this sport to make it more accessible and bring back honor to this sport … by teaching people how to sail capably, comfortably and confidently in a full range of conditions.”
In 1980, he was joined by his partner and current CEO Richard Jepsen. Together they took OCSC straight to the dump, literally — the municipal garbage dump that was located at the Berkeley Marina at the time. It was the place Sandberg had in mind all along.
Talk about a site going to waste … Despite its trash-heap moorings, Sandberg realized that it was the optimal location for getting out on the heart of the bay, directly across from the Golden Gate wind funnel, with minimal putt-putt time before you could hoist the main and unfurl the jib to some of the most challenging, beautiful, rollicking sailing imaginable.
Indeed, it would be hard to design a better open-air classroom for teaching sailing. Bay sailing is both the ideal training ground and gateway drug to the larger watery world. They say if you can sail on the bay — with its tides and currents, hefty wind and waves, shipping traffic and frenzy of other boats — you can sail just about anywhere.
Thirty years later, OCSC has recycled its corner of the former city dump into a six-acre “campus” with three docks, a fleet of 50 sailboats, and a staff of 80 enthusiastic people, including more than 40 instructors.
Most notably, OCSC has taught more than 25,000 people how to sail.
One of Sandberg’s secrets to sailing: There’s no need to own a boat.
It takes money to own a yacht. It takes skill to actually sail one. Too many people confuse sailing with ownership, he says, which is why most boats sit idle in marina slips rather than venturing out on the bay.
“The average use for your average privately owned boat is two days a year,” he says. Why? “Most boat owners aren’t comfortable sailing in the full range of conditions you encounter on the bay and they have no one to sail with.”
Some days, particularly weekdays, nearly all the boats you see out on the bay are from OCSC. This was the case when Sandberg and his assistant Tony Samour took us out for a short sail on a 36-foot J/105 on a sparkling blue, mildly breezy Thursday in April. (It was April 15, so maybe those owners we’re searching for one last write-off?)
Starting OCSC with a borrowed boat taught Sandberg that he didn’t need to own sailboats to have a successful sailing school—a revolutionary concept at the time. Today, nearly two-thirds of OCSC’s sailboats are the property of other people. OCSC maintains the boats and shares the revenues collected from renting them with the owners.
Another of Sandberg’s secrets to sailing: Have lots of friends to go out with any day of the year.
“It’s not fun unless you have playmates,” he says as we cruise toward Angel Island. “Why have just a couple friends to do things with when you could have a thousand?”
No surprise, both of these hurdles are cleared by joining OCSC: Boom, you’ve got access to a fleet of 50 boats from 24 to 50 feet and more than a 1,000 fellow sailors to assemble a crew with.
A standard membership runs about $500 (a one-time initiation fee), with monthly dues of $59. Not pocket change, but compare that to the myriad costs of owning a boat. Peanuts.
Stories from Sandberg’s travels and eclectic background unravel with the breeze as he coaches his neophyte crew aboard the J/105 and explains the workings and philosophies of OCSC.
Beyond the bay, OCSC leads sailing adventures, “flotillas” of chartered boats, all over the world — Mexico, Central America, Europe, the South Pacific, Patagonia. It also leads non-sailing adventure travel trips to places such as Antarctica and Peru.
As the front man for OCSC, Sandberg designs several new trips every year and then, of course, must personally vet them. When the world is your oyster, you’ve got to sample it first.
“When I’m designing a trip I lead the first one, take notes, refine it, then turn it over to my staff to lead,” says Sandberg, now 61. “The two that I keep doing myself are Turkey and Antarctica … I’ve been going to Turkey for 40 years. I’m crazy about archaeology and history and classics, and I have a lot of Turkish friends.”
This year’s OCSC Turkey Flotilla is Sept. 11-25, and he’ll be departing for Antarctica once again in February.
Perhaps this is the manifest career destiny of an erudite Norwegian with benevolent Viking blood, the son of a top resort chef, who grew up bodysurfing in Hawaii, spent his teen years in Lake Tahoe, went on to Dartmouth where he was on the skiing, rowing and sailing teams, studied political science, became embroiled in the anti-war movement, crewed yachts in Europe, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal before deciding he wanted to follow his passion for sailing into business.
Sandberg’s life philosophy is worldly, curious, social, less restrictive and more empowering. He personally takes up two new activities every year. This year, it’s road biking and salsa dancing. And it’s that sort of enthusiasm for challenges and exploration that he fosters at OCSC.
Indeed, if anyone is living his gospel better than Anthony Sandberg, and making a living at it, I’d like to know who that is … and publish their how-to book.
OCSC draws a broad and diverse mix of people to its classrooms and docks. On any given day you can meet a bartender, a Silicon Valley tycoon, or a group of East Bay inner-city school kids on an OCSC-sponsored field trip.
Expect to see a lot more female skippers in the Bay Area in coming years. Though sailing has a reputation for being male dominated, 50 percent of OCSC’s students are women, says Sandberg. In other schools, typically only about 20 percent are women.
Another distinguishing characteristic: OCSC uses a three-to-one instructor ratio for all its courses so students get more individual attention and hands-on experience. At many schools the ratio is six-to-one, Sandberg says.
“Our courses come with a guarantee,” he adds. “We’ll keep teaching you until you get (certified), for up to three months.”
There are three core US Sailing certification courses at OCSC: Basic Keelboat, Basic Cruising, and Bareboat Cruising. The first two prepare you to be a confident skipper of smaller boats (under 30’) on San Francisco Bay, while the bareboat program qualifies you to skipper larger charter boats anywhere in the world.
There are dozens more advanced and specialized courses, from spinnaker sailing and racing to coastal passagemaking, celestial navigation, and boat repair.
“Seventy-five to 80 percent of the people that walk in our door for the first time want to be able to bareboat charter in the Caribbean,” says Sandberg. “Then they get into it and their goals change and their world expands.”
OCSC uses J/24s, the most popular one-design sailboat in the world, as its primary training boat. They now have 22 of these versatile and responsive boats in their fleet.
“I want people to be complete sailors,” says Sandberg, steering the 36-footer back to the marina as one of their J/24s heads out.
“We try to encourage them to learn on smaller boats. This is fun (sailing a boat with a big wheel), but where you develop your real skill is there (on a smaller boat with a tiller) … I want to see you sail a 50 or 60 footer with the same deftness that you have on a more basic boat.”
That’s the natural order of things when learning to sail with OCSC: Start small, start local, and then go big and as broad as you desire. Anthony Sandberg is happy to show you the way.