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On Watch - Robert Burke

Robert BurkeAs Executive Director of Hudson River Community Sailing (HRCS), based at Pier 66 in New York City, Robert Burke has the helm of an innovative and very successful organization.

“I was born in the Bronx and grew up in suburban New Jersey, but I didn’t really grow up until I started traveling and seeing more of the world,” says Robert. “I make my home in the Hudson Valley, mile 100 on the Hudson [miles on the river are measured northward from the Battery] along a stretch of water called the Barrytown Reach.”

“I actually started with canoeing and sea kayaking, and got into sailing from there,” says Robert, who has paddled or sailed most of the Hudson’s tidal length. “Since I was a kid, I was drawn to sailing through reading accounts of adventurers who used boats to explore the world. I slowly took on opportunities that allowed me to get on boats. I worked in the outdoor/adventure education industry with Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, and was able to transition from land-based trip leadership to the water and sailing.”

HRCS founder Bill Bahen asked Robert to join the board when he began setting up the organization in 2007. “I was the Program Director for NYC Outward Bound, with whom Bill had done some work,” he explains. “At HRCS, our approach is based on the belief that sailing and boats, and their related disciplines, have a lot to teach. And we believe good teaching and learning happens best in an environment that supports people to try new things, take chances, ask questions, and make mistakes. We push our instructors to judge their own success only by how well their students achieve their goals on the water. If a student is not learning, then you have not figured out the best way to teach them.”

Central to the HRCS mission is the development of leadership and academic success in underserved New York City youth through sailing education. “Our Sail Academy serves 150 students from nine public schools, year-round, and City Sail serves approximately 275 students during the summer in a sailing camp format,” says Robert. “More than 1,400 kids have gone through City Sail, and nearly 700 through Sail Academy.”

Additionally, HRCS (hudsonsailing.org) provides maritime education and recreation to the community at large with sailing instruction at a variety of levels, programs for Armed Forces veterans, a membership club, sailing excursions, workshops and lectures, volunteer opportunities and more. “We have 275 adult members between two locations,” says Robert. “We’ve provided sailing lessons for more than 1,200 people, and we’ve held more than 300 community regattas and hosted over 400 corporate groups. Everyone at HRCS wears many hats. Like other non-profits, we assure that our fundraising is broad through foundations, individuals, and events. We are lucky to have recently received government grants to help continue our mission.” 

“We have the best staff in the business!” Robert enthuses. “They are bright, passionate, and motivated. They believe that access to the water, boats and sailing can make the world a better place, and they come to work each day trying to make that a reality. They care a lot about our students, and go the extra mile to make sure they all have high quality experiences. They are great sailors, from multiple disciplines, with strong opinions and independent voices, but they come together as a team to get the job done.”

The HRCS fleet includes 15 J/24s, a Precision 28, a 40-foot Beneteau, two RIBs and a Parker powerboat, and Robert wants to expand the fleet to support additional members, youth programs and initiatives. “I look forward to further development of our high school keelboat racing program within HRCS,” he says, “and also with the neighboring schools we work with like the New York Harbor School, Stuyvesant High School, and several other high school teams. Also a second youth development program at our uptown location at Inwood, and of course more adventure sailing!”

High schools are not the only institutions that HRCS is involved with. “Our Youth Programs Director, Alex Baum, and I both graduated from Fordham University, 20 years apart,” says Robert. “Several other staff and board members are also Fordham graduates, including our Board Chair, Arthur Burns. We have high regard for the values we learned there. We host a regatta for Fordham alumni, and we take our Sail Academy students to visit the campus. We see our organization as part of a larger movement of youth development, science and math education, college access, community development, public access to waterways, and environmental protection. We find kinship with other sailing organizations who also see their roles as broader than just sailing.”

“New York City is a unique and often challenging environment in which to run a sailing program, yet it provides so many opportunities. There has been great support from sailors here who, through sailing, want to offer that to those who are less privileged. We have so many smart interesting people who live and work close by, who are generous with their time, volunteer, and take a real interest in our mission.”

“HRCS is a positive influence on the New York City community because we bring together like-minded people who want to make the world a better place and who believe getting people involved in the disciplines related to sailing can be the tool for doing that. Our members, our volunteers, our board, and our many, many supporters care a lot about the kids we work with and the work we do. That mission-driven ethic permeates, draws people together, and makes a difference.”


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