The Executive Director of The Sailing Museum in Newport, Rhode Island (also home to the National Sailing Hall of Fame), Heather Ruhsam loves sailing for the sake of sailing.

“I grew up along the East Coast, with most of my childhood spent in Litchfield County, Connecticut and St. John, USVI,” says Heather, who lives in Newport, Rhode Island. “I was fortunate to have parents who enjoyed sailing and made it a part of our life. I have fuzzy, three-year-old memories of sailing in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and crisper ones of school breaks afloat.”

“We had a 37-foot Alden sloop (Design No. 779C, built in 1950) called Waterfilly. My parents found her on the Hudson, had a little work done on her, and moored her in Stonington, Connecticut. We went out sailing one day and found her sinking – there was water up to the saloon cushions! She was hauled and brought to our farm, where my father set to finding her original plans. (My parents were not boat builders; they trained thoroughbred racehorses at the time.) A steam-box was built, the garage was turned into a woodshop and the multi-year restoration commenced. She was almost completely rebuilt, with only her mast, boom, keel and hardware remaining original. My sister and I learned how to caulk seams, and spent more than a few hours sanding and varnishing. She became a piece of our family’s history – her interior was cherry from my grandparents’ farm in Virginia, her stem a tree that fell on our farm. We sailed her as a family in Long Island Sound before she made her way to the Caribbean where we cruised the northern Leeward Islands. We did a little bit of racing with her, capturing wins at Foxy’s Wooden Boat Regatta.”

“When I was in grade school, winters were punctuated by bareboating in the BVI, which led to our family moving to St. John in 1993. The area is truly a sailors’ playground, for kids and adults. Island hopping was a childhood regularity and one I wish I could return to now with the same frequency – especially given the winters in Rhode Island!”

“I stayed in the states for high school, but spent all my time off in St. John. I spent a bit of time there after college and returned in my late twenties. It’s a special place; a small community and a wonderful place to live and sail. When I returned, I had caught the nonprofit bug. Living on St. John, which is two-thirds national park, fundraising for the Friends group that supported the park was a dream…and my first foray into the nonprofit profession.”

“A mentor who made an impact on me that likely few people outside of the Virgin Islands will know was Fritz Seyfarth. He was an author and ‘resident’ of Marina Cay, where he lived aboard his 1935 Alden Ketch Tumbleweed. Fritz had left the corporate world for a simpler life afloat. He was an incredible storyteller, and epitomized sailing as a lifestyle and sport for a lifetime. While I enjoy racing, it is cruising that really brings me joy. It’s all about the journey and destinations that bring new friends, experiences, and memories. Even as a kid, Fritz’s path, so starkly different from that of so many, made an impression.”

“I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have so many professional mentors in the sailing world. I am surrounded by the titans of the sport daily and have learned so much about sailing and business from our board members, Hall of Famers, donors and partners. I seriously need to pinch myself now and again when I think about the people I have access to and receive advice and support from. It’s pretty amazing! And it speaks to our community of sailors. We advance the sport, grow participation, and create impact by sharing knowledge and working together.”

“It was an opportunity with Sailors for the Sea (SFTS) that brought me to Newport in 2013. The organization was hiring their first full-time Development Director and I was looking for a bigger island. Kidding aside, it was an opportunity to leverage my skills and focus on the marine conservation within sailing – two things I loved. The organization was co-founded by David Rockefeller, Jr. and Dr. David Treadway, two avid sailors who recognized the importance of educating and activating the sailing community around ocean health. Through the Clean Regattas program and Green Boating Guide, SFTS provides regatta managers and sailors with actionable steps to reduce environmental impact, and their KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program provides great hands-on learning modules about ocean health issues. Working with SFTS and the donors brought sailing into the forefront of my life. After SFTS, Kate Neubauer and I provided fundraising consultation to a number of sailing organizations. My connection to the sport continued to grow, mostly from shore, but I had the bug! Then in late 2018 I got a call that changed everything. On May 1, 2019 I took the helm of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, which now makes its home in The Sailing Museum.”

“When I started I was handed the actual keys to the castle, the historic Newport Armory on Thames Street. Originally built for the Rhode Island Militia in 1894, the building had good bones but needed extensive restoration, renovation and modernization. We were very fortunate to have Jerry Kirby’s expertise on the job, and his extensive in-kind support. The HVAC systems were upgraded, including a high-quality filtration system as we were building during the height of the pandemic. The headhouse, the castle-looking front portion of the building, was insulated and all the original woodwork on the two floors restored. The slate roof was replaced and insulated, and new plumbing and electrical installed throughout. New FSC -certified hardwood floors were installed, code compliant entry and side doors fabricated, and perhaps most notable are the windows and doors along the west wall overlooking Newport Harbor. It was not a small project, but one worth doing. The former press headquarters for the America’s Cup during the 12 Metre era in Newport, the Amory is the perfect home for The Sailing Museum. The configuration of the space and interior structural detail lend themselves to a museum dedicated to sailing.”

“The former Amory drill hall is now the primary exhibition space. The 6,000-square foot space has six themed areas that feature a mix of high- and low-tech activities, artifacts, and interpretive panels. Sailing is active, and we wanted to bring that to the museum, creating an engaging experience for our visitors. The founding vision of the organization was that of an America where people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities can participate in sailing. Holding true to that, the museum has been designed to be a welcoming and inclusive place for people to learn about sailing, the history of our sport, and Hall of Famers. The exhibits and imagery share the diversity of sailors and sailing across the country.”

“On arrival, visitors are given a wristband with a QR code that activates twelve interactive stations, the first being ‘Choose Your Ride.’ Here visitors select and name one of seven boats that becomes their avatar in the museum, connecting their journey and providing virtual rewards for activities completed. They are stored in a virtual sailing locker that can be accessed after departure, so they can take aspects of the museum experience home with them – including resources to start or deepen their own sailing journey.”

“Once a boat is selected, the experience continues with ‘Wind & Water,’ simple elements that sailors and non-sailors alike are familiar with. Visitors learn about points of sail, ocean stewardship, the anatomy of a boat, and evolution and principles of design and sailing physics…even designing their own boats. In the two ‘Making of a Sailor’ areas, the mental and physical aspects of the sport are explored, including navigation, tactics, leadership and decision-making, as well as agility, speed, strength and endurance. In the “Teamwork” area, visitors will discover how sailing is a combination of mental and physical, and brings people of varying skill sets together.”

“In the ‘Competition’ area, visitors see what happens at the top of the sport when all these components are executed at the highest level. Iconic events from across the country and around the world will be showcased, along with the individuals who made their mark on them. Throughout the museum, the stories and accomplishments of the people who have shaped the sport are shared.”

“In the ‘Legends of Sailing’ area, the members of the National Sailing Hall of Fame and America’s Cup Hall of Fame are celebrated, over 190 sailing legends are be honored under one roof, connecting the past to the future. From designers and builders to coaches, mentors, artists, historians, Olympians, sailmakers and explorers – The Sailing Museum offers visitors a window into the most exciting personalities in sailing. Rather than plaques on a wall, the Hall of Fame is an interactive wall with images, bios, career highlights and quotes from the sailors themselves that visitors can explore.”

“The museum is inherently fun, which is why we say it is a ‘stealth learning’ experience. Science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) concepts are embedded throughout, as are the soft skills that sailing imparts. The exhibit topics create a springboard for youth and adult learning through field trips, seminars, and an in-school educational program currently in development.”

“The Sailing Museum and National Sailing Hall of Fame is a relatively small organization, so my role as Executive Director is a bit of everything! From fundraising to project management, museum operations and event buying for the museum store. Building the museum has been a career highlight – the creative process and bringing it all to life was a spectacular experience! But the coolest part of my job is absolutely the people, from our dedicated staff to our visitors, donors and Hall of Famers. People are passionate about sailing, and they share the most amazing stories.”

“The museum is ever evolving. There are new artifacts on display in the museum that celebrate their achievements and impact on the sport. They are also honored on interactive Hall of Fame wall, where they are joined by the three new inductees to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. There are a several other new objects on display and, we are working on a collaboration with the Interscholastic Sailing Association that’s coming online this spring. The Sailing Museum is a great venue for club rendezvous, dinner parties and special occasions. Able to accommodate 10 to 300 and boasting sunset views year-round, the vibrancy of the museum is a unique backdrop to any event – but especially sailing events!”

“We will have some children’s events at the museum in February during Newport’s Winterfest and have started planning for our spring social, scheduled for May 10, marking the one-year anniversary. We’re also working on plans for The Ocean Race Stopover in May, and can’t wait to welcome the boats, sailors and fans to Newport!”

“I’ve recently started serving on Race Committee with the New York Yacht Club, which has been both educational and rewarding. There are so many ways to participate in the sport,” says Heather, who relishes “the escape of leaving the shore and everything behind, whether for an hour or a few days. Some sail for competition, others for adventure. For me it is more about recreation and camaraderie. There is nothing better than spending a day sailing for the sake of sailing, coming back to the mooring, and enjoying the golden hour of the day with family or friends. Pure magic!” ■

Next Article