As President and CEO of the New England Science & Sailing Foundation (NESS) in Stonington, Connecticut, Michael “Spike” Lobdell has the helm of a remarkable non-profit ocean adventure organization founded with the goal of building brighter futures. He’s also one of the nicest guys in sailing.

“I grew up in Rumson, New Jersey and started sailing when I was seven years old,” says Spike, who lives on Mason’s Island in Mystic. The boat of choice for learning back then was a Turnabout. I did a lot of cruising with my parents from New Jersey to Maine. After my father passed away, I read his logbook and found an entry describing how he felt watching me sail alone in our dinghy for the first time. He wrote about how apprehensive he was seeing me sail away, knowing a rescue would be difficult if I got into trouble, and how proud he was when I made it safely back to the boat. The irony of this story is that we were anchored in Stonington Harbor a few hundred yards from what is now NESS!”

“The story of NESS begins with a true love of the world’s oceans and a passion for sailing,” Spike explains. “When I was eight, during my first week of sailing class, a challenging situation on the water demonstrated the importance of experiential learning to teach valuable life skills. Forty years later, that incident became the inspiration for the creation of NESS as I passionately believe these experiences should be available to all, regardless of background.”

“I founded what has become NESS in 2002, at the same time we created the Stonington Harbor Yacht Club, as a small community sailing program with just fourteen students as the club’s first outreach initiative. NESS has become an award winning, nationally recognized leader in experiential education. We partner with 75 schools and organizations to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) to over 9,000 students annually using sailing and other water-based platforms year-round. Importantly, students are learning much more than geometry; we are intentionally teaching valuable life skills.”

“Students who consistently take our programs are seven times more likely to have increased self-confidence, and five times more likely to improve their perseverance. Developing these socio-emotional skills is critical to academic achievement, especially for the at-risk youth we serve. In recognition of these results, NESS became the first school partner program in the country to become fully accredited by the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC), a globally recognized standard of excellence.”

US Sailing has cited NESS ( for excellence many times, with awards presented for Outstanding Program Directors, Innovative Programming, Community Outreach & Inclusion, and Outstanding Community Sailing Center. “Last year, I was humbled to receive the prestigious Martin A. Luray Award, which recognizes outstanding and unselfish contributions to further public access sailing,” says Spike. “Known popularly as ‘The Marty,’ it’s the highest honor bestowed by US Sailing for community sailing programs.”

“While the accreditation and the US Sailing Awards are wonderful, I am most proud of defining our four core values: Inclusiveness, hands-on Experiential Learning, Personal Growth, and Stewardship. These values are central to our strong culture, guide our strategic vision for education, and most importantly are the foundation of our success. These core values have stood the test of time. They also frame many of my core beliefs. Inclusiveness, for instance, has framed our internal action plan for several years to embrace the concepts of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).”

“In 2017, in collaboration with Sail To Prevail, NESS launched our adaptive sailing program, which provides access to the ocean and takes students out of their comfort zones for personal growth and empowerment. Using our adaptive-ready, specifically designed Independence 20 and Sonars, students with physical and cognitive disabilities safely learn to sail with an experienced captain and teacher. Our adaptive sailing program brings the fun and therapeutic qualities of sailing to individuals with diverse needs. At NESS, we aim to get everyone out on the water regardless of age, skill level, or ability. Our vision will continue to use the ocean to create a love of learning and empower students to achieve success in life.”

“Sailing has had a tremendous impact on my life, from lessons learned that translate into valuable life skills and the friends I’ve made all along the way,” says Spike, who is a member of the New York Yacht Club and the Stonington Harbor Yacht Club (Past Commodore). While I’ve sailed on many different boats for my entire life, both cruising and racing, the first boat I owned is my Hinckley Sou’wester 42. I purchased Legacy in 2002 and still enjoy her today, although I must admit I do not get out sailing on her nearly enough.”

Since 2002, Stonington Harbor YC has hosted the Red Lobdell Regatta, which Spike dedicated to his father Francis after his passing. Open to boats of all sizes and featuring a post-race pig roast and the club’s oldest perpetual trophy, “it’s a wonderful way to honor my father,” says Spike. “The community of sailors and the common bonds we share has been really important to me. I’m on the selection committee for the National Sailing Hall of Fame, which has given me a unique insight into the individuals who have truly impacted the sport – an inspiring group of people on all levels.”

“While I had a long career in finance that touched many different businesses globally, as President and full-time volunteer at NESS I probably have never worked harder. I can see the direct and positive impact that work has on students virtually every day. That’s a very powerful feeling. [Sailing] is a wonderful learning platform that will engage you for your entire life.” ■

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