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Clear Sailing

Clear Sailing for East Bay School

Contra Costa Times – August 4, 2005
By Ann Tatko-Peterson, Times Staff Writer

Berkeley – Waves crash over the bow of the sailboat, spraying cold bay water in every direction. A sharp wind, blowing at 18 knots, fills the sails and sweeps over skin warmed earlier by the sun.

The sailboat measures almost 35 feet long. It costs about a quarter million dollars. And on this cool August day, it tilts at a seemingly precarious 45-degree angle, the starboard hull practically submerged in the water, the boat rocketing through every wave that stands in its path.

The scene might look and feel like a maelstrom, if not for Anthony Sandberg.

A dark blue cap pulled low, the collar of his waterproof red jacket pulled high, Sandberg, 56, sits nestled in the corner of the stern. He stretches his long legs across the back of the boat, a Diet Coke in one hand, his eyes scanning the horizon as he chats casually about a recent trip to Turkey.

The scene looks and feels like just another day at sea. For Anthony Sandberg, that's exactly what it is.

In 1979, Sandberg turned a municipal dump into a sailing school on the Berkeley Marina. He started with only a small, rotted dock box, a borrowed boat and a phone. Money was so tight that he lived out of his van at the marina.

More than 25 years later, OCSC Sailing (Olympic Circle Sailing Club) has grown into the largest single-location sailing school in the United States. It sits on 10,000 square feet of prime waterfront property and maintains a fleet of 50 boats worth $4.5 million. Along with partner Rich Jepsen, the chief executive officer, Sandberg oversees a staff of 75 employees, including 45 instructors.

OCSC also boasts of 1,000 dues-paying club members and a growing revenue base estimated at $2.5 million for this year. Two percent of the business' gross revenue goes to support environmental and social issues.

From a factual standpoint, those numbers outline the success of OCSC Sailing. But long before he saw any such numbers, Sandberg knew the business would prosper.

"You need an essential core, which is the sport itself," he said. "Just look at skiing. It grew from rope tows to gondolas, from rustic cabins to lodges. Every great industry explodes from an essential seed."

Sailing had one inherent problem: debunking the myth that it's a sport for only the wealthy and the strong.

That's where Sandberg found his niche.

He had seen too many people buy a sailboat, scare themselves silly trying to man it, and then turn it into a beer-drinking pit-stop one hop short of new ownership.

Sandberg realized he could teach these people how to sail. By owning a fleet of boats, he also could turn non-boat owners into certified sailors.

Larry Ledgerwood of Walnut Creek was one of them.

About 20 years ago, he and his wife decided to take classes after a sailing jaunt. Today, Ledgerwood is in his fourth year as an instructor.

He credits his longevity and the club's appeal to the "magnetism" generated by Sandberg and Jepsen.

"Anthony's a connector. He's the nucleus," Ledgerwood said. "He has this fabulous connection to so many wildly eclectic people. No one except Anthony could take a politician and a flame-throwing belly dancer and put them together, put them in the same place, by giving them a shared experience."

That knack has its roots in Sandberg's overriding philosophy about what makes a person a sailor.

"He's been on big boats and around big money," Ledgerwood said, "but he knows that's not what life is all about."

Sandberg doesn't remember when or even how he learned to sail, largely because he has been on boats, "since I was a babe in arms," he said.

At age 5, he stood on the Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, two blocks from his home, watching the Transpacific Yacht Race. He marveled at the boats' colors and the deep tans of their crews as the boats finished the week-long journey from Los Angeles to Hawaii. He stood in awe of the champagne parties that followed.

"Even as a 5-year-old," he said, "I knew I belonged there."

At 16, he left his home in Hawaii to sail the Pacific Ocean. After graduating from Dartmouth College -- which he attended on a skiing scholarship -- he competed in regattas around the world. In his 20s, he skippered yachts for wealthy Europeans, even those who once claimed Aristotle Onassis as a friend.

"It was very sexy being the 25-year-old skipper on a billionaire's yacht," Sandberg said. "But it's kind of like being a lifeguard. What looks sexy when you're young is not so sexy at 50."

Sandberg traded in his posh lifestyle for service in the Peace Corps. He took an assignment in Nepal, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. There, he saw people living in mud huts and surviving on rice.

Hardship, he learned, is all in how you define it.

Living out of his van and forgoing a paycheck, those weren't really hardships in the early days of business.

These days, Sandberg lives in a Berkeley apartment and a farmhouse in Sebastopol. The boat with which he started his business is long gone.

But remnants of the early days remain. Neighboring the two-story clubhouse sits a fire pit, built with rocks gathered from the shoreline. It was there that Sandberg first cracked open a beer and sat chatting with his students after a lesson on the water.

Some things have changed. Caterers now grill the food outside the clubhouse. The structure for an outdoor deck and theater is in place. Corporations come in droves, using sailing outings in place of traditional training to emphasize teamwork. Sailing as a sport and a social activity, however, still is at the club's core.

Eventually, Sandberg said, he would like the school to be called a sailing resort -- complete with a restaurant, locker rooms, a workout room, saunas and child care.

If skiing could do it, why not sailing, too?

He contemplates that thought as he stands on an incline that overlooks the club at his back and the Golden Gate Bridge at his front. He peers out over the bay, quiet for a long moment.

"It's like 6 feet of powder snow," he says and smiles. "My dream before I die is to get more people on the water. Everyone should experience a piece of this."