In a classroom on Captiva Island in Florida, six students gather around a white board and watch their instructor draw a diagram of the points of sail. The students range in age from 30 to 70 and hail from Ireland, South Africa, Texas and New York. As their minds take in the new information, a door opens behind them. “Hi, we’re Steve and Doris Colgate!” says a grinning Doris. “Just stopping by to say hello.” The students’ heads whip around, and they beam. One student peers down at his book, Fast Track to Cruising by Colgate and Colgate, as if to verify he’d heard them correctly, looks back up and says, “Hey, great book!”
The Colgates smile graciously, nod approvingly and walk back out of the classroom onto the docks nearby. A dockhand sprays down a fleet of Colgate 26s, the daysailer that Steve created to serve as the quintessential sail-instruction boat. The three of them chat about the Fast Track to Sailing class that set sail that morning, then Steve and Doris turn to leave. On the way, a student stops them and exuberantly explains he’s taken Fast Track to Cruising, Bareboat Cruising and Liveaboard Cruising and that the Colgate’s school has helped him discover a sport that changed his life.
“We hear from someone like that nearly every day,” says Doris with a smile. “We’ve been at this for 46 years, and we’ve taught over 115,000 people to sail, so I guess we’ve gotten used to it.”
As we drive back to their offices in Fort Myers, Doris tells stories of the dozens of schools they’ve opened, the 65-plus cruises they’ve captained, the way they’ve revamped how people learn to sail, the boat they created, the awards they’ve received and the organizations they’ve led. I realize then that when people say today’s sailing community stands on the shoulders of giants, these are the giants of whom they speak.
In New York City in 1967, Doris Buchanan answered an ad in the New York Times seeking a secretary at a sporting magazine. Next thing she knew, she was transcribing letters mumbled into a Dictaphone by Bob Bavier, then ad director of Yachting. “I had no idea what the words on those tapes meant, but I could tell everyone in that office was genuinely happy about something,” said Doris of her first job. “I got an itch to figure out what that was.” On a hunch that sailing might have been the source of their grins, Doris signed up for sailing lessons at the only sailing school in town. “That was the best thing I ever did. Sailing changed my life.”
A few years earlier, on a Sunday in 1955, 19-year-old Steve Colgate received a call from his mother asking if he had any interest in sailing from Cuba to Spain. Steve had been sailing on Long Island Sound since childhood, so he quickly agreed and five days later took off across the ocean. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Steve. “I knew someday I’d make my living in sailing.”
In 1964, he partnered with a friend who owned a 34-foot boat to start Offshore Sailing School. “He approached me at a cocktail party and said, ‘I have the boat, you have the experience, let’s get together.’” At the time, Steve was aware of only one other sailing school, and it was in California, so he knew there was a niche to be filled. Their school grew steadily in those first years, thanks in part to a particularly enthusiastic student Steve met on January 18, 1968, named Doris.
While still at Yachting, Doris began working for Steve on her lunch breaks and in the evenings until, in 1969, they decided to make it official. The caption in the local newspaper read, “Colgate lost a student and gained a wife.” They were married in December 1969 and immersed themselves in teaching others how to sail. They began with the school in City Island, New York, where Steve taught both on-the-water and classroom seminars in partnership with One Design and Offshore Yachtsman Magazine. Over the course of the next 15 years, Steve and Doris opened schools in New York City, New Jersey, Martha’s Vineyard, Hilton Head Island, Sturgeon Bay, Maine and Florida. Steve spent a few years teaching racing in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico while Doris flew back and forth from New York, transferring students and boat parts. Teaching primarily on Solings, the Colgates created their signature Learn to Sail program, which would become the core of their curriculum.
In the late 1970s, the partnership with One Design and Offshore Yachtsman petered out and Steve and Doris struck out on their own, officially becoming the Steve and Doris Colgate Offshore Sailing School. “We narrowed our focus on the most successful locations,” explains Doris. Today, those locations include Chelsea Piers in New York City; Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City; St. Michaels, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay; Road Town, Tortola, in the BVI; and Captiva Island, Ft. Myers Beach and St. Petersburg in Florida. In 1988, they moved their headquarters to Ft. Myers to be closer to their southern bases.
As their bases grew in number so too did their classes. From the original Learn to Sail class there evolved courses on bareboat cruising, live-aboard cruising, catamaran live-aboard, coastal navigation, coastal passage-making and celestial navigation. Their specialty courses grew to include curriculums for women, kids, families, racers and even corporations. As recently as four years ago, Steve and Doris created a new program, Fast Track to Cruising, which they market as “the fastest way to become certified for bareboat cruising and sailing.”
As their classes grew, so did the concepts that surrounded them. At several bases, the Colgates added partnerships with resorts, offering a package in which sailing courses were complimented by a vacation. “The resort and the instruction work together to create a superlative experience,” says Steve.
In 1981, the Colgates kicked off the Offshore Sailing Club at the New Jersey base, allowing graduates to share in a sailing community both close to home and around the world. Using this base of students, the Colgates began leading cruises in various global locations, as a forerunner of the modern flotilla cruise. This May, they led an Offshore Sailing flotilla from St. Lucia to Grenada and back, marking their 65th cruise, their 46th year of business and their 40th wedding anniversary.
Over the course of half a century, Steve and Doris have grown their sailing school from a modest operation on a 34-footer to a multi-base institution that spans the entire East Coast. It kind of makes your head spin.