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Community boating center gets kids off their screens, on the water

Francesca Bond
Sail Buffalo director of operations Pierre Wallinder and attorney/artist Suzanne Villacorta

Tiny, colorful cottages—each a different, vibrant shade—provoke a lot of questions and whispers from Canalside.

"What are those?"

"Does someone live there?"

"Can we go inside?"

It’s Sail Buffalo, and we’ll get back to those cottages.

Credit Francesca Bond

Sail Buffalo is a lot of things. It’s a non-profit community boating center, it’s a sailing school, it’s a boat restoration site, and it’s a popular attraction for children’s day camps.

It all started as an idea in Pierre Wallinder’s head after the Swedish sailor came to Buffalo and decided the lakeside community needed something like it.

For a first-time observer, it’s clear why they’ve seen so much success, in the form of grants, donations and patrons. It’s sheer passion.

“I feel like, if you feel that you have love in your heart, and you do it for the right reason, then it can happen and if it doesn’t then maybe it wasn’t meant to be, but apparently, this was meant to be,” Wallinder said.

Wallinder is a lively, wispy-haired man with a thick Swedish accent and tanned skin who moves at a fast pace and speaks with a smile. Over the past nearly two decades of living in Buffalo, he has been busy building his sailing center.

“I just could not believe that you didn’t have programs like this in place. Obviously you have the Buffalo Yacht Club which is wonderful, they have two locations and I’m a strong supporter of the Yacht Club and their mission,” Wallinder said. “But you also need what we do, the community boating center. And that’s what was missing. And that’s what we have given you.”

Wallinder’s school makes sailing, which some people consider elitist, more accessible to children. Sail Buffalo’s season runs from May through October and over those months, Wallinder and his team of volunteers see about 300 kids, from paying day-campers to children from community programs on field trips.

On a recent morning, Sail Buffalo welcomed 30 children from the Buffalo City Mission summer camp. They played games in the grass, made crafts on their picnic benches, got a quick history lesson on the Outer Harbor’s historic lighthouse and, of course, went sailing.

Credit Francesca Bond

"We went out and it was pretty cool. One of the boats got ahead of each other and we kept racing," said Annalise, one of the kids.

"I like the camp because when I'm at home, there's a lot of bad stuff going on where I live," said Deonte.

The City Mission day camp field trips give kids an opportunity to branch out and try new things.

Kate, a child enrichment program coordinator, said trips like this mean a lot to the children.

“They really haven’t experienced a lot of this stuff before. Some of them are experiencing things for the first time. A lot of them don’t kind of get outside their bubble,” she said.

Smiles could be seen from the whole group, as their hair blew in the wind on the surprisingly-fast sailboat.

Wallinder’s mission is simple: teach children skills and provide a space for them to have fun, unencumbered by modern technology.

“We teach them self-reliance and confidence building, building trust and widen their horizons. And many other soft skills, besides obviously learning new hands-on skills and new vocabulary,” Wallinder said.

There are a slew of volunteers, aside from Wallinder, who make Sail Buffalo possible, but two women who match his passion are instrumental. Suzanne Villacorta, an attorney by day and volunteer by night, and Pierre’s daughter, Alexandra, a sailing instructor and Wallinder’s right-hand woman.

“She’s basically the wind,” Wallinder described his daughter.

Providing a place for active fun, free of cell phones, is important to Alexandra, too.

“We just kind of try to do everything water-based, so we go paddle-boarding, we have canoes, we’re obviously sailing all the time, we might go swimming if it’s super hot and just try to do everything technology free, and put all the phones away,” Alexandra Wallinder said.

Credit Francesca Bond

As for those striking cottages? They’re another way Wallinder is bringing a bit of Sweden to Buffalo.

“It emulates the fisherman huts in Sweden and Scandinavia, where fishermen put their equipment and netting if they’re done with the fishing. We see them a lot in Sweden,” Wallinder said.

There are some historical ties to Buffalo, too.

“It also brings back the history a little bit of the Outer Harbor because as you know, maybe 100 years ago, you have many squatters living at the Outer Harbor,” Wallinder continued.

Wallinder said their program is growing and that in their small corner on the Outer Harbor, they’ve made an impact.

“Yearly, I receive letters and emails and texts from previous participants and we are growing, steadily. People appreciate what we do,” Wallinder said. “So I feel like we have the support from the community and past and current participants.”

Bernie Koch is Pierre’s friend and a volunteer who works on restoring old boats. He lives in Minnesota now, after leaving Buffalo a few years ago, but comes back most weekends over the summer to restore a prized boat, the Clara Brown. He thinks sailing camps are a fun alternative to daycare.

“It’s cheaper than daycare,” Koch said, before  himself.

“Well, it’s probably the same cost as daycare. But the point is they get to be on the water and that’s very special.”