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The People’s Captain | Anthony Sandberg’s OCSC sailing school in Berkeley helps get everyone on board. | By Mike Rosen-Molina | Photos by Margaretta K. Mitchell.

Every Wednesday evening, Anthony Sandberg, 64, takes a small group of friends out on his catamaran for an outing around the Bay. An expert sailor, he pilots the boat with almost imperceptible twists of the wheel, but while his eyes stay focused on the seas ahead, he’s cracking jokes and telling stories.

“What kind of hell boat is this?” he laughs as another crewman disappears below deck to break out wine and crackers. “Why isn’t there a drink in my hand?”

When he lets another passenger take the wheel, he warns her not to spin it the way she’s seen in movies—that’s not the reality of sailing. Apart from Sandberg, no one in this group is an expert sailor. Some have never set foot on a ship and all are shivering under heavy nylon rain parkas as the cold night breeze whips past. But there’s something about the experience of being together on a boat gently bobbing in the waves, watching the sun set behind the San Francisco skyline and the stars blink into existence, that brings people together. Sandberg has long known this secret.

“Being out on the ocean is a life-changing experience,” says Sandberg. “It used to be something that only the super wealthy could afford, but we want it to be something for everyone. It opens up a whole new world of friendship.”

He recognizes most of the other boats on the water as coming from OCSC, the sailing school that Sandberg operates in the Berkeley Marina. They are either owned by OCSC members or rented by casual boaters. There was a time, he remembers, when sailing wasn’t a public sport. He founded Berkeley’s OCSC (which originally stood for Olympic Circle Sailing Club) sailing school in large part to change that. Started in 1979 with little more than one borrowed boat, Sandberg’s school has grown into a thriving hub for both serious sailors and casual weekend boaters, with 50 yachts and 85 employees. A burly man with a bushy white mustache and a natural gift for gab, Sandberg likes to say that he’s in the business of saying yes. To him, life is a constant series of adventures and it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to say, “Yes, I’m coming along for the ride.”

“A lot of people get older and they think they’ll put off having fun until they retire,” says Sandberg. “I say, ‘Why wait?’ Having fun takes practice. When someone tells me, ‘I haven’t had a vacation in 20 years,’ all I can think is, ‘Holy mackerel, let’s not wait another minute!’”

Sandberg’s office at the OCSC building is spacious but still cluttered with bric-a-brac—a giant wooden chess set, a set of African bongo drums, a full-size kayak propped in a cradle, and stacks of nautical books piled on the floor. There are days that he spends in here, sitting at a desk doing paperwork or at his computer, managing the little things that keep OCSC running smoothly. But out on the water is where he belongs.

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Sailing is Sandberg’s passion. He’s piloted everything from dinghies to schooners to modern grand prix racers. He has cruised in most of the world’s dream locations from the South Pacific, Caribbean, and Central America to Scandinavia, North Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean.

Sandberg’s father served in the South Pacific during World War II, and fell in love with the tropical climate and warm waters.

“When I was born, he says, ‘Let’s move somewhere where the kids can run naked on the beach,’” says Sandberg, “so we moved to Hawaii.”

Sandberg grew up in Hawaii, two blocks from the beach. He had an outdoor introduction to life, swimming from such a young age that he doesn’t even remember learning how. He sailed throughout his childhood with his father and father’s friends.

“That excitement has continuity. I knew it was going to be part of my life. My childhood was filled with stories of exploring,” he says.

When Sandberg finished elementary school, the family moved to Lake Tahoe—where Sandberg was exposed to an entirely new world of outdoor life. He took to skiing with equal ease and eventually attended Dartmouth on a skiing scholarship. After college, he went to Europe where he put his nautical experience to use skippering yachts for wealthy jet-setters in Turkey and Italy.

Sandberg enjoyed the adventure, but soon began to hunger for something different. Spurred by reading Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, in which a young man seeks enlightenment by experiencing all walks of life, Sandberg decided that, having spent time in the presence of some of the richest people on earth, he now needed to spend time with the poorest. He joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Katmandu, Nepal, to help build sanitary systems for villagers.

“In Nepal, people live in mud huts and only have one shirt. Why do I need two?” says Sandberg. “They have virtually nothing to eat other than just daal [lentils] and saag [field grass], maybe a little corn. But I’ve never heard people laugh so much and be so generous with travelers and guests. It was clear that happiness isn’t based on what you have. The rich are desperate to keep it, desperate to prove they’re special. But it was clear that lots of our striving for ownership of possessions is misplaced.”

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When Sandberg returned to the States, he was faced with a big decision: He had been accepted to graduate school for both law and business, but was that what he wanted? He journeyed to the Mendocino coast, hiked alone into the shoreline woods, and pondered the decision for two weeks in a driftwood lean-to.

“It came down to love,” says Sandberg. “Sailing is what I loved to do. But I thought it was such a shame that only the richest people can experience that. So I thought: I’m going to reinvent sailing, I’m going to make it accessible to everyone.”

He took out an ad in sailing magazine Latitude 38 announcing, “world-experienced sailor, now teaching lessons.” The plan was simple: Give each client the best sailing experience they’d ever had—give them more than they paid for—and they’d come back again. They’d tell their friends. Sandberg remembered his father, who owned and managed a restaurant while Sandberg was growing up in Hawaii. His father had never advertised, saying, “If the food and the service aren’t good enough to bring people in, we don’t deserve to exist.”

Sandberg taught people to sail using a borrowed boat by working out a deal with the boat owner: If he was allowed to use the boat for lessons, he would also teach the owner for free. (Because there are no laws requiring that you know how to operate a boat before purchasing one, many wealthy people buy a boat as a status symbol without actually knowing how to sail, Sandberg says.)

“If the money you make buys the tuna you eat tonight, you have to be good,” says Sandberg. “In the early days, I lived in a van in the Berkeley dump. But I knew where I was going and I had a plan.”

With 45 professional instructors and 50 yachts, OCSC is now the largest sailing program in North America, and rated as the best in the country by leading industry magazine Practical Sailor. But it’s still a place where even those who aren’t millionaires can rent million-dollar yachts for a day.

It’s not just about fun; Sandberg is able to use his clout with OCSC to do some good as well. The club helped found medical clinics for the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, a frequent sailing destination. A local women’s shelter and food bank use the club’s facilities for meetings. Sandberg and OCSC also raised $65,000 for the nonprofit Treasure lsland Sailing to teach swimming and sailing to 1,500 disadvantaged elementary school kids.

For Sandberg, his leisure time isn’t much different from his work. He tries to take up one new thing every year—experimenting with paragliding, horseback riding, or kayaking. Last weekend, he hiked for five hours on Mount Tamalpais, and then went rafting a few days later. He leads regular sailing expeditions to Tahiti, Greece, and even Antarctica. Last year, he and 85 other sailors sailed the coast of Turkey, visiting the same ancient towns where Alexander the Great stopped in the third century B.C.

“What can be better than swimming and eating delicious Turkish food?” says Sandberg. “You get to see raw nature and beautiful coast. You can pretend you’re Odysseus, but they’ve run out of cyclopses.”

On one of his strangest adventures, Sandberg and some friends were wrapping up a month-long safari through the Kenyan wilderness in 2002. The group was enjoying the final leg of its trip, relaxing at a beach villa on the white-sand island of Lamu, watching local fishermen cast off in traditional thin-hulled Arab ships called dhows. Sandberg thought it might be fun to see who would win a race between expert Kenyan boatsmen and the Californians. He invited the local sailors to join them in a regatta, putting up $300 of his own money as the prize.

The OCSC crew thought it was all in fun, but for the local sailors it was a deadly serious contest. The American visitors had forgotten that $300 was a substantial sum in their host country, so every team was determined to win. Each captain brought along his own shaman, burning incense and chicken heads in a coal pot, in hopes that the blessing charms would ensure a win. Sailors chanted prayers and beat the sides of their boats with bundles of dried magic weeds to scare off the competitors.

“When one boat got too close to another boat, sailors started planking their rival ship with their oars,” Sandberg says. “One guy even jumped onto our ship and started a fight.”

But there weren’t any hard feelings afterwards, when the prize money was divided up between the top eight racers and the Americans realized it was part of racing in another culture. But it reinforced for Sandberg that you should always be ready to find some great adventure and a good story to tell.

“I live a seamless life,” says Sandberg. “I travel and play four months of the year. There are things I could do where I would make more money but I couldn’t have more fun. The only regrets I have are for things that I could have done, but didn’t. I once had the chance to visit Afghanistan and I thought: It’s an ancient country, it will always be there. But now it’s not possible anymore. There’s a whole world out there. Don’t wait, go today.”

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Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and a longtime contributor to The Monthly. He has a nautical-themed pashmina afghan.

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Margaretta K. Mitchell is a nationally known artist and professional photographer, author, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. To explore the possibility of Mitchell shooting a portrait for the web or print, an environmental portrait like the Bay Area Boomer cover, or a creative portrait of your fantasy persona: (510) 655-4920 or margarettamitchell.com

 

 

Casting off: Anthony Sandberg founded Berkeley’s OCSC sailing club in 1979 as a way to bring sailing—typically a sport for the rich—within reach of the nonmillionaire. Photos by Margaretta K. Mitchell, margarettamitchell.com. Mitchell’s work is currently part of a group show in a retrospective at the Robert Tat Gallery, 49 Geary Street, Suite 410, San Francisco, through August 24. The gallery is open Tuesday–Saturday, 11–5:30 & by appointment. Open the first Thursday of the month until 7:30pm. www.roberttat.com.