Beach resident and lifelong Southwest Floridian Ross Webb credits the sport of sailing for basically saving his life.
That life was recently enriched when he was nationally honored for his sailing center's program development at the U.S. Sailing National Conference in Clearwater on Jan. 24.
Webb, one of the founders of the Fort Myers-based Edison Sailing Center, received the "Outstanding Outreach and Inclusion Award." The center is one of nine sanctioned community sailing centers devoted to the instruction and promotion of sailing in the U.S.
ESC executive director Ross Webb (l) poses with fellow award winners Glen Vetter and Steve Romaine of the Caloosahatchee Marching and Chowder Society. Webb took home the U.S. Sailing “Outstanding Outreach and Inclusion Award.'
Stu Gilfillen, a sailing programs administrator for U.S. Sailing, said the annual award is given to "a program director or program that has made notable contributions to promote public access sailing by finding and including people in their program that would normally have no access to sailing,"
Webb co-founded ESC in 1982, and has welcomed more than 4,000 area youth who might not otherwise have an opportunity to experience the water.
"He has continually encouraged, welcomed and provided youth - regardless of their ability to pay - with the ability to sail. Sailors who participate in the school year program may attend on scholarship, which may or may not have supporting funding to attach to that scholarship," said Gilfillen. "No student is denied access to sailing. Students are not required to purchase their own boats. A minimum "fee" allows a student to have access to a boat and all of its equipment for the year. Ross collaborates with organization and agency leadership to make sure there is time for these youth to participate in sailing and/or safe boating opportunities."
Webb, who resides off of Siesta Drive, was born and raised in Fort Myers and began sailing on the Caloosahatchee River at the young age of 8.
"I started sailing because I was asthmatic and couldn't do anything else," he said. "I swear it saved my life by getting out in the fresh air and doing something on my own."
Webb is now 70 years old and has been teaching sailing for 30 years. He was notified about the award roughly one week before the national conference.
"I was just flabbergasted when I heard about it," he said. "It's nice to get a national award. It's quite an honor."
Webb pushed away the individual accolade and focused on what the Edison Sailing Center has accomplished.
"The award has to do with the inclusion of our programs. We have gotten different groups involved like the boy scouts, sea scouts and all sorts of disadvantaged kids coming to the program. We are getting the community to come out and work with our programs. We include everybody and don't turn anyone down."
Edison Sailing Center teaches sailing to children ranging from ages 8 to 18. Practices are held on the Caloosahatchee River in downtown Fort Myers and in North Fort Myers. For the past 5-6 years, ESC has been teaching a summer sailing course in the Back Bay at Mound House.
"They (sailing students) really never leave. They just come back and help us instruct," he said.
Webb has served in several positions at the local nonprofit center, including president, commodore and now treasurer. He is still considered the executive director of the center.
Edison Sailing Center operates solely on community donations and grants. It recently received a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) grant.
"We are implementing those lesson plans into the sailing and powerboat programs," he said.
Webb actually began sailing instruction on his 40th birthday. With help from his wife, Stephanie, the pay back method appears to work just fine as a second career.
"I decided to take time off from my pharmacy and give something back. We wanted to do something to help the kids," he said. "We started doing it for a couple of younger relatives of mine. The next year, people started calling us to see if they could get their kids into a class."
Despite a lack of advertising, Webb says the classes have filled up each summer since.
"It's nice because it doesn't cost the government any money, and we are providing a really good recreational service," he said.
Webb attributes the Caloosahatchee Marching and Chowder Society and its vice commodore of the Summerset Regatta for their help and donations. CMCS picked up the 2012 Outstanding Organizational Support national award of excellence at the same conference.
"Steve Romaine has been a big help to us," he said.
Back in the late 1940s as a young child, Webb was almost an Estero Island resident but a tropical event changed that.
"A hurricane came along and wiped out my parent's house that they just built," he said. "We were getting ready to move into it the next day, but we never moved in."
Nevertheless, sailing has remained in Webb's blood and the Caloosahatchee River has remained the waterway for his passion.
"I think I get as much out of it as the kids do," he said.
Edison Sailing Center
According to its website, Edison Sailing Center was conceived in 1984 as a way to bring sailing to Southwest Florida's young people. Using donated Optimist prams and lasers, the group (then operating under the name Royal Palm Sailing Club) started teaching sailing to kids during the summer months. Response to the program was so positive that classes continued throughout the year. The children not only wanted to sail, but they also wanted to race, giving birth to the Royal Palm Sailing Team.
ESC members have raced in many statewide regattas as well as national and even international events. In 1992 the city of Fort Myers leased the present downtown location. In keeping with the local theme, the new facility was named the Edison Sailing Center.
The sailing center now maintains 250-plus boats for instruction and racing. Sailing classes are taught in summer camps. The beginning classes take the group from the basics - this is a sail - to being able to sail the boat without help. Intermediate and advanced classes continue to sharpen skills and deepen an understanding of the effects of weather and an awareness of the environment. Each participant is assigned a boat and is responsible for rigging, sailing and unrigging that boat.
The racing season for sailboats runs from September thru May. During that time, racers travel to regattas all around Florida. The center also hosts one of the largest regattas in the state in October. Qualified skippers are eligible to go on sailing/camping weekends, which include an annual July 4 trip to the Dry Tortugas.
"We have one really big one in October that is sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee. We've been doing that for 18 years. This past year, we had 288 kids from all over the nation and even one from Puerto Rico," said Webb.
ESC also teaches courses in powerboat safety as well.
"We are the only center in the United States that is sanctioned in sailing and powerboats," said Webb. "They just seem to fit together."
ESC is always looking for sailboats or powerboats to be donated to its cause. The not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization accepts donations in the form of usable boats and boat trailers, sailing equipment, powerboat equipment, or cold hard cash. If you have something you would like to donate, please contact Stephanie Webb at 454-5114 for more information.
--information provided from www.edisonsailingcenter.org