In 1998 I emceed a skipper’s forum on the Annapolis (Md.) City Dock, hosting the skippers of the Whitbread Round the World Race. Paul Cayard, skipper of the victorious EF Language syndicate, was on the panel, explaining to more than 1,000 people in the audience what it was like to sail in the Southern Ocean. Dennis Conner, whose Volvo 60 Toshiba sat nearby, was another panelist, and as he compared the Whitbread to the America’s Cup, the crowd hung on his every word. It was at this moment I realized the sport of sailing needed a Hall of Fame to celebrate the accomplishments of these great sailors and many others.

I had no idea then that in 10 years time the very place where the forum was taking place would soon be sailing’s permanent home. It’s long overdue.

Many of our sport’s greatest moments are chronicled on film, on plaques and trophies, and in logs, yearbooks, magazines, and websites. But sailing has never had its own unified “place,” a physical space bearing the history that reminds us what sailing, in its many forms, is about. Sailing needs a home that trumpets its achievements and inspires generations to excel on the water, and to serve the sport.

The desire for such a home was the easy part; finding the best place to hang a shingle, however, was a challenge. There are many cities and towns worthy of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, but Annapolis, Md., emerged for many reasons.

After six years of working on the concept, the National Sailing Hall of Fame board, of which I am a member, received the gift it needed from then Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, who offered a prime waterfront location in Historic Annapolis. The nearly 5,000-square-foot parcel is sandwiched between the sprawling U.S. Naval Academy and Annapolis’ centrally located and heavily trafficked (by tourists and locals) City Dock. It’s about as publicly accessible?and visible?as a Sailing Hall of Fame can get. Surely it will draw in committed and casual sailors alike through its doors.

Preservationists put forth legitimate concerns regarding development of the land, in particular the historic home that stood on the site and once belonged to Captain William Burtis, a deep-rooted Chesapeake waterman. The NSHOF spent nearly two years attending hearings, addressing concerns, and explaining to residents the Hall of Fame’s mission, and its potential to create revenue for the city.

Once the NSHOF resolved the land development issue and obtained the necessary approvals, 26 architects from around the country bid on the $20-million project. Joseph Boggs, whose firm was responsible for the American History Museum in Washington, D.C., earned the bid and in January presented his vision, shown in the image below.

The Burtis House property covers about 5,000-square, comprising only a portion of the space required to do the project right. In January of this year, the remaining pieces came into place: the NSHOF acquired an adjacent piece of property from the Phillips Seafood Company for $2,850,000, and the City of Annapolis granted the Hall a portion of the street on which the building would reside. In 2008, the city completed its $9 million reconstruction of City Dock, which includes 572 feet of dock space owned by the NSHOF, creating a gateway for sailors heading out to or arriving from the Bay. Ultimately, the plan calls for the construction of a $12 million building and an outdoor display area.

This is a challenging time to raise funds, but the NSHOF, under chairman Dick Franyo, a retired investment banker, is working on opening a temporary exhibit in the existing buildings, as it carries on with its capital campaign. From an insider’s perspective, it’s an understatement to say that the effort put forth to reach this point has been monumental.

To demonstrate the potential of the concept to the city and its residents, the NSHOF recently displayed historical boats, including President John Kennedy’s Manitou, When and If, originally built by General George Patten, and the Pride of Baltimore II.

The vision of the National Sailing Hall of Fame has expanded from a simple hall to include a museum that will be a center for environmental expositions, and an educational center for sailing.

Sailing has a long and storied history, and the Hall will highlight the sport in all of its diversity: early explorers, naval expeditions, commerce, racing, and cruising are all linked through maritime history. The NSHOF intends to demonstrate these connections through interactive displays and the preservation of sailing’s archives. A library is planned in memory of Maine boat builder Tom Morris, and the facility will be able to host regattas, ceremonies, and sailing demonstrations. Once open, the Hall of Fame will showcase the science of sailing and promote a center for study and research on people, events, trends, yachts, and the environment.

The memorable moments in our sport are countless, and unless there’s a common place to preserve these memories, we’re in danger of losing the relevance of sailing’s past and future. A few examples of heroics on the water worthy of honor come quickly to mind: In 1972 Buddy Melges started the Soling Olympic Trials with a broken mast and went on to win in very heavy winds. He followed that with a gold medal stunner in Kiel, Germany. How about that infamous Race 7 of the 1983 America’s Cup? And then skipper Dennis Conner reclaiming it 40 months later? More recently, Anna Tunnicliffe’s miracle puff in Qingdao lofted her to a gold medal. These are just a few of many great stories by American sailors, stories that belong in the Hall for all generations to remember.

Other sports have their hallowed halls; think Cooperstown, N.Y., for baseball and Canton, Ohio, for football. Annapolis is a logical place for a sailing hall of fame. It will take broad support from sailors across America to help make this vision a reality. Think of it not just as sailing’s home, but your home, too.

Apr 20, 2009