Doug Silber looks lovingly at a fleet of sailboats near the Baltimore Museum of Industry and remembers a turning point that happened more than 20 years ago. “I was working 80 hours a week at a big law firm downtown, and I was having a really bad day. I knew a guy who owned a marina. I walked over during lunch, and said, ‘I really need to go sailing,’” says the 52-year-old Silber, who is a land use and eminent domain attorney. “I was in my suit and wingtips. I rolled up my pants, bailed water out of the boat…. I called my wife from the pier and said, ‘Meet me at the sea wall with sandwiches in an hour.’”
As a child, Silber had learned to sail in Annapolis, joining his father for regattas and trips to nearby Oxford and St. Michaels. He sailed for a week on a tall ship during the Bicentennial in 1976. He founded the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Sailing Association in Colorado and was co-captain of the sailing team at the University of Pennsylvania. At his 1981 graduation, when his father asked what he planned to do with his degree, he replied: “Start a sailing business.” A week later, he opened a yacht racing equipment and consulting business in Annapolis, and he continued to race competitively.
As an 80-hour-a-week attorney, however, there was no longer time for sailing in Annapolis. But that day, as Silber sailed through the harbor to meet his wife, he experienced a feeling of release and freedom— and he knew that he, and others in the city, needed more of that feeling. Soon afterward, he and fellow sailor Jef Eyring, now president of Waverly Construction and Management Co., created a sailing club to give people access to shared boats for the price of a low-cost membership. “The biggest barrier to sailing has always been the cost of boat ownership,” says Silber. “We wanted to create an opportunity for people to learn to sail, and for people who didn’t have the time and money to own a boat.”
With just one 22-foot J Boat, the pair launched the for-profit Downtown Sailing Club at HarborView Marina in 1989. Four years later, Silber and Eyring had four boats and about 50 members. The club offered a booming learn-to-sail program and a small racing program. Silber’s wife, Julia, did the promotion and ran the summer program, along with the junior camp. The club began to offer sailing instruction for kids with disabilities and inner city children.
Although the concept was a hit, the demands of running the club were taxing the men and their growing families. So in 1993, Silber, Eyring and their members decided to convert the sailing club to a nonprofit sailing center. Eighteen years later, the Downtown Sailing Center has moved down the harbor to the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Its budget has grown from $50,000 a year to more than $500,000, from summer-only programs to year-round operations, and from no permanent staff to four fulltime employees and a large seasonal staff. The fleet has expanded to 65 boats, including a dozen that are specially outfitted to accommodate people with disabilities.
With support from the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the city, the DSC now occupies three acres of waterfront and has become one of the most emulated community sailing centers in the United States. More than 150 volunteers spend about 5,000 hours a year repairing boats, stitching canvases, teaching sailing to members and campers of all ages and backgrounds, training young people to become teachers— even helping at-risk youth learn public speaking skills, study for SATs and understand credit and daily financial matters.
Silber, now in solo practice as an attorney, has a schedule more flexible than 20 years ago. He’s done everything imaginable at the DSC, from serving on the executive committee, handling all legal documents and permits to repairing boats and docks, and securing a 25-year lease with the city and a 99-year lease with the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Now he’s focused on helping launch a capital campaign to raise the $1.5 million needed to renew the fleet and refurbish and maintain facilities.
What energizes Silber most is the sailing that happens daily through the DSC, especially in the accessibility program, whose season finale is a free race for sailors with disabilities scheduled this year for Sept. 24.
“Everything you need to know about life can be taught by sailing,” says Silber. “Life is not a straight course. It helps to start ahead, but it’s not necessary. If you’ve got focus and you work hard, you eventually get there.”
For information about the Downtown Sailing Center: http://www.downtownsailing.org or 410-727-0722