June 20, 2016 11:37AM
By Brooke Constance White
Sun staff writer
STONINGTON — When Spike Lobdell founded New England Science and Sailing (NESS) in 2002, his vision was to use the nonprofit to provide water access to everyone, no matter their financial means. Once the newly renovated, ADA-compliant sailing center is unveiled Wednesday, they’ll also be able to expand that vision and extend access to those of all levels of mobility.
Before NESS purchased the Water Street property many years ago, it was home to Garbo Lobster and was used as a giant holding tank for more than 60,000 crustaceans. For the last few years, it’s been used as a seasonal teaching facility but was under-utilized because of the facility’s odd structure and poor condition, Lobdell said.
The ceiling of the first floor was too shallow to walk around in, so when the renovation project started last fall, the main floor was hoisted up several feet so the bottom level could be use for storage.
The top floor of the renovated facility will now be used year-round for NESS’s marine science, sailing and watersports education programs. Because it will be handicapped-accessible, the organization will be developing an adaptive sailing program for those with both physical and cognitive disabilities, Lobdell said.
With the addition of floating docks all around the fixed dock and a ramp down to the boats, students with all levels of mobility will be able to safely get down to the water. The large windows will allow the sailing staff to keep an eye on the harbor and goings-on in the water. During the project, workers also installed lights and security cameras to help with safety.
Although it’s not a high-tech, fancy building, Lobdell said it’s a huge step up for NESS and will dramatically advance its mission.
“We will be utilizing this space much better than we were before and will be streamlining our students’ sailing experience from start to finish,” he said. “The flow of the program will be much smoother and will allow students to be in the water longer and have a more well-rounded experience.”
The $400,000 needed to complete the renovation was raised through capital donations of supporters who believe in the organization, Lobdell said.
“We have some very generous people in our community that we are very grateful for,” he said. “They wanted to put their donations towards something that is really transformational, and this will certainly be changing lives.”
Mark Zagol, sailing program director, said he believes the renovated year-round facility will allow NESS to host more school groups and provide a well-rounded experience for all.
“The building really solidifies the waterfront programs we offer out of Stonington as a solid home base and will allow more space for our students currently,” he said.
In the past six months, more than 4,000 students have participated in programming at the Stonington facility and the seven satellite locations across the region.
Not only does the organization offer hands-on experiences and teach students about sailing, science and water sports, it also seeks to help students build confidence, teamwork and leadership skills.
“We’ve had some wonderful stories about students who had never had any experiences like this and we were able to change their lives and help them to feel trusted and cared about,” Lobdell said. “When we’re on the water, nothing else matters. We are all equal.”
The NESS Sailing Center grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. and is open to the public. The event will be co-hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.