BAR HARBOR — At a time when many youngsters are content to learn how to ride a bicycle, David Rockefeller Jr. was spending his summers learning to sail on the waters surrounding Mount Desert Island.
It is a pastime that would instill in him an incredible affinity for the sea and become one of his greatest passions. In the decades since, he has taken those skills and been involved in some of the most prestigious sailing races in the Northeast. He has travelled the world, including sailing expeditions in Turkey, Scotland, Scandinavia, Newfoundland, Alaska, the Caribbean and Italy, and most recently, a 50-day trip circumnavigating the treacherous waters around Vancouver, British Columbia.
At a recent talk at the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor, Rockefeller explained he began learning to sail when he was just 10 years old. “Sailing has been a very big part of my life. Little in my life has brought me as much pleasure or learning,” he explained.
“Perhaps with the exception of Washington [state], there is no other place for cruising like the coast of Maine,” Rockefeller said.
Never far from him in Seal Harbor are three boats, including his International One Design (IOD) sailboat Caribou, a name that frequently appears atop the standings in the local summer sailboat racing circuit.
He also co-owns a lobster yacht Selkie, an Alan Johnson 28 built in Winter Harbor, and a Danish IMX 45 sailboat named Cybele, which he co-owns and races as well.
According to Rockefeller, some of his earliest childhood memories are sailing with his parents, Peggy and David Sr., in a Hinckley Bermuda 40 sailboat that had been built in Manset. From his berth above the main salon, he would listen for hours as his parents and their guests would talk sailing techniques and strategies. “The martinis would come out and the conversation would go on long into the night,” he said.
He began taking to local waters in modest day sailers, which he described as “slightly tubby boats,” including Herreshoff 12s (Bullseyes), Luders 16s and eventually IODs.
Along with literally learning the ropes at the Northeast Harbor Fleet, Rockefeller also quizzed legendary local sailors, such as Jimmy Ducey of Northeast Harbor, for advice.
He also read everything he could get his hands on, including Arthur Knapp’s “Race Your Boat Right,” and he became a devotee of “Chapman’s Piloting and Seamanship.”
And, he explained, there is no substitute for just getting out on the water and having fun.
Along the way, he quickly learned his knots, how to find the most favorable winds and how to navigate and read the waves and currents. First and foremost in Rockefeller’s mind on all his sailing adventures has been safety. “Luckily, I’ve never been on a boat where someone has gone overboard,” he shared.
His offshore résumé is impressive. He’s sailed the Newport to Bermuda Race seven times, as well as made frequent entries in the Marblehead to Halifax Race and competed with his local crew in regional, national and world IOD events.
In 2013, Rockefeller was given the Yachtworld Hero Award for his long history of ocean stewardship. He is the founder of Sailors for the Sea, a group that works with the sailing and boating communities to help heal the oceans. Among its work are educational efforts for more green boating to help engender greater sustainability for water-based events. The group urges stewardship through youth programs and publication of a “Green Boating Guide.” “I’ve always felt it is important to wake sailors up to the problems of the ocean,” he said.
Rockefeller also has served on the Pew Oceans Commission.
Locally, Rockefeller and many other members of his family have supported area yacht clubs and sailing events and helped sustain the Great Harbor Dream program that has gotten youth in all four island towns engaged in competitive sailing. According to Rockefeller, members of other yacht clubs around the country are envious of the MDI’s success with encouraging more participation of youth in sailing.
Over the years, more than 1,000 people have joined Rockefeller for part or all of his extended sailing expeditions. His trip around Newfoundland, he recalled, was particularly memorable. “There’s an entire other culture within our reach just a couple days’ sail away,” he said. His sail along the coast of Alaska “was a life-changing experience,” he continued.
In June and early July of this year, Rockefeller was at the head of a trio of sailboats that spent 50 days circumnavigating Vancouver Island. “It is an amazing, amazing place,” he said recounting strong currents, cold water, fog, and in some narrow passages, whirlpools. Stops along the way provided opportunities to learn more about the native culture of the area. “Beautiful boats, beautiful places, beautiful people – what more could one ask?” he said.
One of the things Rockefeller enjoys most about sailing is that people can continue to participate throughout their lives. “It is not only a team sports, but it is a life sport as well,” he said.
“There’s a lot to learn from the sea,” Rockefeller said. “Not just joy, but sadness and loss as well.”
Most of all, Rockefeller said, the lessons he’s learned from sailing have been applicable to every facet of his life. They include the importance of focus, the need for teamwork and team building, physical conditioning, planning risk management and patience. Other lessons include being a good winner, as well as a good loser, attention to detail, the importance of being able to understand navigation and math, the need for constant vigilance and environmental awareness.
“All of this is important if you’re going to be a serious sailor,” he said.
To find out more, visit www.sailorsforthesea.org.