Google/ Apple Seize the Helm at OCSC Sailing, Berkeley

Originally published by Greg Oats
August 26, 2011

San Francisco Bay will be home to the finals of the 2013 America’s Cup sailboat race, arguably the most prestigious, expensive and chic sporting event on the planet.

The high-paid sailors, wealthy sponsors and glittery entourages populating the upper echelon of the sport only impress Anthony Sandberg so much. Founder of OCSC Sailing School, he’s been taking corporate groups sailing around this bay for 32 years. He started with one boat, one client and an office consisting of a few waterfront benches adjacent to Berkeley’s city salvage yard.

Today, the salvage yard is gone. His 6-acre sailing compound is a nautical nexus of world class sailboats, professional and hobbyist sailors, and a community center welcoming everyone with shared values for the sea and the community itself.

Sandberg and his team of 45 professional skippers specialize in corporate teambuilding that combines collaboration, communication and having a blast while ripping through the sea on a broad reach at 14 knots. You’ll also be able to call yourself a sailor after it’s all said and done. Relatively speaking.

We talked with Sandberg about how he helps groups come together on the water, as well as his personal odyssey to make a lasting, positive impact for so many people and the planet. His marina is stocked with 4-person J24s and 6-person J105s, used by similar racing schools from Hong Kong to the Galapagos. Each team is paired with a professional skipper, and depending on the client’s need, professional communication facilitators can hop onboard to analyse, synthesize and shake up group dynamics.

So Anthony, how’s business and who are your clients?

AS: There are so many new companies popping up and so many companies growing in the Bay Area. We work with companies like Facebook, Google, Intel and Apple. They’re constantly adding employees, especially Google for example. They’re here like every week with a new team, and they’ve got a new idea brewing every other day. They just came out with Google+, and one of those teams that designed that were here, as well as a bunch of new hires. And so what Google does, they throw them together and say create this great thing, and they don’t even know each other.

Especially with the younger ones, it’s kind of like a high school dance. You know, the girls go to one side and the boys go to the other. So I need to pull them together and get them to communicate and relate to each other.

How do you do that?

AS: Our favorite method is using medium to large sailboats with 4-6 member teams. So they’re really working in small tight teams with a sense of immediacy and purpose. People are having to talk to each other; what they do really matters; the person at the wheel cannot reach out and just do it for the other person. In fact, they don’t even know what to do. They have to ask for help.

So the immediacy, the compression of the experience, the intimacy of physically bumping and working with each other on the boat as it charges through the water—it’s all very exhilarating and eminently memorable. More memorable I’d say than being at the commissary and having a smoothie.

We have 22 J24s—they’re about $60,000 a piece—and they’re the most popular racing boats everywhere in the world. It’s a high performance yacht but it can be sailed by total beginners, four participants to a boat with one professional instructor.

We also have a fleet of J105s, which are the most popular big boat racing yachts. They run about a ¼ million dollars, and they’re magnificent boats, which you can just hop on and sail to Hawaii. They’ll do about 18 knots, which for a monohull is extraordinary. And with those, there are typically 6 sailors per boat and a professional skipper. These have the wheel, where the others have a tiller, and everyone wants to picture themselves behind the wheel of a yacht, so they’re very popular for our clients.

Take us through a typical program at sea for your corporate clients.

AS: We’ll set up a challenge course where they have to do a figure eight, zig zag upwind, and then a triangle course. And by the end of the day—I mean its not pretty to the eye of an experienced sailor—but the fact is they’re getting a boat through a starting gate, upwind, through a zig zag course, over a triangle and back through a finish line. Each time, everyone gets to skipper during some leg of the route, and everytime they do it, they incremently improve their time. It’s high focus, high energy and a very good time.

I think one of the reasons companies use us, is because if you’re a company like Behr in Germany who comes here, who needs 50 boats on Tuesday, I can say yes. You know, they want what they want when they want it.

Are these programs a race or just a time to bond on the water?

AS: For some groups, it’s about racing and they want some form of competition, and that’s usually a sales group because they can’t speak in any other language.

And other groups just come to us and say, ‘Jeez, we just need some coordination. We need something that represents what it looks like to be a leader and a follower and be good at both.’ Handing off responsibility, trust, communication, asking for help—those are the big ones.

I get calls all the time from someone who says, ‘You gotta help me, I got a team and they’re just so messed up.’ And I go terrific, how much time can you dedicate to this? And they’ll say, ‘I need it done in three hours.’ (laughing)

And we can do that. We can get anyone sailing within an hour, and then what happens, they start asking, what can we do better? How can we improve our course and work together more productively?

Can you explain the professional development component you offer, with specialized facilitators?

AS: We have about a dozen great professional, corporate communication facilitators who are also professional sailors. And a lot of time, a group planner will say to me, ‘I’m not going to get the budget for this unless we have a facilitator.’

So maybe you have a group that isn’t talking to each other. A facilitator goes from boat to boat watching how the group interacts with each other. And the skipper has in mind what the facilitator is looking for. So we’re say,  three hours on the water and we come back for lunch, and the facilitator asks, ‘Okay great, boat #1, how do you think it’s going, who’s your spokesperson?

They go, ‘Oh we were working together great!’ And then the instructor goes, ‘Well, they really have some good skills but I didn’t hear anyone speaking to each other.’ So it goes back and forth but it’s always positive, and in the end everyone goes home feeling like they accomplished something and had a great time in the process.

Can you talk about your efforts revolving around sustainability?

AS: We’re running trips all over the world—Hawaii, Greece, the Galapagos, Antartic—all these places, and we donate 5% of our gross to programs around the world, from stopping shark finning to saving dolphins in Japan.

And around the school, we do a variety of things. We don’t use bad bottom paint that would allow us to go three years between repainting versus two. You know, we use biodegradable soap, recycled paper, materials on the boats that have no off-gases, things like that. We’re aware as we can be.

I mean, the company I built here, this was the ultimate recycling project because 30 years ago this was the Berkeley dump. And today it’s a garden, I mean, it’s a magnificent facility on six acres right on the bay. So essentially, that was my point to the city of Berkeley in the beginning. I said I can take what is now the city dump and a place nobody wants to go, and turn it into a sailing school and a recreational resource for the entire community.

San Francisco Bay is 40% larger than it was 100 years ago. Back then people took their garbage and threw it in the Bay and assumed it was going to go away. And basically the urban area has just encroached on nature all around the Bay. So we want to protect that from happening anymore.

There’s a great documentary called “Saving the Bay,” narrated by Robert Redford, if anyone is interested in learning more.

What do you offer if a group just wants to spend a day sailing?

AS: We have an 82-foot schooner that seats 44 and there’s always a naturalist onboard who’ll talk about what you’re looking at: the salmon, sturgeon, whales, dolphins and everything else swimming in the bay. And then I can sub-charter any number of boats you need depending on the size of a group.

Then, every Wednesday night I have a couple hundred people here, sometimes as many as 300. It’s been a tradition from the start. Everyone comes out to sail; non-members pay $40. It costs more than that for a cup of coffee and a sandwich nowadays. So basically, you have six acres of waterfront property. Our pavilion seats 150. And there’s plenty of chowder, chili, barbecue and beer.

I’m sold. Anthony, what is some of the best feedback you’ve heard from past clients?

AS: We had a woman come as a corporate client a couple years ago. She’s a VP of Citibank and now she’s a friend.

What’s so amazing, she had the whole New York/gotta get it done/80 hours is not enough hours in the week attitude, and she said, ‘This experience really opened me up. I realized I don’t need to wait to have fun in my life. It was really an epiphany. Being out there, wind in my hair—actually just getting over being worried about my hair and being present in the moment.’

She said, ‘It was probably the best management training I’ve ever had in my life. As a woman working up the corporate ladder and all that stuff, I thought I had to be hard and harsh, and buttoned up and tougher than the men.’

I had paired her with a female instructor, and she said then when she went out, here is this lovely young woman who’s telling top executives that she’s with,  ‘I need you to do this; this is what needs to happen; here’s where we’re going now. And she said, ‘I saw one could be direct without attitude if you have an understanding of where you’re going, what needs to happen, and what I need from you…. It has changed my way of managing my teams.’

I mean, even with Columbus, people wanted to know where are we going and why. It’s like, what the hell are we doing here? If they have those answers, you don’t have to yell at them. If they don’t know that, then all the yelling in the world isn’t going to do any good. You know, that’s when mutiny sounds like a good idea.

So that’s what we do. If there’s a model in my world for success, it’s building community and having your clients know each other and associating good times and just human connection with what you’re offering to the world.