OCC Sailing Program in Newport Beach has Calm Waters and Fair Winds

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Sarah Hirsch

Sarah Hirsch probably enjoys more sea time under sail than Long John Silver, ‘round-the-globe adventurer Bernard Moitessier, Capt. Ahab and Popeye combined.

It’s no wonder, then, that Hirsch, 37, recently was named Director of the Orange Coast College Maritime Center, School of Sailing and Seamanship on Coast Highway in Newport Beach – replacing former director and current Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery.

Hirsch’s logbook starts when she and her sisters were small children living near a tiny lake in Missouri, where their parents introduced them to kid-sized sailing craft.

After the family navigated their way to Michigan, the Hirsch clan spent summers exploring Lakes Huron and Michigan, aboard their O’day 27 sloop, learning the ways of unpredictable waters and random winds.

While a Sociology student at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Hirsch applied for and was hired as a summer deckhand on a Chicago-based “tall ship.” It was love at first height.

Subsequently, Hirsch said that she spent more than 10 seasons learning the ropes on wooden and steel sail training vessels from whose decks she ultimately ascended to a full United States Coast Guard Master, 1,600-ton rating for all oceans, plus both a “sail endorsement” and an “international endorsement.”

She also earned a Masters of Arts in Education from Central Michigan University.

Throughout her schooner-and-brigantine career, Hirsch transported truly precious cargo: kids on tall ship training cruises–sometimes for an afternoon, while other times she’d train the young crews while crossing the Atlantic, wending through the islands of the Caribbean, or plying the Eastern Pacific to various isles of Polynesia.

While many navigators used the latest in electronic navigation, Hirsch insisted on taking sun and star sights via the classic sextant. In fact, Hirsch stated that “celestial navigation was my favorite.”

One of the highlights of her sailing career happened when she was a student sailor working the Caribbean: “We crossed paths with a bunch of Haitians in an overloaded boat trying to reach the U.S. The skipper brought them aboard, fed and watered them.  Then we hightailed it to Jamaica, where they were taken ashore. In a matter of 24 hours, we all went from college kids to lifesavers,” Hirsch recounted with pride, adding, “It was a life changing experience, seeing how the crew came together. It showed me what a group of people can do.”

As Director of the Maritime Center, Hirsch enjoys tremendous responsibility, leading a fulltime staff of four to maintain a sizeable instructional sailing fleet.

During an email Q&A, Hirsch answered questions about her sailing base responsibilities, and the current and future operations.

Q: What are your main responsibilities?

A: I am responsible for overseeing the organization and integration of academic and recreational boating, seamanship education, fleet development and fundraising to educate commercial mariners and boaters alike. I lead planning efforts for program facility growth, including the upcoming July 2021 opening of the Professional Mariner Training Center (connected to the Base via pedestrian skyway).

Q: What is your specialized training?

A: USCG Licensed 1,600-ton Master, Oceans, Sail Endorsed with STCW; Advanced Firefighting; Medical Care Provider (USCG) and Wilderness First Responder; Radar Operator Unlimited.

Q: What makes the OCC sailing base unique?

A: The base is unique because it is situated in an area that is so rich for students: active harbor, fair weather, and proximity to ocean. This brings students from all over the county and even the country to attend classes. Private giving supports our programs so that students have access to the water.

Q: How many and what types of vessels at the base?

A: More than 70 boats and watercraft:

17 – Lido 14 centerboard dinghies

6 – Harbor 20 keelboats

5 – Shields 30 keelboats

9 – 13’ – 18’ Boston Whalers

15 – eight-oared shells

6 – four-oared shells

5 – Pairs two-oared shells

6  – Rowing team launches

Catalina 42’ Betty

Tiara Open 31’ Mia Lucia

Nordic Star, 1970 motor cruiser

Q: What changes do you intend to make to the existing programs?

A: Our biggest project currently is the Professional Mariner Training Center, which will open across PCH. It will include a full Mission Bridge Simulator, training stations for radar, chart plotting, and more. We will add professional development courses geared to USCG-approved training.

Q: What are some of the sample programs the OCC Base offers?

A: The base is home to three great programs: The School of Sailing and Seamanship, Intercollegiate Rowing, and the Professional Mariner Program (leading to an Associate’s Degree and/or certificates).

Q: How many students do you enroll?

A: The School of Sailing and Seamanship averages 1,500 students annually. The Professional Mariner program, through its unique variety of courses and presentations, currently enrolls 85. Men’s and Women’s Crew signs up approximately 90 athletes per training year.

Q: How is the base funded?

A: The boating facilities and programs would not be possible without the partnership between the Coast Community College District, the County of Orange, private donors and fee-paying students. All boats with the exception of the Lido 14s and the Catalina 42’ were gifts to the program from individuals.

Q: What are some of your advanced sailing offerings?

A: Although in the past we have offered international voyages, this year we will keep the advanced sailings closer to home. “Betty” is scheduled for a few Northern Channel Islands cruises.

For detailed offerings, go to www.occsailing.com. For questions beyond the horizon, call (949) 645-9412.

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