Offshore Sailing School finds a “rainbow” after Hurricane Ian
When Hurricane Ian struck, it threw the Offshore Sailing School off course.
The Category 5 hurricane destroyed the school’s headquarters on McGregor Boulevard in south Fort Myers, inundating it with an unexpected 6-foot storm surge.
In addition to losing office files, furniture and equipment, the owners also lost valuable memorabilia collected over nearly 60 years in business, from newspaper and magazine articles to awards and trophies recognizing their success as seafarers and entrepreneurs.
The storm soaked scrapbooks, destroyed paintings and shredded thank-you notes from graduates.
The thought of losing such irreplaceable memorabilia brings sadness and heartache.
But there’s a silver lining: Owners Steve and Doris Colgate have charted a new course for their business — and it’s looking good.
After Ian severely damaged all of the school’s partner resorts and marinas in Southwest Florida, forcing each of them to close indefinitely, the Colgates set sail to expand their offerings elsewhere.
This included St. Petersburg, a few hours away, where they already had a base of operations at a Hampton Inn near the downtown waterfront.
Since the storm, the school has repositioned boats, added instructors and expanded courses in the city known for its pristine coastline and sunshine. The investment is paying off better than expected.
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Nearly 100 students who signed up for classes on Captiva Island or Fort Myers Beach or Cape Coral and couldn’t after Ian hammered all those places were relocated and diverted to St. Petersburg or the Caribbean Islands.
The school also has campuses on Scrub Island and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.
New Southwest Florida location unveiled
On Monday, just over four months after Ian, the school announced it had secured a deal to resume classes in Southwest Florida.
The new location is at ‘Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa on Captiva Island. Courses start on March 1st.
At the resort, the school offers three-day sailing courses and one-week bareboat cruising courses, as well as sailing lessons – for visitors and locals alike – on 26- to 45-foot sailboats and yachts.
“Offshore Sailing School is thrilled to welcome visitors and residents back to the Sanibel-Captiva Islands and to support other businesses that welcome guests to the beaches, islands and neighborhoods of Fort Myers and the greater Southwest Florida area,” said Doris Colgate.
Students often take part in courses as part of a ‘learning holiday’, which is why the school has been a magnet for tourists for many decades.
At all locations, the school offers US sailing and powerboat certification courses at all levels. One of the most popular courses is called Fast Track to Cruising, which prepares students to own a large boat and charter cruises on their own.
The school also offers racing courses, team building and leadership development programs for companies and organizes sailing holidays.
Ian’s timing made a difference
For the Colgates and their business, Ian’s timing turned out to be rather fortuitous.
In the week before the hurricane hit Southwest Florida, the owners organized Offshore U, a comprehensive gathering of all companies.
The multi-day event took place at the South Seas Resort on Captiva Island, one of the school’s former classroom locations, and drew nearly 30 staff from all locations to learn, socialize and have fun.
Employees heard updates on curriculum, fleet, sales, marketing and operations and participated in social activities including a cruise to Cabbage Key.
Little did they know the group would be one of the last to visit and enjoy the South Seas before the legendary resort was beaten by Ian and a massive remodel was required, said Beth Oliver, Offshore Sailing School’s director of sales and marketing.
When employees first gathered in Southwest Florida, it looked like the hurricane would make landfall in the Tampa Bay area. But then came his fateful twist.
The timing of the biannual company meeting proved beneficial as employees got to know each other better and gained more respect for one another from Ian, resulting in a quicker response to the disastrous storm – and faster recovery, too, Oliver said.
Owner Doris Colgate, who serves as the company’s President and CEO, wholeheartedly agreed.
“Living together for five days. That’s a rare thing for a company,” she said.
She added, “Team building is one of our greatest strengths when we get together.”
Before returning home from the company-wide gathering, response teams from St. Petersburg and the Caribbean took action to secure and protect boats.
“There really were all hands on deck,” said Oliver.
The company meeting took place from September 18th to 23rd.
Ian landed in Cayo Costa, an island off the coast of Fort Myers, on September 28th.
When underwriters came to assess the damage to boats in Southwest Florida after the storm, they applauded the school for having “the best secured fleet they’ve ever seen,” Oliver said.
“They said it was a case book example of what to do,” she said.
Of 24 boats in Florida, two sank, one was totally wrecked and another disappeared. The ships lost and destroyed were all Colgate 26s – designed jointly by Steve Colgate, an Olympic and America’s Cup racer and Sailing Hall of Famer, and Jim Taylor, a renowned naval architect.
The sailboats were considered unsinkable until Ian.
“When the shrimp boats went off on Fort Myers Beach, they might have severed a couple of our Colgates,” Oliver said. “We do not know it.”
“Overall, we did well,” she said. “And all of our employees have been fine, apart from some damage to some people’s homes.”
Boats are back in action
Every boat in the fleet touched by the Southwest Florida storm had “some sort of damage” from Ian, but much of it could be described as “cosmetic,” Colgate said.
“This is a costly repair situation,” she said. “But we’re almost done with that.”
In fact, most of the boats are “back in action,” Doris Colgate said.
Two weeks after Ian, the school had a strong presentation and sales at the US Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland.
Not long after, the company and its owners celebrated an important milestone.
In November, Doris joined her husband in the National Sailing Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2015 for his racing career and leadership in sailing education.
Doris was not only a pioneer in sailing instruction, but also a leading advocate for women in sailing.
While many of the Colgates’ memorabilia are lost forever, Doris is grateful to have scanned almost all of the important photos.
She did this for a book about the couple called Offshore High, written by Herb McCormick and published in 2021.
At least they have a digital version of their photos – and the book.
Steve founded the sailing school in 1964. Originally headquartered in New York, the company moved to Fort Myers in 1988.
The school has more than 160,000 graduates.
Not as usual
After Ian destroyed their nearly 35-year-old headquarters in Fort Myers, the Colgates found a new one further inland. Their suppliers acted quickly to restore their operating systems and provide new devices to help them get back on their feet quickly.
As they expand into other markets, the duo have hired new instructors in St. Petersburg and the British Virgin Islands.
They have added a new Jeanneau 440 cruising yacht and Lagoon 40 catamaran to their Florida fleet, along with another Moorings 4500 catamaran at Scrub Island.
They continue to monitor new locations and boats.
“It’s not business as usual. It’s an ‘expansion and change’ business,” said Colgate.
The company has navigated rough seas and is making a comeback.
“It’s all good. It’s all good. It’s just very tiring,” Colgate said.
After a lot of hard work, she sees smoother sailing ahead.
“We’ll find our rainbow,” Oliver said.
In return, Steve credits the strong commitment and go-getter attitude of the company’s entire team, who put their hearts and hours into the recovery effort.
“It’s been an extraordinary effort and we’re seeing a lot of bright things on the horizon,” he said.