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My Life in Boats: On board with Manhattan Yacht Club founder and commodore Michael Fortenbaugh

1 June 2022 • Written by Grace Trofa

The owner of Arabella and founder of the Manhattan Yacht Club founder, Michael Fortenbaugh tells Grace Trofa how he built his life around sailing.

I grew up sailing in the Bay Head Yacht Club in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. I was six and a half when I began crewing for my father in a 4.8-metre M Scow. An adult could sail it with a child, but the child had responsibilities; for every tack, I had to trim the jib and raise and lower the kneeboards. It was very exciting when we were winning, not so much when we were losing.

Celebrating a friendship between yacht clubs at the 2019 Monaco Classic Week. Above: fortenbaugh's 47m Arabella.

I sailed every summer and eventually I became a racing sailor on a national level, excelling in a sport boat called an E Scow. I finished second, third, fourth and fifth and missed winning first place by 7/10 of a point – something that still sits in the back of my mind!

After Princeton University, I moved to New York City with the dream of reintroducing recreational sailing to New York Harbor. It was the right time in the late 1980s, shipping had declined and the harbour was beginning to clean up. We started the Manhattan Yacht Club with our own fleet of 12 J/24s. For busy New Yorkers it was a way to access sailing without heavy investment. Our first year we invited yacht clubs from around the world to come race with us. Both Prince Albert II of Monaco and Dennis Conner, who was thinking of representing our club in his America’s Cup bid, responded.

Manhattan Yacht Club’s 12 metre sisterships

These relationships that started in 1988 continue to this day. It was Dennis whom I called when I heard that Arabella was for sale. I first saw her in the Virgin Islands in 2000. I thought she was so beautiful I had my crew circle the boat three times. Dennis flew over with his surveyor and reported that she had good bones. At 47.85-metres in length, she has plenty of space for entertaining, and you know you’re special if I invite you to have dinner on the top deck with views of the skyline and Statue of Liberty. When I am not using her, she is available for charter.

Michael with Bernard d’Alessandri of Yacht Club de Monaco

Our club was at North Cove Marina, just one block from the Twin Towers. On 9/11, I was outside near the towers when the first plane hit. What I saw that day was traumatic, and you deal with trauma for months or even years after the event. On the one-year anniversary, I organized Sail for America; 1,400 sailboats came to New York Harbor and created this incredible silent parade, flying a flag for every person lost in 9/11. It was important because it represented resurrection, not death.

In 2005, Dennis Conner joined me as the celebrity endorser for North Cove and together we revitalized the marina and helped Lower Manhattan come back strong. For our 20th anniversary, we wanted to dream big. What’s better than a 12 Metre for a yacht club? We raised enough funds to buy US 46, America II, which raced in the 1987 America’s Cup. We currently have two America’s Cup 12 Metre sisterships, US 42 and US 46. This year we are going to celebrate our 35th anniversary with a 12 Metre regatta in June in New York Harbor.

With Dennis Conner (in center, cutting ribbon) for the opening of North Cove in 2005

Sailing is therapeutic. I’ve never done any offshore races, but I am very happy with day sailing and going to dinner on board Arabella with good friends.

As told to Grace Trofa. First published in the June edition of BOAT International US. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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