Tom Russell: A Life at the Helm

Person of the Week: Tom Russell: A Life at the Helm – By Eric O’Connell – Published July 26, 2017

Lifelong sailor Tom Russell is having fun helping adults learn the ropes (or, more accurately, lines and sheets) with the Clinton Sailing Club. (Photo courtesy of Tom Russell )

When the Clinton Sailing Club (CSC) expanded its program for the 2017 summer to include adult and family sailing lessons, it sought out an experienced instructor for the classes. After a lifetime spent on the water, Tom Russell certainly fits the bill.

Tom grew up in Mystic and was out learning the ways of the water almost immediately.

“I’ve been on a boat since I was half a year old,” says Tom.

Tom can fondly recall his time spend walking around Mystic Seaport and his family taking cruises in the summer to Block Island.

“I have a lot of sailboat experience,” says Tom. “I grew up on the [Mystic] River, which was pretty cool.”

Tom’s sailing as a kid wasn’t always so smooth. Tom had what he called a “memorable time” as a child when he had to ride out Hurricane Belle in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Hurricane Belle was a category three hurricane that struck the east coast of the United States from Aug. 6 to 15 in 1976.

After a successful 2016 summer teaching kids how to sail, the CSC expanded its course offering to include adult sailing lessons, family lessons, and woman’s lessons. Tom teaches the adult and family lessons, which started on July 15. The comprehensive classes are designed to teach students to be confident in their abilities to the point that will be able to sail on their own after completing the class.

Tom, who says he’s been teaching sailing for “about four years,” uses a mix of lessons on land and on the water to teach students.

“The focus is safety, fun, and learning,” says Tom.

According to the CSC website,, during the 16-hour program, students “will rotate through positions on the boat: helm (steering the boat), mainsheet (the big sail), jib (the little sail)…” Thus far the feedback from the adult and family sailing classes has been “super positive. People are excited about it,” according to CSC President Alan Felgate.

Asked his favorite part of teaching, Tom says it’s when his students suddenly get the lesson he’s trying to teach them.

“My favorite part is when they have that ‘aha’ moment,” says Tom.

Tom says he likes to tailor each lesson to the individual student and their need.

“I enjoy helping students learn on an individual basis,” says Tom. “We have a structured and creative learning process where we need to meet every student where they’re at.”

According to Tom, sailing can be tricky to pick up for first timers because “you can’t see the wind,” which you obviously need to steer the boat.

Tom has turned his love of his nautical experiences into a career. Tom works for North Sails, a sail manufacturing company founded by Olympic gold medalist Lowell North in 1957.

Sailing isn’t the only outdoor sport he likes to teach, as he’s also a ski instructor at Powder Ridge Ski Area in Middlefield. Tom compared steering a boat to skiing, because, as he says, “skiing is similar in that you traverse.”

Tom particularly enjoys sailing to Block Island, which he called his favorite place to sail.

“It’s a great destination to sail to,” says Tom.

The CSC, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, was started in summer 2016 and taught almost 200 children how to sail in its first summer and has added new programs since its inception. In addition to the adult and family lessons and woman’s sailing, the CSC also partners with a non-profit organization, Pay4ward, to provide free sailing to veterans. According to its website, CSC is also looking to add Senior Sailing, Club Racing, Adaptive Sailing, and a Community Sailing Program. The CSC relies entirely on lesson enrollments and donations. For more information about donations or classes, interested readers can visit the CSC Facebook page or