In front of 400 attendees, Capt. Walter Rybka of the US Brig Niagara, received the American Sail Training Association’s (ASTA) Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual conference on sail training and education jointly organized by ASTA and Sail Training International held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, November 14 and 15.
Awarded to an individual who has dedicated his or her life’s work to getting people to sea under sail and who has worked to preserve the traditions and skills of sail training, Capt. Walter Rybka was nominated and chosen by his peers to receive this honor. The following was written by CAPT David V.V.Wood, USCG Ret., in recognition of Captain Rybka’s career and contribution to the world of sail training.
“I can think of no one who better meets these criteria than tonight’s recipient. A native of Long Island, New York, he developed an early passion for maritime history-a passion he brought to his first post-college job at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, where he set about learning seafaring aboard the schooner Pioneer. He learned well, and became her master before long. In 1977 he joined the project to acquire and restore the barque Elissa in Galveston, Texas and in 1979 became Restoration Director, a position he held until 1983. Since those early days, he has exhibited a single-minded passion for preserving-and conveying to future generation-the traditional skills, practices, and techniques of seafaring under sail.
In his own words, he believes that ‘the value of preserving anything lies in what it has to teach, and that what ships have to teach is best learned by sailing them,’ and he practiced what he preached. From 1983 until 1991, he served as a maritime preservation consultant and sail training deck officer with Elissa, while also continuing his involvement with the South Street Seaport Museum, USS Constellation, Mystic Seaport Museum , the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Maritime Museum at San Francisco. He also found time to sail as mate aboard Westward and Corwith Cramer of the Sea Education Association, and as master of Californian, then operated by the Nautical Heritage Society. In 1991 he was appointed master of the US Brig Niagara in Erie, Pennsylvania, and sailed in that capacity until 2001, when he became Director of the Erie Maritime Program at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Believing that the only way to preserve a historic vessel is to keep her sailing and to train the crew(s) to sail toward the ship’s greatest potential-and recognizing from the outset Niagara’s safety liabilities-he knew that a strong commitment to sail training was the best was to keep her afloat and to continue sailing to other ports, rather than remain just another stationary museum replica. As the old saying goes, ‘Ships and men rot in port’. He worked single mindedly for nearly fifteen years to change the ship into a better sailing ship, and was the driving force behind converting the vessel into the Coast Guard-certified Sailing School Vessel that she is today-a process that required working to overcome significant bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles. Along the way, he may well have trained more current ASTA skippers and mates in square rig than any other ASTA vessel.
Captain Rybka joins the ranks of other Lifetime Achievement Award recipients such as Ernestine Bennett, Harry Anderson, VADM Thomas Weschler, Rafe Parker and Captain Lane Briggs.