ERIE, Penn. — William Sabatini may have the best job in America.
He is captain of a magnificent tall ship, a breathtaking replica of the relief flagship of former Commander Oliver Hazard Perry docked near the Maritime Museum along Lake Erie. It is a job that places the wind in his beard, billowing white sails over his head and an adventure in his grip at every turn on the unpredictable shallow waters of the lake, where high waves and storm waters can form swiftly.
It is also a job that requires him to be apolitical.
In today's vicious, polarized political world, he may truly be the luckiest man in America.
He smiles broadly at that assessment.
Sabatini is serving up beers at St. Patrick's along with his wife and two Republicans, Congressman Mike Kelly and State Sen. Dan Laughlin. He's a member of the celebrity bartender team for the annual festival that serves as the big fundraiser for the downtown Roman Catholic parish.
It's not a sign that he is supporting Republicans, just a sign of his celebrity status in the community where his day job is sail training. Many of these neighbors are his former customers.
"Sail training is about taking people out in the water and giving them an experience that they can use as they go further in life," he explains. "Our goal isn't to make tall-ship sailors out of every single person that comes on the Niagara. Our goal is to give them something meaningful, to make them part of a team, make them part of our crew and to really, truly use that to apply that teamwork in their lives."
The large tents lining the blocks surrounding the parish are filled with food, Celtic music, a variety of artisans and, of course, plenty of ale on tap. The growing Erie brewing scene is well-represented here, a thriving party of a vibrant city filled with a mix of both heavy-industry and recreational beaches.
Sabatini, the 36-year-old captain of 200-square-foot U.S. Brig Niagara that is the official flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, grew up in Massachusetts. He attended the Maine Maritime Academy in New England and came to Erie in 2005 to be a third mate of the square-rig sailing vessel.
"One year later, I became second mate, did that for two years and moved up to then chief mate, and now captain. And I've just been promoted to executive director," he said of being in charge of the entire organization that supports the Maritime Museum along the shore. "Sail training is a beautiful thing. What I always tell my crew is we're not going to save the environment; we're not going to create world peace. But if we do our jobs right, we can save an individual, and that's what we work on. Every single day is about getting people on the water and giving that chance to succeed. Set them up for success, make them part of crew. Our motto on Niagara is 'Ship, shipmate, self,' and we want people to come into the ship. They are from all backgrounds, come from all over the country, come from all over the world, and we become one crew over the course of the time that they're in the ship."
People instinctively want to be part of something bigger than themselves, he says: "It's about synergy. It's amazing to watch that progression of a brand-new trainee. And we do high school; we do college; we do adults and watch them day one having no idea where they are, what's going on and make that transition from 'I have no idea what this is all about' to 'I'm a contributing member of the crew of the U.S. Brig Niagara.' And that's a beautiful thing to see, because it's that growth and transition."
He adds, "You know, sail training of itself can be that transformational experience that sets someone on a new course in life."
Sabatini says that in his role, he works with whoever is in office locally and in Washington, D.C.: Kelly was set to join the ship for a day last year when he was called to Washington for a vote; he drove there without his staff, who still participated.
"His whole staff joined us that day; we had about 5- to 8-foot seas, so it was a bit exciting," he says, adding, "A couple of people might have gotten seasick."
Sabatini doesn't get in the fray of politics, and that's fine with him. "Once they're in office, we want them to understand that the U.S. Brig Niagara is the official flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. So, whether you're a state senator like Dan Laughlin or a congressman like Congressman Kelly, we want them to feel that that is their ship. In the same way that Mayor Schember or Kathy Dahlkemper — our county executive — or any of our elected officials, we want them to feel welcome when they come down to Niagara," he says, peeling off the names of elected Democrats and Republicans who represent the area.
All throughout the festival people talked about family, community concerns, where so-and-so was and how great the attendance was. Kelly and Laughlin shared more stories with patrons about what their favorite festival food was than the comings and goings in Washington or the state Capitol.
It was a scene much different than the world of social media in which every day — every hour — a new outrage is an immediate obsession and spreads like wildfire before it is even validated. It is a place where character assassination has become the new political blood sport and politics has over taken our culture, our entertainment and our sports.
That makes it very inescapable if you live and breathe politics.
Randy Bristello, a member of the parish, said that fortunately, it is not an obsession he runs across often, either here at the festival or on a day-to-day basis. "Probably because people I interact with are not glued to their phones or televisions in the way I think they are in the bigger cities in the country," he said.
The band strikes up again as Sabatini pours two Smithwick's for a young couple and recounts how he worked his way up to executive director and gets to bring people together to learn a new skill — all the while never taking his eye off them as he pours the perfect serve.
Bristello tells Sabatini he's a natural. He smiles. He just might be the luckiest man in America.