Love for Sail

Love for Sail

Captain Gerry Shiffman offers sailing excursions to at-risk youth

By Norm Wheeler
Current Contributor

A little over a decade ago, Gerry and Charol Shiffman fell in love with Empire, settled in, and now stay busy helping others. On June 30, 2010, the couple parked their RV at Indigo Bluffs, just east of town on M-72. Gobsmacked by the laid-back vibe and stunning natural beauty of Empire, they looked at a lot the next day in town near Johnson Park, committed to purchase it on July 4, and closed on July 11.

“That was a busy few days,” Shiffman recalls. “And we broke ground on our ‘Happy Place’ home on September 27… Actually, Empire found us, we didn’t find it. We’re in [this community] hook, line, and sinker. I was born in Toronto and have lived a lot of places, but I’ve never felt more at home than I do here.”

Shiffman’s is a carpe diem story of seizing opportunities. 

He grew up in Toronto and immigrated to the United States in 1978. By 1979, he had started Master Plaster Patcher in Grand Rapids, refurbishing many of the former furniture barons’ Victorian homes in the central part of the city, as the Heritage Hill neighborhood was bouncing back and getting gentrified. 

“Heritage Hill claims to be one of the largest preserved residential neighborhoods in the country,” he adds.

And Shiffman was already a sailor. 

“I started sailing at 13 years old in Port Severn, north of Georgian Bay as a 14-foot Beaver day sailor.” 

As he built his business in Grand Rapids, he began sailing out of Muskegon. 

“I was into yacht racing and went through several boats,” he says. “We did many Muskegon-to-Milwaukee and Chicago-to-Mackinac races. Every June, the Queen’s Cup race left Milwaukee at 7 p.m., and you raced all night to Muskegon or Grand Haven. It’s often a grueling, middle-of-the-night race through cold wind and crazy conditions!”

gary shiffman nonprofit seaside sailing excursions and charity charters glen arbor sun the betsie current newspaper empire west grand traverse bay Northern Michigan
Gerry Shiffman had a rough childhood and left school just six weeks before he turned 16 years old. Now he wants to help to keep at-risk youth safe and happy through his nonprofit, Seaside Sailing Excursions & Charity Charters. Photo courtesy of the Glen Arbor Sun.

Once settled in Empire, it did not take Shiffman long to get involved in his new village. In fact, he helped to create the Empire Area Community Center (EACC) as president in 2011.
“Chris Skellenger came to me in the fall that year after seeing another coffee can at the checkout of Deering’s Market bearing a picture of a family who needed donations,” Shiffman explains. “Chris said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ We had generosity and willing musicians, so we started a series of concerts to raise money for folks in a way that protected their identity, so that they could remain anonymous. We thought the need may outpace the support, so we did them every month.” 

With the help of attorney Lea Ann Sterling, Shiffman spent nine months writing boilerplate documents to create the Empire Emergency Fund and get the 501c3 nonprofit status, ultimately under the umbrella of the EACC. 

“Our first event at the Empire Village Inn netted $445,” Shiffman says. 

In 2012, Shiffman became a village trustee and was on the Village Council until 2016, when grandparenting duties pulled him back to Grand Rapids three days a week.

Already in the summer of 2011, Shiffman was sailing his Pearson 31, named Seaquence, in Grand Traverse Bay out of the Harbor West Yacht Club. In 2017, he upgraded to a 32-foot Catalina, named Impulse. 

After completing the grueling studies and tests required, Shiffman is now a fully licensed master captain, U.S.Coast Guard-certified safe and insured.

This summer continues Shiffman’s new Seaside Sailing Excursions & Charity Charters LLC. Its mission is “to provide guests with the highest level of safety, comfort, and enjoyment while they are in our care. Proceeds and contributions from our paying customers will be used to support our charitable mission of providing opportunities for underprivileged and at-risk youth who will benefit from an at-sea experience, and to expose them to a visionary, potentially life-changing experience that they might otherwise never have the opportunity to explore.”

On West Grand Traverse Bay, customers may book two-hour-long daytime excursions or romantic sunset excursions; five-hour-long Power Island excursions; or “design-your-own excursion and hours!” 

Captain Gerry Shiffman is ready for “special events, marriage proposals” (he is licensed to perform weddings!), “anniversaries, birthday parties, even bachelorette parties. Or you can just relax, unwind, rejuvenate.”

The goal of the Charity Charters is “to take at-risk and underprivileged youth out for sailing adventures at no cost. Anyone who pays to sail automatically supports that mission.” 

Shiffman has been vetted by, and is affiliated with, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Michigan, and he is in contact with local schools and counselors, as well as the local recovery community.

Shiffman knows of what he speaks. 

Born with deformed hands—no fingers on one, stump fingers on the other—and raised in a dysfunctional family, he left school and home just six weeks after turning 16, and three months before finishing 10th grade. 

“I have a nine-and-three-quarters high school education,” he smiled. “I was a high-risk youth for many years, harboring suicidal thoughts and struggling with hopelessness. So, I try to share my strengths and hopes with them and play guitar for them.” (Despite no fingers on one hand and stumpy ones on the other, Shiffman has taught himself how to play the guitar—and to play it well!)

“We are all differently-abled,” he says. “Most of our disabilities are between our ears. Finding success is a choice we each must make regardless of the situation. I retired at 52, which was way beyond my wildest dreams as a young man. If I could do that, anybody can. I love telling customers about being charitable, elevating awareness, trying to empower people.”

Gerry Shiffman’s story of resilience, determination, and helping others is inspiring. To connect with Seaside Sailing Excursions & Charity Charters, visit, email, or call 616-437-1711.

A version of this article first published in the Glen Arbor Sun, a Leelanau County-based semi-sister publication to The Betsie Current

Featured Photo Caption: Gerry Shiffman had a rough childhood and left school just six weeks before he turned 16 years old. Now he wants to help to keep at-risk youth safe and happy through his nonprofit, Seaside Sailing Excursions & Charity Charters. Photo courtesy of the Glen Arbor Sun.

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