People Talk: Ric and Kathy Hilliman took a big gamble to capture the ‘Spirit of Buffalo’ - The Buffalo News
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People Talk: Ric and Kathy Hilliman took a big gamble to capture the ‘Spirit of Buffalo’

Ric and Kathy Hilliman have been sailing together since they graduated from Lafayette High School in 1967. Raised on the West Side of Buffalo, they married in 1970. Ric sold copy machines; Kathy owned a dance studio. They moved to the Town of Tonawanda and had three children.

In 2002 the Hillimans decided to shake things up a bit so they started spending winters sailing in Key West, Fla. Summers were spent here allowing Ric to work at tour boat companies like Miss Buffalo, Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises, and Moondance. Ric also crewed as a volunteer on the Edward M. Cotter Fireboat.

The Hillimans launched Buffalo Sailing Adventures in December 2008 with their flagship Spirit of Buffalo, their square-rigged topsail schooner. Today they have five grandchildren, four boats and 23 seasonal employees. Their newest addition – a 45-passenger tour boat – sails the Buffalo River and offers a history tour as well as an inside look at the grain elevators. For more information, visit

People Talk: How did Key West change your life?

Kathy Hilliman: It got us thinking when we saw other tour boat operators: If they can do it, why not us? But it was 2002, and Buffalo wasn’t ready for anything so we waited it out. Six years ago we brought the Spirit of Buffalo down.

PT: What’s it like shopping for a schooner?

Ric Hilliman: First, this kind of boat is very rare. You can find wooden ones, but this is a steel-hulled schooner and it’s very hard to maintain – rigging, lines, sails. One sail alone could cost a couple thousand dollars to replace. So I made a list of all charter companies that owned schooners. I think there were 29 in the entire country. I started calling, and I think I got to number 16 where the owners said they had been thinking of retiring.

PT: Bingo. How much does a schooner cost?

Ric: About a half-million dollars. We mortgaged everything, took our entire savings, and I go down to Georgetown, S.C., to sign the papers. I get back to the hotel after, and I’m watching television. It was December 2008, when the stock market crashed. Nobody wanted to give us a mortgage, so the owner helped us out.

Kathy Hilliman: They’d mortgage a house but no one would touch a boat. What would happen if we didn’t make the payments, the banks said. What would they do with a boat?

PT: That was a huge leap of faith on your part. How did you make it work?

Ric: A big part was my son Rich and daughter-in-law Kate coming on board. He had been in Park City, Utah, working for the United States ski team. He didn’t want anything to do with palm trees or sand, until he visited us in Key West. We got him his license, and he started sailing schooners all along the East Coast. He drives the Spirit all the time.

PT: How labor-intensive is getting a license to captain a schooner?

Ric: You need 365 days of service on the water over a five-year period to qualify to take your Coast Guard exam. And then you begin to learn how to sail a schooner.

PT: Who is your back-up captain?

Ric: We just found another person, but at first it was myself, and Rich and Kate, who is also a captain. He met her on the Atlantic Coast sailing a ship. They fell in love and came to Buffalo to help me.

PT: How did you get into sailing?

Ric: We started at Sherkston with Sunfish sailboats.

Kathy: I lived on the West Side, and I never had anything to do with water. I didn’t go to the beach until I met him.

We have three children. Rich is our business partner. Our middle son Brian is a power boater. He can’t understand why we would take so much time to get from here to there when you could just turn the key of a power boat and go. My daughter Kelly could care less about either.

PT: Weather plays such a huge role in sailing. What is your weather source in the islands?

Ric: You’re on your own. We leave in December and come back in May. There are no docks, no marinas. You’re going to all these islands, and you do get caught in 16-foot seas for three days with sustained winds of 35 knots.

Kathy: On seas like that we eat cookies and potato chips, whatever finger food we can get our hands on. There is no preparing meals especially if you’re doing 24 hours nonstop.

PT: What is your nemesis on the water?

Kathy: High seas. I mean I can deal with them if we get caught during a three-day passage.

Ric: Even on Lake Erie, if you get caught in a squall when you’re going from Port Colborne to Buffalo. Squalls come up quickly with high winds. Lake Erie is so shallow, in a minute weather turns bad. Caught at night in bad weather is probably the worst. It’s black all around.

Kathy: Just big waves.


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