Professional Crew Bios
Senior Captain, Walter Rybka
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Walter Rybka first tasted salt air during frequent visits to the New York waterfront, sparking a life-long interest in all things maritime. After graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1972, he began sailing in the schooner Pioneer, which ran a sail training program for adjudicated youth based at the South Street Seaport Museum.
Between 1977 and 1983, Rybka served as the Restoration Director for the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Elissa, supervising the complete rebuilding of the 1877 iron barque, from a gutted shell to a voyaging vessel. During the next seven years, he divided his time between consulting on numerous ship preservation projects and serving as a watch officer or master in various sail training programs.
In 1991, he was recruited by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as captain of the U.S. Brig Niagara to head a program of both sail training and historic interpretation. His duties also included assisting with the creation of the Erie Maritime Museum which opened in 1998.
Since 2001, Captain Rybka has been director of both ship and museum. He still sails part time as relief captain of the U.S. Brig Niagara, now inspected and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Sailing School Vessel. He holds a USCG license as Master, auxiliary sail, 1600 tons, Oceans. In addition, he has served on the advisory board of the American Sail Training Association, as well as advisory panels for the project to sail U.S.S. Constitution and currently for the Museum’s Sailors Speak project.
In 2006, the USS Constitution Museum Foundation presented Rybka with that year’s Don Turner Award for historic ship preservation. Also in 2006, the American Sail Training Association recognized him with its Sail Trainer of the Year award. He previously received this same award in 1993.
Captain, William Sabatini
Captain William (Billy) Sabatini grew up in southeastern Massachusetts on Cape Cod, and so has been around water his entire life. He began sailing traditionally-rigged vessels in Newport, RI, before attending Tabor Academy, an academically rigorous high school in Marion, MA.
While at Tabor, Billy sailed for four years on the Schooner Tabor Boy; he also crewed on various other schooners during his summer breaks. In the latter half of his senior year, he restored a 1939 Alden Coastwise Cruiser, Luau, which he sailed throughout New England after graduation. The following year, he sailed Luau to Maine Maritime Academy, where he spent the next four years earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Small Vessel Operations, with a concentration in Sail Training. While at Maine Maritime, Billy worked his way up to the position of Chief Mate of the Academy’s schooner Bowdoin, where he designed and implemented Bowdoin’s sail training program.
During his college career, he also assisted in the development of a supplemental seamanship program, applicable to both traditional and modern vessels, for students in all majors at the Academy. Billy was active in the MMA drama club, as an actor, director and producer, and is especially remembered for his star turn in Picasso at the Lapin Agile, in the role of Gaston.
Billy began his career at the U.S. Brig Niagara in 2005, as 3rd Mate, advancing to Chief Mate in 2008 and Captain in 2014. During the winter months, he has served as Mate or Captain on a number of traditionally-rigged vessels on every coast of the United States. Over the last two decades, he has sailed the East coast from Nova Scotia to Venezuela, the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico, and the entire Great Lakes system, as well as crossing the Atlantic twice.
As Billy enters his 12th season on Niagara, and his third season as Captain, he is very much looking forward to another year as the Captain of America’s foremost Sailing School Vessel, one of our nation’s most important historical relics.
Billy lives in Erie with his wife Megan, who is a teacher at Union City High School, their dog Bruin, and their cats Commodore and Dory.
Director of Marine Operations, Relief Mate, Joseph Lengieza
Joseph Thaddeus Lengieza is Director of Marine Operations for the U.S. Brig Niagara, a position which includes planning, logistics, outreach, and curriculum development duties, as well as sailing onboard the vessel. He has been involved with Niagara since 1998 and has worked onboard a number of other sailing ships, including Pride of Baltimore II and the U.S.S. Constellation. He is a Master’s candidate in Maritime History and Underwater Archaeology at East Carolina University.
Chief Mate, David Goldman (Goldie)
David Goldman has been involved with Niagara since 2008, when he served here as an Able Seaman. He has worked his way up the ranks and is now second in command. As Chief Mate, he is the captain’s executive officer, tasked with organizing and leading the ship’s crew. David has sailed numerous traditional sailing ships on the East Coast and Caribbean. David originally hails from Rochester, NY. His hobbies include vintage Volkswagens and flying his DeLorean and Enterprise around his office.
Ship’s Carpenter, Adam Stanisz
Adam has been the ship’s carpenter since December 2013. As the ship’s carpenter, Adam leads all carpentry projects in the shop and on the ship. He is responsible for maintaining the condition of the ship’s hull, the masts, and spars. Adam served for four years in the U.S. Army and was deployed in Kosovo. Adams professional carpentry career began in 2002 when he attended the Apprentice Shop in Rockland, Maine. Adam is a sci-fi fan, and hopes everyone has the force with them and that they all may live long and prosper.
Second Mate, Christopher Cusson
Chris Cusson first sailed with the ship in 2008. This season will be in his 5th with Niagara. As Second Mate, Chris leads a watch underway and serves under the direction of the Captain and Chief Mate. Chris is also the ship’s engineer and volunteer coordinator. Chris grew up in CT and Newfoundland. He served four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, attended Maine Maritime Academy, UCONN, and has sailed numerous traditional sailing ships. Chris enjoys adventure, board games, and karaoke.
Carpenter, James Turner
James Turner has worked aboard the Niagara since 2013. He has served as an Able Seaman for 3 seasons and is now a member of the carpentry team. Originally from McKinleyville, California, James has also sailed on the tall ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain. He holds a Certificate as an Able Seaman, Sail Endorsed issued by the U.S. Coast Guard and is also a skilled machinist. His interests include hunting, fishing, and music, and his superpower is being able to fall asleep anywhere.
AB Seafarer, Kelsey Angeli
2016 will be Kelsey’s second season as an Able-bodied Seafarer and her 5th season with Niagara. She began as a trainee in 2012 and has worked her way up to AB. As a rigger this winter and as an AB in the summer, Kelsey works directly with volunteers to accomplish ship’s maintenance and operational tasks. Kelsey is from Canton, Ohio and attended Allegheny College where she graduated this past December. Kelsey recently got a new Husky puppy, named Tolkien.
Third Mate, Sydnee Groenendaal
Sydnee Groenendaal returns to Niagara for her 11th season sailing, 8th season working, and is the 3rd mate. Sydnee has sailed on Niagara since she was 16 and learned everything she knows about tall ship sailing here. She is pursuing an eventual degree in History and holds a 100 Master, 200 Mate License issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Sydnee trained in classical ballet for 8 years before learning the ways of a ship. Her interests include the show Supernatural, mental health, changing the words in a song to “doge,” and singing songs to her nephew dog, Jack.
Cook, Rosy O’Brien
Rosy O’Brien returns to Niagara for her 3rd season as cook. Originally from Washington state, she has sailed on a number of vessels on both coasts, the Hudson River, and the Great Lakes. One of her aspirations in life is to hold a red panda, preferrably while wearing her red panda costume. Her interests include knitting, crocheting, board games, and camping.
Boatswain, Matt Kent
Matt Kent returns to Niagara for his 8th season as the Boatswain. He holds a degree in biology from Hudson Valley, and holds a 100 ton Great Lake’s Masters/200 ton N.C. Mate’s License issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. His interests include climbing and building.
Ordinary Seafarer / Medical Officer, Ceci Wiessert
Ceci began her adventure with Niagara as a volunteer and trainee in 2013 and now returns for her second season on the crew as an Ordinary Seafarer. Originally from Pittsburgh, Ceci studied and worked in higher education as an RD and adjunct faculty before coming to Niagara. She has a Master of Arts degree from Geneva College, is trained as an EMT, and holds an O.S. Certificated issued by the Coast Guard. Ceci plays the violin and is interested in knowing everything about everything.
Ordinary Seafarer, Cyrus Economedes
Cyrus joins Niagara for the first year as professional crew as an Ordinary Seafarer. Originally from Marquette, MI, Cyrus has worked on Niagara, Pride of Baltimore II, Lynx, and Coaster II. He hopes to soon hold a Merchant Marine Certificate issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. He is happily married to the sea – but neither of them has been very faithful. His interests include slowly winding small bits of string onto large bits of string.
Ordinary Seafarer, Griffin Hayes
Griffin Hayes returns to Niagara this year for his 2nd season as an Ordinary Seafarer. An Erie native, he has sailed on Niagara, Liberty Clipper, and Harvey Gamage. He holds a Merchant Mariner’s Credential issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Sailing was his first paying job. His interests include sailing, diving, spearfishing, and small boats.
AB Seafarer, Andrew Duzs
Andew Duzs returns to the lofty ship Niagara for his 2nd season as an A.B. Originally form Carlisle, PA, Andrew has sailed on tall ships for a number of years. Andrew holds an AB Certificate issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. He grew up mostly in Eastern Europe. His interests include cats and meatballs.
AB Seafarer, Pip Conner
Pip Conner returns to Niagara this year for his 8th season as an AB. An Erie native, Pip has sailed on Roald Amundsen. He holds a degree in Molecular Biology/Computer Science from Appalachian State University, and holds an EMT-P (NC-state) License. He grew up abroad and also enjoys his catering business. His interests include lapidary, cooking, languages, and playing the fiddle.
AB Seafarer, Rebecca Prasher
Rebecca returns to Niagara this year for her 2.5th season as an AB. Originally from Cape Cod, Rebecca has sailed across the International Date Line, in the Beagle Channel, the Straits of Magellan, and to a secret tropical paradise. She holds a degree in physics from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and holds an AB Cert, 100-ton Master’s, and 200-ton Mate Licenses issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. She used to be a foot model. Her interests include mushing Siberian Huskies and cycling absurdly long distances.
Ordinary Seafarer, Sara VanderLeest
Sara returns to Niagara this year for her 4th season as an Ordinary Seafarer. Originally from Vernon, CT, she has also sailed on Lynx. She holds a degree in Human Development and Family Studies from UConn, and holds a Merchant Mariner Credential issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Her interests include sailing, hiking, and reading.
Officer in Charge of General Morale, Bruin Sabatini, Newfoundland Black Bear
Bruin Sabatini, through his family connections, has been associated with Niagara for almost his entire life. An Ohio native, he voyaged to Erie at an early age and currently spends his time supervising the Niagara’s captain, who lives with Bruin in his home. Bruin is a Certified Therapy Dog, an avocation he pursues on a pro bono basis, as his other duties allow. His hobbies include breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any other meals left unattended and lounging on the beach. His favorite treats are ice cubes.
Apprentice, Carrie Soltis
Carrie Soltis returns to Niagara this year for her 2nd season as an Apprentice. Originally from Upstate, NY, she holds a degree in Communication (specializing in sarcasm) from State University in NY. Carrie has had lunch with Ryan Gosling, has real life troubles opening potato chip bags, maintains strict rules about sharing a jar of Tostitos Spinach Dip, and wishes everything could contain more glitter. Her interests include coloring and consuming copious amounts of gummy bears.
Apprentice, Andy Verras
Andy Verras returns to Niagara this year for his 2nd season as an Apprentice. Originally from Massachusetts, he has also worked doing winter maintenance on Lettie G. Howard. He holds a degree in Physics from UMass Lowell, and a Merchant Mariner Credential issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. He has never rolled a pair of dice without getting a 7, an 11, or doubles.
Apprentice, Nicholas Reese
Nicholas Reese returns to Niagara this year for his 2nd season as an Apprentice. He is originally from Crawfordsville, IN. He holds a degree in Physics from Wabash College, and hopes to soon hold a Merchant Mariner Credential issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. He is well-travelled and lived in a manor house in the English countryside for six months. His interests include stories told, written or told, mulling wine, and the sweetness of doing nothing.
Apprentice, Chloe Ali-Oshatz
Chloe Ali-Oshatz joins Niagara for the first year as an Apprentice. Originally from Los Angeles, Chloe has sailed on Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain. She is pursuing a degree in Art History at Humboldt State University. Her interests include yelling, theater, and playing in various brass bands.
Ordinary Seafarer/Purser/Gift Shop Manager, Emily Hoffman
Emily Hoffman returns to Niagara this year for her 4th season as an Ordinary Seafarer, Purser, and Gift Shop Manager. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, she has sailed on the Corwith Cramer and Niagara. She holds a degree in Criminal Justice from Northeastern University, and holds a Merchant Mariner License issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. She used to work as a Public Defense Investigator in Boston and Washington, D.C. and she spent the winter living on a farm in Vermont with 35 Siberian Huskies. Her interests include sailing, cooking, dog sledding, skiing, and swimming.
Clerk / Ordinary Seafarer, Hope Collins
Hope Collins joined the Niagara in 2013 as a trainee for three weeks, and is now entering her second year as an OS for the 2016 season. She grew up in the north hills of Pittsburgh, and graduated from Allegheny College in May of 2015 with an English degree. As part of the crew, during the winter she works with volunteers on the ship’s maintenance, while during the summer she sails with the crew in addition to managing the ship’s social media as well as working with the ship’s purser and the Director of Marine Operations. Her hobbies include making tank tops out of old t-shirts and quoting 90’s movies with the Chief Mate.
Apprentice, Amanda Keller
Amanda Keller, hails from Toledo, Ohio. She holds a B.A. in Missional Ministries from Southeastern University, spent a year as a missionary in Japan, worked as a farmhand, and finally arrived at NIAGARA as a trainee in the summer of 2015. She enjoys crocheting and book-binding, and has a bucket list dream to live in a treehouse for a year.