About Our Team
Captain Walter P. Rybka
Captain Rybka was the Niagara’s captain from 1991-2000, and in addition to being Senior Captain, he now is Director of the Erie Maritime Program. He began his career sailing on the 1885 schooner Pioneer at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York in the 1970s. His next post was directing the research, design and supervising the complete rebuilding of the 1877 iron bark Elissa from 1977-82. During the 1980s, he sailed as one of Elissa’s officers, served in other sail training ships and consulted on numerous museum ship restorations.
He joined Niagara in 1991 where he started its sailing program from scratch, hiring and training crew, and readying the Brig for its role as a living history exhibit in port and underway. His extensive service to maritime history has taken him from New York to Sydney, Australia, and ports in between. As director of the Erie Maritime Museum’s program, he is responsible for developing and implementing long-range plans for both the facility and the ship. Recently, he oversaw the Niagara’s five-year process for U.S.Coast Guard certification as a Sailing School Vessel. He was named Sail Trainer of the Year in 1994 and again in 2006 by the American Sail Training Association in Newport, R.I. In 2008, he was given ASTA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Executive Director, Shawn Waskiewicz
Shawn Waskiewicz became the Executive Director in February, 2012. Prior to joining the Niagara, Waskiewicz worked in the sports industry for more than 14 years in various roles. Most recent, Waskiewicz served as the Assistant General Manager of Administration for the Erie Otters, a major junior ice hockey team in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Waskiewicz received his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Edinboro University and his master’s degree in Organizational Leadership at Mercyhurst University. He was named the Walker School of Business Graduate of the Year, May 2011. Waskiewicz resides in Harborcreek with his dog, Rufus.
Captain Wes Heerssen
Captain Heerssen joined U.S. Brig Niagara as Chief Mate in 2001 and was promoted to Captain in 2003.
He has been sailing since he was six years old, and volunteered as sailing crew on his first tall ship at age 15. Captain Heerssen changed course midway through his first year in college and shipped out aboard a 16th century galleon as a professional deckhand at age 18. By the time he was 21, he had earned his first captain’s license, yet continued to work his way up the chain of command serving onboard many tall ships as Rigger, Carpenter, Boatswain, 3rd Mate, 2nd Mate, Engineer, and Chief Mate. He accepted his first command on the Delaware Bay oyster schooner A.J. Meerwald in 1996.
Beginning as a volunteer on Elissa in Galveston, Texas, he went on to sail on many tall ships and returned as Ship Manager in 1999. Senior Captain and Erie Maritime Museum Site Administrator Walter Rybka was an early mentor to Capt. Heerssen onboard Elissa in the 1980’s, and at a conference in November of 2000, Capt. Rybka invited Capt. Heerssen to apply to join Niagara, become his protégé, and to eventually become the next Captain in Niagara.
His career includes sailing on a dozen traditional sailing ships on voyages between ports all over the world and on domestic voyages along all three American coastlines and upon the Great Lakes. He now teaches and shares his knowledge to all who sail in Niagara.
In 2010, Captain Heerssen was chosen as the “Sail Trainer of the Year” by the American Sail Training Association. More than 200 Tall Ship members of ASTA nominate and recognize their peers and fellow sail trainers for outstanding contributions to the field. Sail training encompasses specific knowledge and skills needed to sail the ship through which lessons in teamwork, communication, work ethic, leadership, responsibility and trust are learned by trainees.
Captain Heerssen is happily married since 2003 with two young children and resides in the City of Erie, PA.