Sail on engineer

Alumni Adventures

Sail on engineer

Alumna finds calm, beauty and engineering challenges on a great lake

By John Canale

Sunsets on Lake Erie light the horizon with breathtaking colors. The panorama can lull the casual observer into dream-like serenity. But ask any nautical adventurer, and they’ll explain that the vast blue lake possesses a fierce and challenging personality, revealing itself to all who sail upon it.   


That insight is now known to Sunniva Collins, MS ’91, PhD ’94, the immediate past president of the Case Alumni Association. She took up sailing a few years ago and discovered that helming a boat is much like tackling an engineering problem, one that can be approached using science and engineering principles.


“What has been interesting to me is to realize that there’s this very large community of sailors at Case, and it often has to do with the fact that they like to have something to work on that’s mechanical,” said Collins, an Associate Dean at the Case School of Engineering and an Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “There’s an engine involved. You have to know something about fluid dynamics, because you’re looking at what happens when the wind changes. It’s playing around with a machine to make it move under the force of the wind. And that’s been really kind of fun.”


Five years ago, Collins and her husband, Michael, made the decision to buy a sailboat after sailing with friends and colleagues for many years.


The Ovation, docked at a marina near downtown Cleveland, is a 1984 29-foot J-class yacht—a racing boat with a reputation for speed. Collins modestly observes that she and her crew (her husband, their son, William, and daughter Kristina) only race around the buoys near shore for fun. But during the pandemic year, they all became better sailors as they learned to work together tacking, steering and raising and lowering sails.


“We worked really hard at trying to be better at sailing, and because we were in a little pod with my family, the four of us got to a point where we can actually sail the boat pretty well all together,” she said.


The Cleveland Heights native has a long relationship with Lake Erie. Her father had been a captain in the Norwegian Merchant Marine and moved to Northeast Ohio after marrying her mother. He became the superintendent of the Port of Cleveland. Collins said she always knew she would one day get her own boat. Now she shares her passion with friends, colleagues and students.


“Some of the students we’ve taken with us have had sailing experiences in places like New England,” Collins said. “The weather patterns and the wave patterns on the lake are really different than they are on the ocean. That’s often something that they remark on. You get to a point where you start to really pay attention to the weather, because it changes so quickly here.”


Collins and her crew continue to refine their nautical skills, motivated by the challenges of navigating Lake Erie. But having fun sailing on a great lake is the ultimate goal.

“I am still really working on things like piloting. And part of it was to get that feel for what the boat ought to be doing,” Collins said. “I like an evening sail or an afternoon sail for a couple of hours. It’s just nice to get out there.”


Especially to see the beautiful sunsets.


Sunniva Collins will be honored at Homecoming 2021 as the Immediate Past President of the Case Alumni Association. Learn more about the annual All Classes Celebration Oct. 22 and register HERE

“I am still really working on things like piloting. And part of it was to get that feel for what the boat ought to be doing. I like an evening sail or an afternoon sail for a couple of hours. It's just nice to get out there.”

— Sunniva Collins


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