Sailing team sets its sights on NCAA championships in Hawaii

Aloha.

That’s a word Yale sailors will have in the back of their minds all of this fall and winter, as they train in the cold waters of the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club off the shores of Branford, Conn.

It’s a word they’ll remember when they send teams to four of five different regattas around the Northeast every weekend until mid-November.

And if all goes well, they’ll be able to put the word to use often this spring at the Intercollegiate Sailing Association national championships in Hawaii.

Sailing is a club sport at Yale, but this year’s team can compete with the best squads of all types in the nation, thanks to a solid junior class and its strongest crop of underclassmen in recent years.

Starting the year off 10th in the nation, the coed unit has jumped up to fifth, while the women’s team is currently eighth in the polls after strong showings at several early season regattas.

The coed team kicked off the season three weeks ago with a fourth-place finish in the 22-team Harry Anderson Regatta, held at the Bulldogs’ own YCYC.

Skipper Stuart McNay ’04 guided the A-boat to an eighth-place finish, while B-boat skipper Brandon Wall ’03 ended in fifth position.

Wall is a member of a junior class that has anchored the team, and McNay is one of many young sailors who has stepped up to make a difference.

“Two years ago we had a huge group of sailors, and a lot of them have stuck with it,” YCYC commodore George Malcolmson ’02 said. “We managed to get more sailors in the next two classes, and we’re really improving huge amounts as a team now.”

Two weeks ago, Wall and teammate Derek Keil ’03 led the squad to a runner-up finish in a field of 17 teams at the Pine Regatta hosted by M.I.T.

At the same time, McNay and Kate Littlefield ’04 helped the team place fifth of 24 at the Hurst Bowl at Dartmouth.

The start has been good, but the team knows it can get even better.

“We’ve had a fantastic beginning,” coach Zack Leonard ’89 said. “We’re at the upper middle end of what I expected, but there’s still lots of room for improvement.”

Much of the improvement that the team has made so far can be traced to Leonard himself, a former Olympic team training partner and All-American at Yale who came to the team a year ago.

“He has really brought us up the next level,” Malcolmson said. “His expertise and the drills he’s had us do have helped us improve greatly.”

Leonard was able to recruit an extremely strong group of freshmen, including Julie Papanek ’05, who was touted as the top national recruit a year ago.

Papanek — the junior women’s double-handed national champion and a member of the 2000 junior Olympic team in Sydney — has already made her presence felt by sailing in two regattas this fall.

“It’s great to be here,” Papanek said. “It’s good to have people on the team with some experience and other people you can easily teach.”

The influx of young sailors has raised the bar of competitiveness on the team, forcing every member to compete for a spot each weekend.

“This is the first time in a while that people have had to fight for spots,” Papanek said. “That really makes things more competitive and makes everybody better.”

That’s the kind of attitude the team knows it will have to maintain if it wants to achieve its goals of reaching the national championships — where the Bulldogs placed 10th last season.

But despite the increased competition and marked improvement of the team, Malcolmson and Leonard agree that preserving a fun atmosphere is key to maintaining success.

“We really try to have a great time together,” Malcolmson said. “We try to keep practice relaxed and enjoy ourselves. Our goal is to have a lot fun.”

Spending a little time in Hawaii this spring certainly wouldn’t get in the way of that.

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