Sailing 101: The basics

Blair Belling ’11 and Thomas Barrows ’10 finished in first place in the A Division at the Harry Anderson Intersectional on Sept. 12–13.
Blair Belling ’11 and Thomas Barrows ’10 finished in first place in the A Division at the Harry Anderson Intersectional on Sept. 12–13. Photo by Frances Sawyer.

Intercollegiate sailing is complex, even the sailors themselves find it difficult to describe.

“It’s so hard to explain,” Blair Belling ’11 said. “It’s just not really like any other sport. Sometimes, people think it’s like cruising along in a boat, but it’s usually more intense than that.”

The Elis sail up wind in a 420 at the Nevis Trophy in Kings Point, N.Y. on Sept. 20. The Bulldogs won first place, scoring 218 points.
The Elis sail up wind in a 420 at the Nevis Trophy in Kings Point, N.Y. on Sept. 20. The Bulldogs won first place, scoring 218 points.

Competing in multiple events per week across the nation, the varsity sailors are one of Yale’s most traveled teams. The coed and women’s teams, both ranked No. 1 according to the Sailing World national ranking released each week, have to compete against other teams, the elements and the complexities of their own boats at every event.

Each team races both in fleet races and in team races. On the weekend, the women’s team usually travels to one regatta while the coed team splits up to attend three or more. Fleet racing dominates the fall while the spring events feature a greater number of team races.

Racing is further divided into two subcategories: single-handed and double-handed events. Most collegiate racing focuses on double-handed racing where two people, a skipper and a crew, sail the boat.

The standard double-handed fleet event has an A and B division, although some events have extra divisions featuring solo racers. Every team will enter one boat per division, thus having a minimum of four sailors at any given event. Each double-handed boat has a skipper who both adjusts the mainsail and steers and a crew who adjusts the jib. In the first week or so of school, team members are paired for the season, although the crews are often adjusted for the weight of the boat during light or heavy winds conditions.

“Generally you have your assigned crew member, but we also switch up combinations to try and bring up the level of the team generally,” skipper Thomas Barrows ’10 said.

Scoring for fleet events is done on a low-point system where teams receive a point corresponding to their finish in each race. Regatta totals are the sum of these places, and the lowest score wins overall.

Team race regattas feature a double round-robin format, where in each race two schools go head-to-head with three boats apiece. Like other team sports, the sailors have plays worked out and tactics prepared to best their opponents. The most common strategies include forcing the other team’s boats away from their desired course and slowing down the opponent.

“It requires a ton of coordination,” skipper Joseph Morris ’12 said. “It’s a lot of knowing what your teammates are going to do and trusting them.”

Competition is governed by the ICSA — the Intercollegiate Sailing Association. The ICSA is divided into seven districts — including the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association (NEISA) in which Yale competes — all of which host events leading up to the District Championships, which qualifies sailors for the National Championships in early summer.

“NEISA is definitely by far the most competitive,” Morris said. “We have so many of the top-ranked teams in the country — in Boston alone you have MIT, Harvard, BU, BC, and Tufts. It definitely has a very high level of competition.”

The regattas start early in the morning, and the competitors attempt to sail as many races as possible. At the whim of the wind, they often are forced to wait for the wind to pick up to start the first race, a delay that can take hours, or the opposite can occur and they have to return to land due to high winds.

“Sailing is an interesting sport because you’re playing on a field that’s always moving and there are a lot of things you can’t control,” Morris said. “It is just something you have to deal with — it’s a big part of the sport but you learn to adapt to the changing conditions.”

In addition to adapting to the weather, the sailors must also be able to maneuver their larger boats. The two predominant double-handed boats are 420s and FJs. The 420 is 13’9″ with 110 square-feet of sail. The FJ — Flying Junior — is similar to the 420 with a length of 13’3″ and 100 square-feet of sail.

The Yale fleet contains a mix of both classes of boats. Last year the National Championships were to be raced in FJs, so the team bought six new FJs, bringing their total to 12, to practice with, Barrows said. The Elis, however, remain stronger in 420s, a good thing considering this year’s National Championship will be raced in that class, Barrows added.

“Traditionally, we’re a 420s boat,” Barrows said. “That’s our strength, but it depends on what regatta is coming up. We practice for the boats in the regatta.”

No matter which sailing class the sailors are working on, the team has continued to improve over the years. And, after winning women’s and finishing a close second in coed Nationals last year, they remain focused on winning in June.

“As the oldest college sailing team in the country, I feel like we get better every year,” Morris said. “There are a lot of people who love the sport. We’re always looking toward the end of the season, toward Nationals.”

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