On a mid-September Tuesday, it was pouring in Branford, Conn. The coed and women’s sailing teams were about to start practice, and everyone was already drenched. Many members of the team had chosen to wear waterproof layers out on the water. Max Nickbarg ’14, however, chose to go shirtless under his life jacket.
“We’ll be wearing dry suits too soon,” he said.
Yale’s youngest varsity teams practice in fall rainstorms and on frigid spring days, and have become forces in the sailing world: In 2009, they won the Fowle Trophy as the top team in collegiate sailing and, in 2011, they boasted six All-Americans on their roster. Both the coed and women’s teams are currently ranked No. 1 in the country.
“We were a young team last year, but we learned a lot,” Cam Cullman ’13 said. “Now the targets are on our backs and the pressure is on. We accept that and we’re going to try to make the most of it.”
Despite that success, team members said that they compete in relative obscurity. Their boathouse is a 15-minute drive from campus, and their competitions — which are often held far from shore — are by nature not suited for spectating. Moreover, home competitions are few and far between — the coed and women’s teams each have one regatta in Branford this year.
Instead of competing at home, the Elis travel all over New England and beyond. In every weekend of September, the coed sailing team participated in at least three regattas. Last weekend, it raced in four across three different states. Meanwhile, the women’s team traveled to Boston for a regatta of its own.
The two teams race in as many as eight events on any given weekend, and travel not only to every New England state but also occasionally to California, Maryland, Florida and Illinois for events.
YALE’S YOUNGEST TEAM
Yale’s Corinthian Yacht Club, which was founded in 1881, is the oldest collegiate sailing club in the world. And yet the Eli varsity team is less than a decade old. When head coach Zachary Leonard ’89 was earning All-American status as a skipper at Yale, he was doing so for the club team.
The old club team took the sport seriously, Leonard said, adding that it would drive to Louisiana every year for a Mardi Gras regatta. But most other college teams also operated at the club level then. As competitors were promoted to varsity, they began to enjoy a recruiting edge. So, funded by an alumni gift in 2002, the team made the move to varsity.
Despite that transition, Yale’s sailors sometimes operate in a world that seems separate from most varsity teams. Because they have only two coaches but travel to so many regattas each weekend, the team must either hire recent alumni to accompany athletes to events, or send athletes off on their own, Leonard said. The members of the team drive rental cars to various New England locations.
The athletes are also responsible for some work around the boathouse. When the team expects storms, the Elis must move their two 4,000-pound docks from the water onto dry land, skipper Chris Segerblom ’14 said, adding that they do so by placing a row of PVC pipes underneath the docks and rolling them steadily up hill.
The team is also unique for its reliance on walk-ons. The program sponsors introductory sailing courses for students every fall, and many of the students who begin with those courses are contributing to the program by the end of their Yale careers, said women’s captain Margot Benedict ’12, who was one of those walk-ons.
A Vermont State Alpine Ski champion in high school, Benedict began sailing her freshman year, and was traveling to nationals with the team by the time she was a sophomore. Last Sunday, she and skipper Morgan Kiss ’15 paced the women’s team to a fourth-place finish out of 16 teams at a regatta in Boston.
But sailing is an incredibly complex sport, Leonard said, and success stories like Benedict’s are not common.
Most collegiate sailing is done in two-person boats, manned by a crew and a skipper, Leonard said. The skipper steers the boat, while the crew is responsible for the sails. Although the two have separate responsibilities, communication between them is essential, sailors said. Boats travel slowly and must make the most of even the slightest winds, and so every shift in weight or positioning a sailor makes can transform a race.
During practice, the team discusses bigger questions of race strategy and right-of-way. But because small details are so important, the team’s coaches also focus on checking that the sailors have their sails well adjusted and have positioned themselves at the correct part of the boat.
That positioning depends on the weight of the crew and on the condition of the winds, members of the team said. The ideal combined weight for the sailors in a boat is 280 to 290 pounds, but changes depending on the condition of the winds, men’s captain Joseph Morris ’12 said. In light winds, a team should be as light as possible, but up to 330 pounds in heavier winds. And even if a pair combines for that ideal weight, it must still position itself correctly in the boat to use that weight to its advantage.
Shifting weight is particularly important when a crew tacks and jibes — nautical terms for quickly shifting direction. Race courses are designed with upwind legs and a downwind legs. When sailing against the wind, teams must race in a zigzag pattern in order to use as much of the wind as possible. Then, on the way back with the wind at their backs, sailors must ride the waves — a technique similar to surfing that Morris called one of the most difficult in the sport.
Determining the best pattern through the course requires the judgment of the skipper, Cullman said, a skipper himself. Even when the best path through the course seems simple, the disadvantage of racing alongside many of the other boats in the regatta sometimes means that a skipper must chart a different path.
Moreover, the wind is rarely constant throughout a race. Its direction and power can always shift, and so a skipper must be prepared quickly to change his strategy.
But one difficult wind shift will not will not sink a team’s chances in a regatta. Each regatta has dozens of races — wind permitting — so consistency throughout the weekend is the most crucial part of success.
To maintain balance throughout the races, universities will rotate among different boats to ensure that minor differences among the vessels do not influence the competition. Still, sailing is unpredictable, and even first-place teams can find themselves at the back of the pack. At Yale’s Harry Anderson Trophy in early September, Segerblom and Benedict finished last overall in one race but still finished first in their division.
“If you can get the wind right 60 percent of the time, you’re doing great,” Segerblom said.
Sometimes, wind not only shifts but dies out completely. If calm conditions persist, even the most important races sometimes have to be cancelled — including the women’s national semifinals two years ago.
The Elis, if they can maintain their high rankings in the national polls, will hope that this year’s championships are not cancelled so that they can try to recapture the Fowle Trophy.
Yale will continue its season with another busy weekend on Saturday that includes regattas at Coast Guard, Connecticut College, Tufts and MIT for the coed team, as well as a home regatta for the women.