Courtesy of Yale Athletics

Far from the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club in Branford and without weekend regattas, the Yale sailing program has been making the most of its fall semester despite limitations on practices and the teams’ ability to be on the water.

With Yale only in Phase II for six days this semester, the Bulldogs’ sailing teams — Yale has both a co-ed and women’s sailing team, though the two practice together — have been faced with the challenges of staying connected and preparing for an eventual return to their boats. As many of the program’s student-athletes are on leaves of absence or taking gap years, the sailing team has been working on supporting its members, regardless of their location and enrollment status.

“Every single one of them found some really interesting and great things to do with themselves to make themselves better,” said Zachary Leonard, who has led the sailing team to 17 national championships over his 18 years as head coach. “That’s something that I’ve been trying to do and we’ve been trying to talk about as a team … how can we come out of this better people than we were when we went in.”

Out of the entire program’s pool of just under 40 sailors, over a quarter are taking leaves of absence this fall, and over half are living in the vicinity of New Haven, according to Sydney Zoehrer ’24, who walked onto the sailing team in the fall of 2019 and is currently taking a leave of absence. She said only 16 to 18 sailors were permitted to participate in Yale’s phased practices before the shift to Phase 0; the rest are either enrolled remotely or not taking classes and are therefore not able to practice in person.

Zoehrer discussed the efforts of her teammates, especially those in her class year, to preserve their team dynamic in spite of the pandemic and with so many of them away from New Haven. They have organized Zoom calls to replace missed team dinners, study sessions and quality time together.

“Even though we’re now technically split between the classes of ’23 and ’24, there’s a sense of connectedness from starting Yale together and our communal experiences as first years on the team last year that we’ve been able to hold onto despite being separated by geography, enrollment status and now class year,” Zoehrer said.

Leonard also highlighted this sense of cohesiveness, in addition to conveying his excitement about reconvening with the entire team once normal practices and competitions return.

If not for the pandemic, the fall season would be winding down at this point in the year to give the team a break before resuming competition in mid-February. Zoehrer explained that regattas start the second week of September and run through early November, and that the team sends several boats to between two and five regattas each weekend.

Regarding Yale sailing’s return to competition, Leonard explained that the probability of there being racing events, like the national championship that would be hosted at Tulane University, later this year depends on the status of the pandemic.

“Peter Salovey and the presidents of the Ivy League will decide,” Leonard said. “They’ll make a decision, and we’re preparing to be able to compete. We’re going to play it where it lies, and we’re staying happy and optimistic and upbeat … we’re ready to go when we’re allowed to go.”

One ‘perfect’ day

As a part of this preparation, Leonard said that during the majority of the fall semester, the sailing team was only able to do gym workouts two days a week as part of Phase I. They were only able to sail out on the water once during Yale’s week in Phase II.

Bill Healy, the program’s associate head coach, who has worked with the co-ed and women’s sailing teams since 2003, described the one day out on the water as “perfect.”

“It was just one day,” Healy said. “A Friday [and it was] a perfect day for what we were allowed to do, which was single-handed sailing. It wasn’t too windy so they could control the boats easily, but there was enough wind where it was a competitive, fun practice.”

Healy described how the team did “some practice starts” and short course racing, a nice reminder of past seasons when practices would be held six days a week. While he said sailing with only one person per boat was something the program does not usually practice, the Bulldogs enjoyed spending the time together distanced out on the water.

Sailing over to Hanover

Although COVID-19 restrictions at Yale have prevented more on-water practices for the sailing teams, sailors at Dartmouth have been able to enjoy practices in Phase II, Dartmouth head coach Justin Assad told the News. He said they typically sail at least three times a week.

“Up in Hanover, you know, we kind of benefit a little bit from not being as close to major cities as most of the Ivy League schools,” Assad said. “We got approval from our COVID Task Force to have two people per sailboat, which we’re really fortunate about [and] it’s made it a really rewarding fall despite how abnormal it’s been.”

Out of his co-ed roster of 28 sailors, Assad said 14 of his team members are on campus and practicing. Each wears a neck gaiter and works in pods for small practices on the water and strength and conditioning training sessions.

According to Assad, throughout the week, they have been able to practice for a maximum of two hours per day, which gives him hope for even less restriction on practices and competitions in the coming months.

An optimistic outlook

“I try to be as optimistic as possible on everything,” he said in a Monday afternoon phone call. “I think I’m going to hold that hope that we can do something this spring. … Until we know that we’re not having a championship, we’re gonna treat it as if we’re gonna have a championship in May.”

Leonard and Healy shared Assad’s hope for the spring semester and the possibility of a season with competition. Both emphasized the strength and empathy of their student-athletes during this fall of altered practices and uncertainty.

Mentioning Monday morning’s positive news about the effectiveness of Pfizer’s vaccine during his interview with the News, Healy expressed his hopes for the sailing team to become even closer as in-person practices return in the future.

“You learn how tight the kids really are with each other,” he said. “They’re all supportive of each other, [and] they’ve got each other’s back. … We can all get back to what has been normal in the past, which is face-to-face contact, competition, being able to be with each other on long car rides … and just enjoying it.”

To close their fall season last year, the Bulldogs finished fourth for the Nickerson Trophy at Tufts, placed second for the 79th Professor Erwin Schell Trophy at MIT and won the Dave Perry Team Race Trophy at Yale.

Amelia Lower | amelia.lower@yale.edu