Courtesy of Carmen and Emma Cowles

Instead of participating in more common sports like soccer or basketball, identical twins Carmen and Emma Cowles ’25 looked to the water.

The Cowles twins are natives of Larchmont, New York, a small town on the Long Island Sound, and their parents wanted them to embrace the nearby water every way they could. By the age of 9, the sisters started sailing at their local yacht club in the Optimist boat class — a small, single-handed dinghy used by children. As they learned the ropes, they began racing in regional, national and, eventually, international competitions.

This fall, the twins are starting as first years competing for Yale’s sailing program.

“We both learned to really love the competition aspect of the sport,” Carmen and Emma Cowles wrote to the News in a joint statement. “Having a twin to compete with and against helped us improve really quickly.”

While they spent years racing in the same boat, the Cowles sisters are both skippering for the Bulldogs this season, so they will be working on separate boats. Last weekend, the sisters raced in their first Yale meet at home at the Harry Anderson Trophy, where they took turns skippering on Yale’s second boat. Together, they placed fifth out of 18 teams.

But long before they started sailing for the Elis, the Cowles twins set their foundation in sailing with the “Opti.” As they grew out of the beginner boat, the two transitioned to the double-handed International 420 boat class — Carmen became the skipper, while Emma, who is slightly taller, took the role of crew.

They noted that by sailing together on the same boat, their parents did not need to maintain two boats or juggle two sailing schedules. To help distinguish between themselves on the water, Carmen began wearing a red hat, while Emma began wearing a black one. The colors stuck.

To help distinguish between themselves on the water, Carmen began wearing a red hat, while Emma began wearing a black one. (Photo: Courtesy of Carmen and Emma Cowles)

The sisters’ teamwork and chemistry on the water certainly paid off as they won the 2017 and 2018 420 Girls World Sailing Youth World Championships. Their talent in these events paved the way for their win of the 2018 U.S. Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, the first time the honor was awarded to a pair since 2004. The Cowles are also the second youngest to win the award.

“One of the strengths that Carmen and Emma possess is an ability to learn from mistakes,” Steve Keen — the Cowles coach while they were sailing I-420 boats — told Sailing World in 2019.

While they spent their whole career sailing together, they were prepared to compete for separate schools when they began considering collegiate sailing options.

“We had both agreed that we were indifferent to whether [or not] we went to the same school,” they told the News. “We both wanted to be on a competitive sailing team in college so that narrowed down the list.”

As one of only 36 fully funded varsity sailing programs in the country, Yale’s team piqued the twins’ interest because of the liberal arts aspect of the University.

When the pair applied to Yale, they always planned on taking one gap year between high school and college, meaning they would have started in New Haven in the class of 2024. However, they took a second year off due to the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games. Sailing as a team at the U.S. Olympic trials earlier this year, they placed second. Only the top team qualifies for the Olympics.

Because of the pandemic, the sisters had to adapt their practice routine to minimize travel risks. Between spring 2020 and early 2021, Emma and Carmen trained in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts; Miami, Florida; and Vilamoura, Portugal, spending a few months in each location.

Because many international competitions were canceled due to COVID-19, it was difficult for the twins to compare themselves to their opponents.

“We also didn’t travel nearly as much for training camps,” they admitted. “[This] actually proved to help us be very productive in our training and ultimately exponentiate our learning curve.”

Now settled into New Haven — Carmen is in Silliman College, while Emma is in Trumbull — Emma noted that she loves the competitiveness of the Yale sailing program, which makes scrimmages in practice more fun. Meanwhile, Carmen appreciates learning from the different sailors on the team. 

The Yale sailing program competes at five tournaments this weekend: the Mens’ New England Singlehanded Championship, the Barnett Trophy, the Womens’ Regis Trophy, the Hatch Brown Trophy and a Tufts Invite.

MELANIE HELLER