Sailing: Broad Reach

The coed sailing team, an inclusive bunch, are also national champions.

They buy their subway tokens and ride two stops to Kendall, then walk to the Harvard Sailing Center, on the river near MIT. The sailing team practices on the Charles River Basin, far from Harvard Yard, and generally races at distant venues with few if any spectators, let alone rooters. Its boathouse and fleet are among the least prepossessing at the top sailing colleges. About 70 percent of the squad are walk-ons (non-recruits), an unheard-of number in varsity athletics. Yet the Harvard coed sailing team ranked number one in the country almost all year—and this June in Honolulu won the national team-racing championship and came second in the coed dinghy event at the Intercollegiate Sailing Association's (ICSA) North American Championships, the sport's climactic regatta.

Last year Harvard was second in the team-racing event, which puts three boats from each college on the course together, with team strategies that include both advancing one's own fleet and slowing down opponents. In Honolulu the Crimson posted a perfect 17-0 mark—the first undefeated team-racing record in a three-day regatta format—in round-robin races. In the coed dinghies, Harvard finished a close second to St. Mary's College of Maryland, a sailing power located on a Chesapeake Bay inlet. Harvard won the Fowle Trophy for overall excellence in college sailing and Sean Doyle '02 was named College Sailor of the Year, the first Harvardian so honored.

Only about half of Harvard's 40 sailors had ever sailed before college. Yet two of those beginners, Michelle Yu '02 and Susan Bonney '02, became all-Americans after being taught to crew by Doyle. The squad has learned a lot from each other, and especially from skippers like Doyle, Clay Bischoff '03, and Cardwell Potts '04, who make up a trio of all-Americans. "If it hadn't been for Sean, I wouldn't have stayed with it," says Bonney. "We have people here who are amazing teachers—and a lot of sailors with drive and determination."

Doyle taught Bonney to crew when they were freshmen—she a raw beginner, he an experienced skipper who had already won the national under-18 three-handed title and at 14 had represented the United States at a world junior championship. (Doyle's father, Richard Doyle, M.C.P. '75, was College Sailor of the Year at Notre Dame; uncle Robbie Doyle '71 sailed in the America's Cup and is a leading sailmaker in Marblehead, Massachusetts.) For Sean Doyle, teaching Bonney was an odd sensation. "Half of the boat is being controlled by someone who'd never been in a boat before," he explains. "You need to be a good sailor, and good at dealing with people. It takes patience." As a sophomore, Doyle needed a smaller crew to win in lighter-air conditions and so started all over again with Yu, who weighs a mere 90 pounds. Doyle, at 180 pounds, is near the maximum weight for one half of a two-person dinghy team; he and Yu weigh a competitive 270 pounds (300-pound teams rarely win) and have sailed together the last three years. In 2001, they were second to Georgetown in the dinghy event, the national championship considered the pinnacle of collegiate sailing.

Sailing is the only true coeducational varsity sport. The men and women form a single team and most of their sailing makes no gender-based distinctions. True, there are men's and women's single-handed championships in the fall, sailed in 14-foot Lasers—the world's most popular racing sailboat, which races in the Olympics. But most college sailing happens in dinghies, boats of 18 feet or less with a centerboard. Two people—skipper and crew—sail them, and that pair could be two men, two women, or, typically, a man and a woman. In Harvard's top boats now the skippers are male and the crews are female, but there are also excellent women skippers, like Margaret Gill '02, an all-American in 2001 who took this year off from sailing.

Regattas use a triangular course and a set of international yacht-racing rules originally drawn up by Harold Vanderbilt '07 and F. Gregg Bemis '22. Typically, a race has five legs, the first sailed close-hauled to a windward mark, followed by two reaches, the second of these to the leeward mark, then the upwind leg again, after which the boats do a U-turn and run to the finish. If the wind shifts during the race, officials may move the buoyed marks. No times are kept, but in strong winds of 14 to 18 knots a college race should take 15 to 20 minutes.

The dinghy championships in Hawaii involved three days of racing by teams from 18 colleges. Eighteen boats go off the start together and spread out widely on the first leg, searching for the best air. The dinghies—a type known as Flying Juniors—are so dispersed that spectators may have trouble knowing who is ahead. But at the turn onto the second leg, this scattered fleet seems to pass through a funnel that lets out one boat at a time; they emerge from the turn single file like a row of ducks sorted in order of speed. That order often remains fixed for the rest of the race. Still, things can change, and bows sometimes cross the finish line only six inches apart.

In many sports, races are decided by a sprint to the finish, but in sailing the most decisive moments generally occur before the start. Beginning three minutes beforehand, a series of whistle signals counts down to the start. Meanwhile, the fleet of boats jockeys for position, trying to get their bows to cross the line with maximum velocity at the starting signal. "The final one minute to 30 seconds before the start may be the most important part of the race," says head coach Mike O'Connor, who mentors the Harvard team with his assistant, Bern Noack. "You try to pick where you want to start, relative to the wind and your opponents. Choose it or it will be chosen for you." Doyle explains that the start "is a huge game of risk and reward. If you get a good start, 80 percent of the time you'll do well. It comes down to going from stopped to full speed very efficiently in a small space. You don't want the next boat over to blow by you—then you'll be in their bad air—so you start next to someone you think you can beat, in a way that won't take you far from the best course. Trouble is, in the A-division varsity races, there aren't any marshmallows out there." Harvard's 40-person squad has an advantage in practice; with only five or 10 sailors, it would be impossible to simulate the wild conditions at the start of a real race.

Underway, the skipper sits aft and controls the tiller and mainsail; the crew, in front, controls the jib. "You're trying to create the perfect flow [of wind] over both sails," says Bonney. Teams try to anticipate wind shifts and manipulate the next puff coming in. "You're a weird short-term weather forecaster," Doyle explains, then adds, "Making the boat go fast is only a small part of winning—everyone knows how to do it. Olympic and America's Cup sailing is so boring to watch; all it is is two boats going fast. Our races are only 20 minutes long; speed might gain you six feet in five minutes. You can get a bigger gain than that from a perfectly executed roll tack." The roll tack involves close coordination of skipper and crew, who quickly shift their bodies from one side of the dinghy to the other while changing from port to starboard tack or vice versa. The force of the sail swinging to the opposite side and immediately filling with air can jump the boat forward. With two upwind legs and perhaps 20 tacks in a race, cumulative gains can be great. "A lot of little things makes the difference," says Doyle.

The same might be said of the Harvard sailing program. O'Connor arrived in 1990 as assistant to longtime coach Mike Horn '63. In 1997 O'Connor became head coach and has seen his team finish in the top five at the coed dinghy championships each year since 1998.

Though the program has roots in the Harvard Yacht Club, founded in 1894, and despite the display of alumni names like Harold Vanderbilt on the walls of the Sailing Center, the Crimson's success is anything but the triumph of a socioeconomic elite. College sailing, with its short course and small, standardized, inexpensive boats, is designed to be practical almost anywhere, and in fact about 160 colleges have sailing teams, including 44 in New England. Except at the U.S. Naval Academy, sailing scholarships are not allowed. And don't forget all those freshmen beginners. Of course, they can also prove to be an advantage. "It's better to train crews from scratch," says a smiling Bonney. "We have no bad habits!"

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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