“Feeling Fast”

Nomin-Erdene Jagdagdorj's “very Mongolian attitude” toward water

Far from Missouri: Nomin-Erdene Jagdagdorj on the choppy, cold Charles with skipper Nicholas Karnovsky ’19Photograph by Jim Harrison

With roots in Mongolia and Missouri, Nomin-Erdene Jagdagdorj didn’t exactly have sailing in her blood. “Yeah, we’re not really an aquatic people,” says the senior, who last year co-captained Harvard’s sailing team. “For Mongolians, and Missourians too…water is kind of a foreign concept.” Maybe that’s what drew her to it. Before trying out as a walk-on sailor during her first semester in Cambridge, she had been in a sailboat exactly once: on a “tiny, tiny lake” one summer day in Minnesota, where her friend’s family had a cabin and a little Sunfish. “My friend and her siblings were bored with this boat,” Jagdagdorj recalls. “But her grandfather was like, ‘I love sailing.’ And I was like, ‘What is a boat?’” 

She soon found out. After joining the team, she spent a year mostly on the practice roster, learning her way around the mast and the mainsail and the jib and the halyard and the bow and the centerboard—and the water. The Charles River, Harvard’s home field, “is a famously shifty venue,” she says. “A lot of people get frustrated with that. The paradigms you expect on the water aren’t there. Or you do something that gets you really far in one race, and the exact same thing puts you last in the next race.” But she found that the river’s unpredictability freed her to make mistakes and recover from them, knowing that a bad race or an upturned boat wasn’t always her fault. 

Collegiate sailing is both a spring and a fall sport, and after two semesters as crew to a new skipper each week, Jagdagdorj was paired with Nick Sertl ’18, a skipper who’d been recruited out of high school, who’d led his youth teams to championships, whose mother was an Olympic skier. That year, he and Jagdagdorj took home numerous first-, second-, third-, and fourth-place finishes, helping Harvard to first place in the BU Trophy regatta and runner-up in the Sister Esther regatta in Newport, Rhode Island, plus other top-10 finishes. Then last spring, the two were voted co-captains. 

“Nomin’s a really good athlete,” says head coach Michael O’Connor. Harvard recruits only a few sailors a year, and the team relies on walk-ons to fill out the rest of the roster—some with prior experience, others without. Jagdagdorj, he says, is the kind of newcomer he tries to cultivate: one who’s smart, tough, adaptable, and who “doesn’t mind being cold and wet a lot.” Some years, he adds, a dozen or more students will come out in the fall with ambitions to sail. “And then after a month, two or three are left.” Jagdagdorj was one of those. Last fall, O’Connor paired her with skipper Lucy Wilmot, a freshman who was this year’s top recruit. “We have high hopes for Lucy and we felt it was important to give her an experienced crew right off the bat, someone very level-headed,” O’Connor says. “Nomin fit the bill perfectly. We knew it would be a seamless transition for Lucy not to have to worry about anything going on in the front of the boat.”

Jagdagdorj spent much of this spring’s sailing with another of the team’s top skippers, sophomore Nicholas Karnovsky, and at practice out on the Charles one brisk, sunny afternoon in late March, days after the two had helped Harvard take second place in a race at MIT, they scrimmaged with teammates. The Zakim Bridge and the rooftops of Boston gleamed in the distance as the team rehearsed complicated, difficult moves to slow another boat: by tacking upwind to “pin” it, or sidling up into the opposing boat’s “shadow” to steal its wind. O’Connor, who was circling in a Boston Whaler, shouted instructions to his sailors through a red megaphone, while his black lab, Sophie, lounged on the bow. “One of the things that’s hard here,” he said, “is that the crews have to react to what the skippers are doing, and very often before the skippers have time to communicate what they’re doing.”

Back on terra firma: Jagdagdorj at the Harvard Sailing Center
Photograph by Jim Harrison

In the two-person Flying Junior dinghies that Harvard races, the skipper sits at the stern and controls the rudder and the mainsail, and the crew, in the bow, controls the jib. That barely begins to capture the role, though, says Jagdagdorj. While the skipper reads the wind and makes decisions for the boat—when to tack or jibe, when to ease or trim the sails—the crew is responsible for the countless tiny adjustments that can make the difference between winning and losing. And sometimes not-so-tiny adjustments: “When it’s really, really windy,” she says, “you hike.” That’s when she tucks her feet into the straps at the base of the boat and straightens out nearly parallel to the water, clutching a rope and leaning hard into the wind, with all the weight of her five-foot-two-inch frame, to keep the boat from rolling sideways. “Your thighs are burning, your abs are tight, you’re choking on water, and you’re thinking, ‘Almost there, almost there, 30 seconds, almost there.’ You start saying whatever you need to say to stay in that position. If you come up for even one second, you can lose a whole boat length.” It’s the crew, she says, who has to keep the boat flat.

That’s true in more ways than one. Alongside the tactical responsibilities, crew must act, Jagdagdorj says, as an onboard sports psychologist and occasional mind reader. Tempering excitement, soothing despair, keeping things even: that’s the job within the job. “You want to be aware of the skipper’s mental state at all times,” she says, “and make him or her feel OK about what’s happening, even if they’re making mistakes.” Because, she adds, “feeling fast is almost as important as actually being fast.” When you feel slow, the whole atmosphere in the boat changes, and sailors start wondering which one of them is to blame. Skippers steer more anxiously, the crew jerks at the sails, they fall out of synch. “And to maneuver the boat, you have to be in unison and trust that the other person is with you; you have to be slamming your weight over at exactly the same time, to give the boat the momentum it needs.” 

She remembers a race at Tufts that sophomore year, one of the last regattas of the fall, when it began to hail. (“Unless there’s lightning, we race,” she says. “We’ve sailed in snow, in really torrential downpours, in 50-mile-per-hour winds—in zero wind. Sometimes you’re wearing a drysuit and an entire winter outfit underneath it, and you’re still frozen at the end of the day.”) Jagdagdorj and Sertl were doing well, going fast despite the weather. But then, sailing around the last mark to head downwind to the finish, the boat flipped over. And the rudder, which wasn’t tied down, fell out. They got the boat upright, but then they couldn’t steer. Huddled in the hull together, they started to really feel it then: the hail and the cold and the wet. And the lost race. 

That’s when Jagdagdorj knew she was serious about sailing. She’d seen it at its worst and still came back for more. To her family, this was all somewhat baffling. Born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, she came to the United States with her parents at five years old, when her mother began graduate school in journalism at the University of Missouri (she’s now an instructor there; Jagdagdorj’s father works for IBM). In the early months after Jagdagdorj joined the team, there were worried phone calls from her grandmother back home in Mongolia; her grandparents kept asking if she’d given up sailing yet. She kept having to tell them she hadn’t. Then she had to tell them she’d been named co-captain. 

And yet her origins in landlocked Mongolia, to which she returned during summers growing up and where her distant relatives remain nomadic herders, helped launch her into the sport. “Mongolians have such a strong tie to nature,” she says. It is a country full of ancient beauty, where you can drive out into the desert or the steppe and look back 800 years. “A big part of the nomadic culture is sustainability,” Jagdagdorj says. “There isn’t really even a word for it, because there is no other way.” (This same experience led her to major in environmental engineering.)

She talks about the particular hill in the southeast that she and her family return to whenever they’re there, and the ritual they perform: the men climb to the top, while the women circle the base three times. “It’s about respecting and being grateful for the land you’re in.…And I think what’s really beautiful about sailing is that you can’t help but respect nature. You’re at the mercy of the wind. You’re going out in a very tiny carbon-fiber boat into large bodies of water. People die sailing. Things can get out of control really quickly.” She thinks about that, even now, whenever she pushes off the dock into high wind or heavy waves. “There’s still that one flip of my stomach, like, ‘All right, here we go.’ You can’t ever get complacent with water. And that’s a very Mongolian attitude.”

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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