by Nancy Taylor Robinson
A chilly March wind stirs the harbor waters as a stream of dry-suit-clad high schoolers spills out of Annapolis Yacht Club's hilltop clubhouse on the upstream side of Commerce Street. Some pile into cars, heading to Severn Sailing Association (SSA), where they will await their turn to race. The others march off to rig and launch the boats for the first race. They cross Commerce Street and clamber down the steep dirt incline to the floating docks, which are stuffed like sardines beneath the east side of Spa Creek Bridge. Most of these A-team sailors go straight to work rigging the 420s they will take out to the starting line off SSA. But a clueless few clasp halyards tentatively and stare at the mastheads as though hoping for guidance from above, until a coach offers rigging instruction.
Once the teams have launched and slipped out of the tiny basin, the coaches shuttle down to SSA to be with the rest of their sailors. This regatta is a collaboration between AYC, which supplies some boats, and SSA, which also supplies boats and is the actual locus of the regatta. There, on SSA's tarmac, the competing schools set up little bases of operation--one over by the junior clubhouse, one in a sheltered corner beneath the porch, another at the far end of the floating docks--out of earshot of their competitors. Standing like a bulwark in a sea of activity by the launching crane, Amy Gross-Kehoe, coach of Gunston Day School's sailing team, holds up a hand to call her sailors into a pre-race huddle. Gathering the kids, whose sailing skills and attention span range from advanced to nearly nonexistent, is a little like herding ducks. But Gross-Kehoe, who has a wide-open smile and the brisk delivery of a drill sergeant, manages to grab their attention long enough to give her charges a thumbnail sketch of what's coming. They cluster in a ragged semicircle in front of her. Some look as though they're getting it, but others look a little shell-shocked; this is only the second regatta the team has attended, and the learning curve is steep.
Welcome to high school team sailing, one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. In the Mid-Atlantic region, high school sailing has grown 120 percent in the past three years, according to the National Maritime Heritage Foundation. "The U.S. now has nearly 400 teams with varsity and club programs," says Gary Jobson, president of US Sailing. "As a result of the team programs, we're able to keep young people engaged." At many junior programs, participation seems to drop off around age 15 or so. The high school program gathers a cohort from ages 15 to 18, which encourages participation through the high school years. "And it gives a second level of competition, so they're well prepared for college," adds Jobson.
Geoff Stagg, owner of Stagg Yachts in Annapolis, is aware of how well high school programs can prepare kids for college sailing too. His son Brady is a senior on the Annapolis High School team. "Brady has done a lot of sailing and represented the U.S. in Optis and 420s in international events."
The growth of high school sailing has helped feed college teams, encouraging an expansion of those programs as well. There are currently 194 U.S. colleges with varsity sailing teams. And doing well in high school sailing can of course help open doors for college applicants who might otherwise be lost in the shuffle. "It's like any other varsity sport," says Ned Southworth, college counselor at Gunston Day School in Centreville, Md. "If you distinguish yourself, it's a help in getting your application to the top of the pile."
Tom Sitzmann, sailing coach at Severn School in Severna Park, Md., agrees. "We had one [sailor] last year who was heavily recruited by a lot of colleges with sailing programs." The student is now sailing for Yale. And there are high schoolers who get the fever so bad that they will only consider applying to a college with an active program.
"[The college I go to] may not be one of the top teams," says Terry Duncan, a Severn junior who grew up racing a 15-foot Albacore with her dad. "But I definitely want to sail in college."
As high school sailing has grown, so has the national organization that keeps its administrative gears oiled--the Interscholastic Sailing Association (ISSA). Our district, the Mid-Atlantic Scholastic Sailing Association (MASSA), includes high school teams from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, and boasted a total of 57 registered teams during the 2008-2009 season. Districts are further broken down into leagues. MASSA has four: Northwestern, Northeastern, Central and Southern. Maryland, Delaware and Northern Virginia schools compete in the Central League, which, fostered 18 teams in the 2008-2009 school year. Southern and central Virginia make up the Southern League with ten teams, seven from private schools and three public.
The Central League includes private high schools--Key School in Annapolis, Archbishop Spalding in Severn, St. Mary's in Annapolis and Bishop O'Connell in Arlington, Va., for example--and public schools, including Annapolis, Severna Park and Broadneck high schools. However, while the private schools include sailing as a varsity sport, most area public schools consider it only a club sport.
"It's a shame," says Jay Kehoe, waterfront director for Annapolis Yacht Club. "It really helps kids get into college. And it doesn't cost any more a season than, say, hockey."
While Kehoe laments the unwelcome stepchild image a lack of official school sponsorship can imply, not everyone else is worried about it.
"In some ways it's good that we're [just] a club," says Brad Hill, teacher-sponsor of Severna Park High School's Sailing and Boating Club. "[For one thing] Annapolis Yacht Club and Severn Sailing Association coach [our club members], so they have the liability and insurance that the county doesn't have to worry about." Annapolis Yacht Club hosts and coaches the yacht club's own team as well as the team from Annapolis High School. "AYC has done a great job serving the school in general with this program," says Geoff Stagg. "That is not really understood or appreciated by a lot of people, but they put a lot into the community with the support of the Annapolis High sailing team."
Schools race in local regattas organized by the leagues, which in turn select teams to race in district regattas. There are championship regattas each semester (high school sailing runs both spring and fall) and qualifier events to decide who will compete in the annual national championships for single-handed (Cressy), double-handed (Mallory) and team racing (three double-handed teams) for the Toby Baker National Championship. The competition in the area is definitely fierce, but, according to Kehoe, its even tougher on the national level. "The best high school sailors right now are in California."
There are teams all around the country, but mustering teams in the Chesapeake, which has a centuries-old sailing and racing tradition, is easier than in, say, the Oklahoma panhandle. "One thing I love about the [Chesapeake] area is that everyone is connected to the water in some way," notes Gross-Kehoe. "The gas station attendant I talked to this morning has a daughter who is sailing for the University of Connecticut."
Gross-Kehoe, who has been sailing most of her life and coaching for almost a decade, became sailing coach at Gunston Day School at the behest of the school's late headmaster, Jeff Woodworth. "Jeff wanted sailing to become the school's signature sport," she says. The notion was a no-brainer since the school sits on the banks of the Corsica River, which in times gone by was home to one of the biggest small-boat regattas on the Bay.
Of course many of the students who gravitate to the sailing team have some water connection--many of their families have boats or they have cruised or raced. But coaches also try to attract kids without water experience to grow the sport.
"We encourage anybody and everybody, whether it's [someone whose family sails] or someone who's never been in a boat before," says Severn School's Sitzmann. And that is where the National Capital High School Sailing (NCHS) program in Washington, D.C. comes in. The NCHS sailing team is comprised of kids drawn from 12 area schools, both public and private, that don't have their own sailing teams. So the program provides facilities, boats, gear, and coaching. And while the students all sail under the NCHS umbrella, individual teams of sailors can qualify to fly their school colors during regattas. "If there are four or more people from a single school, they can race under their school name," says Blair Overman, NCHS Director of Youth Programs.
The NCHS also has a program for inner city kids who have never even seen a sailboat before, let alone been in one. It introduces them to the water in an area whose history is intimately connected to it, opens a door into a sport that would otherwise not even flicker across their radar screens, and offers them a chance to acquire the skills and confidence that sailing can impart.
"It's a problem-solving sport unlike many others," says Stagg. "You've got a whole heap of forces at play that you've got to understand--wind, current, clouds, sea state, wind state. There's a lot going on. A lot of studies show sailors have this unique ability to interpret a lot of stuff and make good decisions."
Overman says that the mix of schools and backgrounds has also produced some inspiring teamwork.
"They all work really well together," she says. "And some of the kids who have been sailing forever reach out to the others--lend them gear, give them rides, things like that."
NCHS enrollment has nearly doubled since its inception only five years ago. As a result, Overman doesn't have to do much recruiting. "We had too many kids this past year," she says. "We only have ten boats, so we should only have twenty kids, two per boat, but we had thirty-five kids of all skill levels, including a lot of brand new sailors."
This blossoming of high school sailing delights Jobson, who has a missionary's love of sailing; it's good for both body and soul, he says. And, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee for sailing, he sees it as a way of getting Americans on the podium at every international sailing competition.
It's important to plant the seed that there's a sailing life beyond high school and college," he says.
The upward trajectory in both participant numbers and skill levels in high school sailing is helped by the fact that many of its coaches were highly competitive one-design racers themselves. One example is former olympian Nancy Heffernan, director of sailing programs at the National Maritime Heritage Foundation, which founded NCHS in 2005. Another is Amy Gross-Kehoe, who was a collegiate racer and a U.S. Optimist National team coach. Like some of her fellow high school coaches, Gross-Kehoe also coached college sailing before she came to high school. The differences between the two can take some adjustment. Not only are there generally more behavior problems with the high schoolers, most of them are still physically growing. It's not uncommon to see a 135-pound high school sophomore turn into a four-inch-taller, 175-pound junior, which changes the crew weight and placement and sometimes crew pairing. And the dynamics between coach and team are different--in college sailing coaches deal mostly with their team--not the parents.
"In college, there are no parents," says Sitzmann, who was formerly a sailing coach at Bowdoin College in Maine. Dealing with parents--some of whom are competitive racers themselves--can test a high school coach's diplomatic skills. But Sitzmann, a parent himself, has learned to head off trouble by using an inclusive approach--and plenty of communication. It's a strategy that has reaped rewards for all concerned. "The parents have become some of my greatest allies and friends," he says.
There's also a big difference in skill level--which is of course generally higher among collegians. But the other side of that coin, Sitzmann says, is that teaching the high schoolers can be more rewarding.
"The kids are eager," he says. "They love to grab on to a system, and are willing to buy into a team concept."
Yet even if they are able to pull together a winning team over the course of a fall series, there is still one more hurdle for coaches to jump: Single-semester sailors. Some, especially new sailors, join in fall, but balk at practicing in frigid end-of-February weather. Others simply want to play two different sports.
"A lot of kids will do sailing in the fall and then lacrosse or field hockey in the spring," Gross-Kehoe says, "so that makes team continuity more challenging."
Continuity may be a semester-to-semester challenge, but the more immediate one for Gross-Kehoe today--only a couple of weeks into the spring season--is getting her sailors out on the water and making a really good show here at SSA. The weather has a raw edge to it; it feels more like November than the last weekend in March. The wind is picking up too. With her A team already racing, Gross-Kehoe gathers the rest of her flock around her, then holds up a hand and waits until their eyes are front instead of roaming or texting, before briefly running down the racing rules. She then gives a pop quiz on the procedure for a boat that has crossed the line early, focusing particularly on one young skipper who jumped the gun twice during their last practice.
"You're enthusiastic, some would even say aggressive," Gross-Kehoe says, grinning at the girl who tries to decide whether she's being given a compliment or a reprimand. "I've been called aggressive myself, so I see nothing wrong with that. You've just got to cross after the gun, not one second before."
The girl grins and nods. A compliment. Mostly. Gross-Kehoe's twin objectives here are to reinforce what she's taught her sailors during practices and to lard that with tips on racing strategy and tactics--starting with the quick debriefing she expects a crew coming off the racecourse to give their next-up teammates.
"When you switch boats, ask your teammates to give you some wisdom of the course," she says. "Like what end of the line is favored, and where the wind's coming from--is the left side or right side favored on each leg?"
Her students all nod, signaling they have heard her, even if some may not have completely absorbed the lesson--yet. Still, they're determined to get out there and give it their all.
The first two races are finished and the 420s are headed into SSA's launching basin at the northwest end of the club. As the boats nose into the bulkheaded finger pier there's a cacophony of snapping white sails and rattling rigging, which heightens the sense of urgency. The B crews edge along the pier, trying not to knock anyone overboard as they swap into the next boats in the rotation. Kids cling to shrouds, scramble in and out of boats, hurry to convey all the course wisdom they can, and then send their teammates off again for the next pair of races.
Gross-Kehoe says that right now Severn School and Martin Spalding are the teams to beat, despite the fact that Severn is shy a few sailors today. In a collaborative gesture, she offers to loan a couple of her less-experienced sailors to Severn to fill out their roster.
"I want to get everyone out in boats sailing," she says. She genuinely wants to add to the experience of all the young sailors here today, but she doesn't want to give the competition too much of an edge. After all, one of the objectives is to beat the other teams.
Gunston made a respectable showing at this regatta--not fabulous, but not bad. Doing well feels good (winning even better) and encourages the kids to work harder. But more important to Jobson--and to those who love sailing--is the continuity and longevity of the sport itself. A kind of whole-life policy for its participants and their heirs.
"Even if you never reach [Olympic] level," says Jobson, "you learn in high school sailing that it's a sport that can stay with you for a lifetime."
Ian Duncan, sophomore Terry Duncan's older brother and captain of Severn's sailing team, is totally on board with the whole-life sailing plan. Says Duncan, "I hope to be sailing for the rest of my life as long as I can still get in a boat."