Local sailors prove mettle in college contests

PETER NEEDHAM PHOTO | Mackenzie Needham and teammate Courtney Bombardier racing at MIT.

Mackenzie Needham is no stranger to qualifying for and competing at a high level of competition. As a member of the Shelter Island High School Sailing Club, she and her teammates not only won the league championship once, they also competed at three district championships in two years.

While a freshman at Washington College in Maryland, Mackenzie along with three of her teammates out sailed 11 other mid-Atlantic colleges, helping Washington earn its first-ever berth at the Women’s National Semifinals held in Austin, Texas this past June. Although Washington College sailed well at the semifinals they didn’t place high enough to make it into the finals. All in all it was incredible they made it that far.

For her sophomore and current year, Mackenzie transferred to the University of Rhode Island. Although now in a much tougher league, the close proximity to many of the best collegiate sailors and venues in the country has been a welcome change from the sometimes seven or more hour drives each way to compete on the weekends while in Maryland a year ago. URI has a very active women’s sailing team; they won the National Championship two years ago.

As with all school or collegiate sports programs, athletes graduate and move on, leaving openings for incoming athletes to fill their vacated places. A week before Mackenzie started classes at URI, the sailing coach contacted her to say she was skippering the first weekend at a women’s race and asked if she was up for it. For those of you who know Mackenzie and how she would never back down from a challenge, of course she was ready. She sailed for URI at a number of races this past fall, mostly at women’s events, which helped to earn her school a 10th place national ranking for women’s teams.

Towards the end of the season most sports begin holding qualifiers for championships and women’s sailing is no exception. On the East Coast the Intercollegiate Sailing Association holds the Women’s Atlantic Coast Championship as their grand finale, with colleges from Maine to Florida vying for a chance to compete. There are only 18 spots available, with those spots allocated during semifinal qualifiers. For URI the qualifier was held two weeks ago at Connecticut College, the weekend just before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Against powerhouse sailing colleges such as Dartmouth, Yale, Boston College, Coast Guard, Harvard, Tufts and Brown, Mackenzie and her URI teammates raced for one of the seven spots that the New England colleges could fill based on their results.

While Saturday was light with fluky winds, on Sunday the approaching hurricane brought strong northerly winds that made for some exciting racing. Sailing B division with freshman teammate Courtney Bombardier, Mackenzie found her mojo and sailed her personal best with finishes of sixth or better in six of the nine races including two second-place finishes. The stellar performance earned the pair a third-place finish for the event out of the 18 colleges in attendance, and along with the A division of URI, they placed eighth overall and seventh for the New England teams, securing them a spot at the upcoming championship.

This past weekend URI along with 17 other colleges raced in the Women’s Championship on the Thames River in Connecticut. The first race on Saturday had to be called as a submarine made its way down the river with the Coast Guard chasing away any and all boats in the sub’s path.

Once the submarine cleared out, a weak northerly ensued, sending endless ribbons of teasing puffs down the river. Those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time fared well. The race committee managed to get off four A division races and only two B divisions, for the day. Sunday was entirely different, a strong southerly filled in with a fairly consistent 10- to 12-knot breeze present throughout the day. Racing was close all day with packed mark roundings and many lead changes on both the upwind and downwind legs.

Mackenzie and her teammate had an up and down day, with best finishes of 3rd, 6th and 9th. It was good enough to help URI finish in 13th place at the event. Were they pleased with their results? Not really, but considering that they were sailing against the best collegiate women sailors in the country and many more didn’t even qualify for this event, they did just fine.