Big winds batter school sailors

PETER NEEDHAM PHOTO Rough conditions with high winds saw the boats struggling to maintain control.


The Shelter Island School sailing team braved intense winds to compete in the 2010 Lawrence A. White Regatta, held on the Thames River at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. It was a two-day regatta, October 16 and 17, with 20 teams from Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, South Carolina and even the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A four-member Shelter Island team took the ferry from Orient to New London on Saturday morning, an exciting ride in high winds and big swells. It was the first regatta for freshman Macklin Lang and classmate Matt Murphy. Joining them were two veteran sailors, freshman Drew Garrison and senior Mackenzie Needham.

Upon arrival, the wind was on the borderline of being too strong for racing. We were seeing a steady 20 knots from the northwest with blasts of over 30 knots ripping down the river, churning the water into frothy whitecaps. After a brief delay, the Race Committee announced that the first group, the A division, should rig their boats and head out to the race course.

With some boats capsizing as soon as they were launched from the dock, it was a very exciting beginning. Lang and Needham headed out with the other 19 boats, tentatively feeling their way through the waves and wind gusts. The rest of us watched from the comfort of the Academy’s incredible sailing center, which has a third level viewing deck that allows a birds-eye view of the action.

When the gun went off it was clear that the fleet was getting battered by incredible gusts with strong 20-degree wind shifts. It was all they could do to keep their boats upright and on course for the first mark. The Shelter Island team was holding its own at about mid-fleet by the first mark. 

The cadets’ triangular course ran close to the sailing center, allowing us a fantastic view of the boats reaching down at high speed towards the next mark. Macklin and Mackenzie were hanging in there with the rest of the fleet and rounded the second mark still in mid-fleet position.

As they headed for the final leeward mark, another big blast of wind sent their boat into what’s called a death roll, an out-of-control wobbling back and forth until the boat finally capsizes. The pair righted their boat and sailed on around the course and back up to the finish line but their mid-fleet position was lost due to the capsize.

The second A division race was nearly a repeat of the first race. The wind was a little stronger, and the gusts were definitely more vicious. The Island pair once again rounded in mid-fleet only to be hit by another angry blast that capsized their boat on the way to the finish line, along with several others. They finished their two races and headed back to the dock exhausted — this was going to be a long, tough day.

Steadily increasing winds forced the Race Committee to postpone launching the B division for an hour. Had this been a local event it would have been cancelled right away, but since some teams had traveled great distances, the committee pushed to get in as much racing as they could. 

Drew Garrison and Matt Murphy launched their boat and headed out to the course. Amidst sails flapping madly and boats capsizing, the Race Committee began the start sequence.

Everyone got off the starting line okay, but from the shore they appeared to be really struggling to keep their boats upright. One by one the boats were flipping over. Before the first boat reached the mark there were at least eight boats tipped over on their sides; the committee wisely abandoned the race and sent the teams limping back to the dock.

For the next two hours we waited for the wind to subside, but each time we looked up the river it seemed that the gusts were stronger than before and the waves were getting bigger. Finally, to the relief of all of those present, racing was called off for the day.

Our Olympic sailing superstar coach Amanda Clark and senior sailor Katie Cogan joined us on day two. The winds had died down to a manageable 8 to 10 knots, and though there were still strong gusts, the conditions felt just about perfect after the previous day’s fury. It turns out we had a lot to learn that day about sailing on a river. The gusts came with big wind shifts, requiring quick thinking to take advantage of each one.

The teams that understood the changing conditions prospered on the course, while those teams like Shelter Island, who were used to more consistent breezes, struggled to find a rhythm they could rely on. Amanda’s knowledge of Thames River sailing was invaluable; she had four years of sailing at Connecticut College just around the bend from the Academy. 

Our A boat sailors failed to capitalize on the shifts and generally found themselves in the back half of the fleet despite some decent starts. Shelter Island’s B boat was learning from each race and slowly but surely began picking off one more boat per set. At the end of Sunday’s races, we realized we had survived harsh, challenging conditions and competed against some of the top schools on the eastern seaboard. It was a great learning experience and one not soon to be forgotten.