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Winter sailors storm Sag Harbor: Small boats, low temps, big hearts

During summer months, the Reporter’s sports section is saturated with sailing stories. But although many boats are stored for the winter, some sailors continue to hone their skills year-round, and an increasing number of them hail from Shelter Island. 

Since November, over a dozen Islanders have taken the South Ferry to participate in weekend dinghy racing out of Breakwater Yacht Club, a nonprofit community sailing center.

What had been a small fleet over the past few years has grown tremendously this winter, averaging double-digit boats on the starting line, with a few days seeing 15 boats gliding through the icy waters of Sag Harbor.

Regulars from Shelter Island include Peter and Rachel Beardsley, Alicia Rojas, Mackenzie Speece, and Marc Robert, with cameos from Caitlin Cummings, Erik Langendal, Jennifer Van Zandt, Paul Zinger, Phoenix Bliss, and Ed Kiaer. 

“Frostbiting,” as the sport of winter sailboat racing is known in the sailing community, is “the equivalent of skiing by the sea,” explained Mr. Robert.  Competitors don thick neoprene wetsuits, or drysuits — a suit with latex or neoprene seals — intended to keep you fully dry if you fall in the water, something that happens surprisingly frequently despite the water temperature, which averages only 40 degrees in the coldest months.

Thick rubber gloves are also commonplace, along with high-tech base layers, warm hats, and of course, lifejackets. 

There are at least a half dozen other winter sailing fleets on Long Island still competing regularly each weekend as conditions allow, although after Sag Harbor, the next closest fleet is in Sayville.

“In the summer, people may sail many different types of boats,” according to Peter Beardsley. “In the winter, everyone crazy enough to want to be on the water typically competes in the same type of boat, so you get to sail against people you don’t normally get to race against in warmer months, and those sailors often include those who are the most dedicated.” 

In Sag Harbor, the vessel of choice is not for the faint of heart — the singlehanded 13-foot Laser class sailboat – easy enough to sail that they are often helmed by juniors in warmer weather, but high performance enough to be raced in the Olympics, and tippy enough to make for some dramatic capsizes. 

With hypothermia an ever-present risk, safety is of paramount importance in winter sailing. “If the air temperature is below 30 degrees or if the wind speed is above 20 knots, the fleet often stays home,” Mr. Beardsley stated.

Jennifer Van Zandt (left) and Alicia Rojas de-rigging in their drysuits after a frosty day. (Courtesy photo)

As a concession, the Breakwater fleet does not adhere to a rigid schedule, waiting until later in the week to pick a day to sail when the weather looks best — as a result, the fleet opted not to sail Saturday this week in the breeze and rain, but squeezed in six races Sunday afternoon when the sun came out and winds abated.

Peter’s wife Rachel joined the fleet this winter and appreciates the fleet’s flexibility. “The set-up at Breakwater helps to maximize warmth as we launch off of docks rather than beach launching, and we only race for 90 minutes.” 

The brisk air also tends to lead to shorter races. A typical day sees sailors arrive by noon to rig and dress, launch boats by 1 p.m., compete in six short races that take only 7 minutes each, making for close quarters racing and finishes sometimes determined by inches.

Merchant Marine Cummings raced collegiately for SUNY Maritime and comes to Breakwater when she is not at sea. “Frostbiting brings out some talented people that are willing to brave the cold for fierce competition,” she said.

Once ashore typically around 3 p.m., the sailors gather for beverages of varying temperatures and varieties over a spirited debrief organized by the day’s winner with an emphasis on fleet Q&A and education. Rachel, who was raised in Iowa as a non-sailor, began racing Lasers only nine months ago, and has proven to be a quick study, winning several races this winter. 

“When you’re racing in the cold, you want to feel as though you’re learning something,” she noted.

Win or lose, there are a lot of ways to enjoy the game. Ms. Rojas, an avid cold-water swimmer and sailor, enjoys being out in nature.

“The beauty of the crystal-clear water and the emptiness of the harbor is a sharp contrast to summer’s hustle and bustle,” she said. “The spirited camaraderie of our fleet lifts us all up with laughter, learning, and teamwork.”