Winning High School Nationals: Coach’s Perspective

Published on May 14th, 2014

The High School Doublehanded Championship brought together 20 schools from across the USA to compete in San Diego Bay on May 10-11. With the venue just off the B Street Pier, and team compounds perched on the edge over the course, it proved to be an epic venue for both sailors and spectators.

The 11-race regatta, sailed in Club Flying Juniors, ended in dramatic fashion. It could not have been any closer. Sharing the details and emotions of the moment is Steve Hunt, coach of the winning Point Loma High School team…

It had been a tough event the whole weekend with multiple leaders. We started the final day in third place, with the top seven teams all within 25 points of each other. For high school and college sailing, this is really close and wide open.

It got windier and windier as the day went on, plus it got shiftier. The teams were all mixed up, but emerging from the pack was Shorecrest (St. Petersburg, FL), St George’s (Middletown, RI) and Point Loma (San Diego, CA). No team was too consistent, but it became apparent that these three schools would vie for the title.

With one hour before the 4pm cut off on Sunday, the race committee decided to run one more A and B set. Two more races would decide the championship among these three teams. Shorecrest had a 6 point lead over St Georges, and we were 2 points further back. An 8 point spread, and who ever sailed the last two races the best would be the national champion.

For the A Division race, Scott Sinks and Johannes McElvain for Point Loma were in 8th or 9th, but they nailed the second beat and final run to move up to 4th, and beat both of the other teams. The Shorecrest team posted a 13th and St George’s posted a 6th.

Near as we could tell, all three teams were now essentially tied. However, we didn’t know the actual scores because it took a bit of time to post the online scores. But for all intents and purposes, we determined that all three teams were tied going into the final B Division race.

We would later find out, when the scores refreshed about half way through the race, Point Loma and St George’s were tied, and Shorecrest was a point back.

At the dock, during the switch from A to B teams, all the coaches kept it simple. I traded notes with the other coaches after we sent them out, and we all did the same thing. Since we didn’t know the points, we just encouraged our teams to have a good race, and not focus on anyone. We knew with three teams tight on points, and the race conditions so hard, we didn’t want to complicate things.

All the coaches decided to let their teams sail the race of their life and see how it works out.

The B team sailors knew, however, that this last race was the difference between winning the title or falling short. With three teams involved, and each team doing well all day long, it was going to take a good race to win the title.

The wind was now the strongest of the day, blowing 18 knots. A slight swell had built up, and capsizing became common. The past hour had been carnage. It was now full breeze on, and the title was in the balance.

The wind had been going right all day, and was now funneling through Harbor Island. So it was shifty. Big rights and lefts. Really difficult. Much harder to figure out tactically what to do. It was full pressure for the final race. All three teams were feeling this weight.

I just tried to stay positive and easy as our B Team skipper Will La Dow got ready to leave the dock. “You go Will, go get it,” I said. He looked back, “Steve, it’s really hard out there.” And I knew it was, but that was the scene and it was up to these three schools to deal with it.

So the final race gets started, and all three schools pop off the line well. Shorecrest was at the port end pin, Point Loma was in the middle, and St George’s wins the right boat end, and the boat end is favored.

Point Loma bails out to the right and St George’s crosses. About three quarters up the beat, Point Loma comes back on starboard and crosses St George’s. Shorecrest had stayed left, which proved bad, and they were now near last. So the focus went from three teams to two teams.

Point Loma rounded the weather mark in 5th or 6th, with St George’s 2 boats back and Shorecrest maybe 8 boats back. So it looked good, but the overall scores still hadn’t refreshed, so we didn’t know the standings.

The downwind leg was nuts, with big wind and waves, and Point Loma and St George’s round the same gate to head right going upwind. It was a pretty good scenario now, and I liked our chances, except Point Loma didn’t know that beating St George’s was the game. All Point Loma skipper Will La Dow knew was to have a good race.

So when St George’s tacked to starboard, Point Loma kept going right. This was when I started talking to myself, begging Will to tack and cover. But Will was sailing the course, not knowing to play it tight with St George’s.

So now there is a huge split between the two boats, and I am quickly aging. It was hard to tell until the weather mark, when Point Loma was on layline and St George’s was able to lee bow and round the mark just ahead. Shorecrest is still way back, and Point Loma is trailing St George’s by 2 feet at the weather mark.

Both teams bear away on the final run to the finish, with St George’s about a length ahead of Point Loma. Both boats are winging out the jib, and just ripping downwind. My spirits are starting to sink. It was all to play for between these two boats, and we looked to be losing the title. I knew how good the St George’s team was, and that passing before the finish would be hard.

As both teams fly downwind, getting closer to the finish, I was thinking how tough it would be to lose like this. To lose this regatta at home, by one boat length. We would be looking back, thinking what each of us could have done differently. So many races where we let points go here or there. There had been so many times in the past where we had gotten second or third at nationals, and it just kills you thinking about what you could have done differently.

The two teams are now three-quarters of the way down the run, with maybe a minute left in the race. St George’s is to our right going downwind on port, and suddenly they break away from wing-and-wing, reach across Point Loma’s bow, and then wing it out again. So now St George’s is to our left, with clear air and closer to the favored end of the finish line.

But the move cost St George’s some of their lead, so we now trail by a half length, and are overlapped coming into the finish. Both teams wing-and-wing, both ripping along.

And then it happened, with maybe 15 yards to the finish, Will and his crew Jennifer Johnson go into overdrive. It was like the hand of God reached down. Suddenly they started planning and surfing.

From the pier we could see the spray flying off their bow, and they literally surged from a half a boat length behind to near even as they both crossed the line. It was a photo finish, and nobody could tell who got it.

The St George’s team happened to be set up beside our compound on the pier, and both teams were going nuts at the finish. Screaming, cheering, yelling. It was as chaotic as a sporting event gets. Total school passion. Normally we could hear the numbers called, but it was so noisy that we couldn’t hear, and nobody knew who won.

We got on the radio to ask the race committee, but they wouldn’t answer us. Then we go to the scorer station on the pier, but they didn’t have the information yet. So we go down to the dock, and when the teams come in, we find out they’re not sure either.

Our emotions are fully teetering, and stayed that way for twenty minutes until the final scores were confirmed. Our team erupted. It had all been so draining, and everyone just let go.

Strategically, each team typically puts their best skipper in A Division, but I have found to win nationals you really need two skippers that can win A Division. If one skipper can place top five in A, and the other win B, it is typically a winning formula. And that’s what happened for us.

It helps too if the B skipper is a good match or team racer, in case the event comes down to one team to beat. Will is very good at that, so he fits the role well. Plus he was sailing so well all weekend, so I felt good about our chances.

But it couldn’t have been any closer. Last race. Crazy wind. Three lead changes. We win by a foot. It definitely could have gone either way. Will and Jennifer got a special wave at the finish, and that was the difference.

I feel for St George’s, because I have been in their position. It’s tough. It is super painful to lose it that way. During the time before the results were finalized, I was standing with the St George’s coach. Neither of us knew the outcome; we were both in the same mode. But how quickly our situations would change.

I was really proud of the Point Loma team. They had worked so hard. Both A Division skipper Scott Sinks and Will are seniors, and to win it at home is pretty sweet. Plus it was Mother’s Day, and all their moms were there.

I must add that High School sailing is blowing up. Both the growth of new teams coming in, and the quality of the teams, is off the hook. The skill in the boats, the coaching talent, the team gear… it is all stepping up each year.

This nationals was closer than I can ever remember one being. Having three teams within one point going into the last race… it’s never like that. I have been high school coaching nine years and it’s never that close.

The average points to win the regatta was 6.27 per race. Not that long ago it was 4 points per race. The fleet is deeper, with more teams taking races. The rise in talent is measurable, and winning is hard. I am so proud that we won.

Results: http://scores.hssailing.org/s14/mallory-issa-doublehanded/

Winning A Division was St George’s skipper Roger Dorr ’14 and crews Miranda Bakos ’14 and Caroline Macaulay ’16.

Winning B Division was Pt Loma skipper Will La Dow ’14 and crews Kenny Moats ’17, Jennifer Johnson ’15, and Mercedes McPhee ’15.

Finishing fifth in A Division was Point Loma skipper Scott Sinks ’14 and crews Rebecca McElvain ’15 and Johannes McElvain ’15.

Competing schools by conference:
Northwest (1): Sehome High School (Bellingham, WA)
Pacific Coast (4): Point Loma HS (San Diego, CA); Newport Harbor HS (Newport Beach, CA); Corona del Mar HS (Newport Beach, CA); The Branson School (Ross, CA)
New England (4): The Hotchkiss School (Lakeville, CT); Tabor Academy (Marion, MA); St. Georges School (Middletown, RI); Portsmouth Abbey School (Portsmouth, RI)
Mid Atlantic (4): Norfolk Academy (Norfolk, VA); Annapolis HS (Annapolis, MD); Broadneck High School (Annapolis, MD); Christchurch High School (Christchurch, VA)
South Atlantic (4): Pine View School (Osprey,FL); St. Thomas Aquinas HS (Fort Lauderdale, FL); Sarasota High School (Sarasota, FL); Shorecrest Preparatory School (St. Petersburg, FL)
Midwest (2): Lake Forest HS (Lake Forest, IL); Loyola Academy (Wilmette, IL)
Southeast (1): Clear Falls High School (League City, TX)

Steve Hunt (left) with the winning Point Loma High School Team

PL1

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