Youth Big Boat Program Working Toward Bermuda Race

Published on June 3rd, 2016

Youth big boat programs generally make the most noise before the first starting horn sounds. The goal of nurturing in young sailors a love for racing bigger yachts is noble and noteworthy. But, for a variety of practical reasons—usually limitations in experience, strength, cohesiveness and financial backing—it’s rare to see a team of nippers upstaging the established crews.

But at the 162nd New York Yacht Club Annual Regatta presented by Rolex (June 10 to 12, in Newport, R.I.), those teams that find themselves on the starting line next to the Young American Junior Big Boat Sailing Team (Rye, N.Y.) may be in for a surprise.

The youth squad, which is based out of American Yacht Club, recently won IRC 5 in the Storm Trysail Club’s Block Island Race, and they did so racing a 20-year-old design against some of the Northeast’s top IRC competitors.

“We knew we had a chance of doing well,” said Mamaroneck (N.Y.) High School senior Will McKeige. “We had a fast boat, and it was a light air race. It was really different being on a bigger boat. It was something else to be able to sail through the fleet. We started last and were just trying to pass as many boats as we could.”

The Young American team will be looking to further pad its resume in Newport as well as the following week when the team will compete in the Newport Bermuda Race. The two events comprise two legs of the prestigious Onion Patch Series, in which the team also hopes to place on the podium.

Youth big boat sailing is a longstanding tradition at American YC. But the current iteration has taken it to a new level. Four years ago, after decades of sailing borrowed boats, the program acquired a J/105. This season, with bigger offshore goals in mind, the team has a season-long agreement to use High Noon, a 1994 Tripp 41 that was optimized for IRC a decade ago by Steve and Heidi Benjamin and comes with a very fresh suit of sails.

Approximately 30 to 35 juniors take part in the program each summer, with the racing schedule running from the AYC Spring Series in late April to the AYC Fall Series in October. The team participates in Junior Sailing Association of Long Island Sound big-boats races, one-design competition, and offshore events. And a group of juniors also take the boat on the club’s annual family cruise. All told, it amounts to more than 300 days on the water for the program’s junior sailors.

“Juniors do all the jobs, there’s always a junior steering, but the adult is a full member of the crew,” says Peter Becker. Becker and Rob Alexander, who run the program, along with offshore legend Guillermo Altadill, will sail with the term to Bermuda. “The adult is of two mindsets: this is a competitive sport, go win the race, but the other half of the brain is saying this is a teaching moment. We put those two at an equal balance.”

The buoy races of the 162nd Annual Regatta presented by Rolex, in this boat, will be a new challenge for this team. But shying away from challenges isn’t something these teenagers are known for.

“The Bermuda Race is our real focus and a buoy race is going to help us out,” says McKeige. “It’s going to be difficult, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

More than 150 boats are expected to compete in the 162nd Annual Regatta presented by Rolex. The event will feature a race around Conanicut Island on Friday, June 10, and then two days of buoy racing for the IRC and one-design classes, and point-to-point racing for the multihulls and navigator classes. The 72-foot Maxi72 class will be contesting its North American Championship during the regatta.

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