College Sailing: Being the Best Club Team

Published on October 25th, 2017

Somewhere out in the middle of Eastchester Bay, nestled between City Island and the mainland Bronx of New York, the Fordham sailing team was doing a speed drill when, in the distance, the traffic began to clot on the Throgs Neck Bridge. As the string of brake lights grew longer, the Fordham coach, Johnny Norfleet, could tell it was getting late.

Most of his sailors had evening classes, and even after they reached the team’s home port, on the southernmost tip of City Island, in the Bronx, they still faced a good 25-minute drive in a passenger van back to campus. So Norfleet signaled an early end to practice. They would meet again as a team for calisthenics at 7 the next morning.

That Fordham even has a sailing program comes as a shock to most people Norfleet meets: A university embedded in the country’s densest megalopolis does not immediately call to mind freedom associated with sailing.

But Fordham, the college of Vince Lombardi, Vin Scully and Wellington Mara, has lately become a destination for skilled sailors. Its team roster of 29 includes students from more sun-splashed locations: Spain, St. Thomas, California, Florida, South Carolina. Most were recruited even though the team, a club, cannot offer scholarships.

One sailor who was not recruited, the sophomore Jacqueline Tobin, discovered the team at a club fair. “I thought it was more leisurely,” she said. “Like the ski team.”

It has become much more than that. Sixteen years after a small group of students and a volunteer coach resurrected the Fordham sailing program, it ranks among the best in the country, a rival of much bigger teams that enjoy varsity status and athletic department support.

Last June, all the wind sprints and boat-handling drills, all the afternoon training sessions and the weekend regattas finally paid off: Fordham finished seventh at the Intercollegiate Sailing Association’s national championship. That was one place ahead of the US Naval Academy and two in front of Coast Guard — and first among the nation’s 187 club programs.

“We like to say that we have just as much to offer as any varsity program,” Norfleet declares.

Unlike the varsity programs, though, Fordham sailing gets only a fraction ($5,000) of its yearly budget from its university. It relies on fund-raising for the rest, including Norfleet’s salary. A dinner in Manhattan recently raised nearly $175,000 — enough to pay for a new fleet of 420-class dinghies sailed in most collegiate competitions.

The alumni support is one reason sailors have been flocking to Fordham. But another is location. Eduardo Mintzias, a freshman from Miami who has sailed since age 9, said his college decision came down to two options: Fordham and Dartmouth, which offers sailing as a varsity sport. The deciding factor? “Being in New York City,” Mintzias said.

The lack of varsity status was not an issue, he added. “Fordham gives me the opportunity to sail against the best every weekend,” Mintzias said. “Not every club team in the country gets invited to these events.”

The boats, and the team’s operations, are housed at the Morris Yacht and Beach Club on City Island, a quaint fishing community with a long history tied to the (since abandoned) production of yachts for the America’s Cup.

Fordham’s sailing history is long, too, though not especially noteworthy until recently. The team formed as a club in 1950, and even attained varsity status before dissolving because of lack of interest in the early 1970s.

In 2000, an alumnus, Joe Sullivan, decided to resurrect the program and volunteered to coach it. The first practice was supposed to be held on Sept. 11, 2001 (it was canceled). When it finally got started, Sullivan’s team consisted of seven sailors and six boats.

“From that little acorn, the program grew,” said Sullivan, 80.

Now the team travels up and down the East Coast regularly to compete. It fields teams for men and women and pursues a fall and spring schedule. The annual goal remains a strong showing in the season ending nationals at the end of May.

Source: Zach Schonbrun, NY Times

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