What makes sailing so special

Published on September 11th, 2019

by Josh Toso
A week before the start of 2019 J/24 US National Championship, I was presented with the opportunity to hop on a crew for the regatta. A buddy of mine, whom I have sailed against for many years and a couple times on his J/24, was in dire need of crew as his had bailed and he was contemplating just bagging the event altogether.

Having not raced in a major regatta in over 3 years, although I grew up racing and campaigning J/24s through high school, college and into my late 20s and early 30s, I jumped at this chance to get back in the saddle again.

Our final result was not exactly what we had hoped for, finishing around mid-fleet, but being at the event I was reminded how absolutely amazing the sport of sailing truly is and how special the J/24 class is, which was on full display this late August weekend in Rochester, NY.

New Friends become Old Friends
Because my driver’s entire crew had bailed, we ended up scrambling to fill out our crew. I was slated to trim the genoa upwind and the spinnaker downwind, but we still needed to find a bow, mast and middle/tactician. As we turned our sights to the crew-boards we were able to secure three women to complete our crew.

Not only were these three women from completely different parts of the country (Florida, Upstate New York, and Montana) and all different ages (20s, 30s and 40s), but they had also never met each other and never met my driver or myself. In fact, the first time we all met each other was on Thursday afternoon for the practice race and we didn’t even meet our mast girl until Friday morning, about 2 hours before the first warning signal of the regatta.

Our expectation was that it would probably take quite a bit of time for us to get to know each other and become a cohesive crew, working in tandem to get the boat around the racetrack as fast as possible.

However, what we experienced was five people operating completely in sync with almost flawless crew work, right from the get-go. We were even asked multiple times at the after-racing parties how long we had all been racing together, as others couldn’t believe that we had all met just the day before.

The outstanding crew work and somewhat respectable finish, although unexpected, was not the most surprising thing our crew experienced. From the minute we all met on Thursday, and meeting our mast girl on Friday, the whole crew just clicked, and we were all instantly comfortable with each other…like we had known each other for years.

It didn’t take long for inside jokes to develop and friendships to form and an amazing time was had on and off the water. When I asked our driver, Marty Gallagher (Scituate, MA), how he felt about going to the crew-board and finding random people to sail with who he’d never met before he mentioned, “Some adventures require a real leap of faith.

“Racing in big regattas is definitely an adventure because you never really know what will happen. I’ve found when you’re short of crew and reach out to the J/24 community for help, hands just start going up…racers from all over eager to join a team. You know they are adventurers too.”

A special relationship that was formed out of this adventure was that of the three women on the boat. Having never met each other until the day before (or day of) the regatta, they instantly connected, and their friendship quickly blossomed.

By the end of the first day they were acting more like sisters than people who just met the day before. By the end of the event, the bond they had built was extending their relationship into the future with talk of joining together on an all-women’s crew for the Rolex Big Boat Series in San Francisco.

Valerie Bucholtz, our middle/tactician, said of this newfound friendship, “Sailing attracts a certain style of person, its people who want to feel alive and exhilarated. I had no doubt that I’d like everyone on the crew and that we’d become friends. The next level of having each other’s back, laughing, teasing and sharing was a bonus and is what makes it so great and special.”

There is no doubt in my mind that these three ladies will forever be friends and have many more adventures together…and the sport of sailing is what made it all happen.

The Sea Bags Women Sailing officially arrived at this year’s J/24 Nationals and put the whole J/24 Class on notice that they are here to compete on the national stage and here to stay. Their development, growth and advancement can be directly attributed to their perseverance and hard work and they epitomize what makes our sport so great.

The Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team has been campaigning their J/24 for the past five years. The team got together after Erica Beck Spencer went to the 2014 Worlds in Newport and got frustrated that there were only two all-women’s teams out of 79.

Jess Harris and her parents bought the boat in February 2015 and their first event was that year’s Midwinter Championship at Davis Island Yacht Club in Tampa, Florida. The team has had a number of women come and go over the years, but they tend to have about 11-12 ladies who rotate in and out and compete at about 9-10 regattas per year.

I have seen this amazing team of ladies progress throughout their time together, first meeting them at the 2015 Downeast Regatta in Portland, Maine. Although they like to have fun at the regattas as much as the next boat, their sights are always on improvement, looking for and seeking out every opportunity they can to get better.

They make sure to attend every daily debrief, every dock talk, and are consistently one of the first boats out to the racecourse testing the wind conditions and honing their crew work and skills. They are always the first ones to ask questions at the pre-regatta local knowledge talks and are never shy to approach the pros and elite armatures under the regatta party tent to absorb every bit of information they can.

I have followed the growth of this team throughout the years, and with every regatta they participate in they continually improve their skills and knowledge, and in turn, their results.

This year they took first place in the J/24 fleet at the Sailing World’s Helly Hansen Marblehead NOOD Regatta and placed 13th at the J/24 National Championship, only 7 points out of the top 10…by far their best finish at a national regatta. They were in the lead pack all the way around the track in almost every race, mixing it up with the Pros and the top J/24 sailors in the country.

Following the regatta, I caught up with Erica Beck Spencer, co-captain and skipper of Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team, to understand the work they have put in and to what she attributed their continuing success.

“I couldn’t have been more proud of our team at this year’s J/24 Nationals,” she noted. “All year we’ve been focused on getting off the starting line with speed. After this year’s Midwinters we focused on practicing our approach to the starting line way before the line was even set. We ping an imaginary starting line, we set a timer and we imagine we are in traffic and work on accelerating. We try to do this several times before the actual start.

“This goal really paid off this year and has reflected in our results. At Nationals we were able to get off the starting line with speed in every race. Our tactician, Hillary Noble, could really decide where we wanted to go instead of needing to bail out and get to clear air.

“Our travel team has been sailing together for many years now, and this helps tremendously. We show up to every dock talk with questions and my notebook to make it possible for us to learn as much as possible and to retain that information. We channel a growth mindset and constantly want to improve.”

As Erica went to the stage to receive the Top-Female Crew award, she thanked her whole crew and the work they had put in, but also made sure to give thanks to the rest of the fleet as well…for it’s because of them and their openness to share stories, best practices and knowledge that has allowed her team to elevate their performance and helps to improve the entire class.

Erica gave a specific shout out to the Pros of the J/24 Class, thanking Will (Welles), Mike (Ingham), Carter (White), Travis (Odenbach), Tim (Healy), and others for supporting her and her team and for constantly being approachable, friendly, welcoming and always willing to share and help. She attributed much of her team’s success to the guidance and support of these individuals and of the rest of the fleet.

Mixing it up with the Pros
I think you’d be hard pressed to find many sports where amateur athletes have the opportunity to compete against the pros in their sport on a consistent basis. Sailing is special in that way, where the lines between pros and amateurs are somewhat blurred and grey and because of that, a special relationship is built between the two.

I play in a men’s ice hockey “beer league” and a handful of other adult sports leagues, and even at the highest level, the closest we ever come to competing against a pro is possibly having an opponent (or someone on our team) who maybe once played a year or two in the minor leagues, or maybe coached (or is coaching) a lower level college team or high level high school team. For the most part, the pros and amateurs don’t mix and do not compete against each other.

However, in sailing it’s a little different. It’s common place that National, North American, and World Championships, in whatever class you are competing, have a combination of professional and amateur sailors competing against each other…and the amateurs even beat the pros from time to time. Heck, it even happens quite often in the local regattas as well.

In sailing, the pros are just as much a fabric of our sport as the weekend warrior or “beer can” sailor…not necessarily these athletes on a pedestal to which you could never compare or unapproachable celebrities.

They are part of the sailing family and want to help and see all the sailors they come in contact with improve…albeit sometimes to sell more sails, parts or boats…but for the most part, to ensure the health of the sport we all love and see it grow and encourage continued participation.

These interactions and relationships were never more apparent to me than at this year’s J/24 Nationals. With no less than nine pro boats out of the 46 competing, 20% of the fleet was comprised of people who make a living racing sailboats.

However, you wouldn’t know it out on the racecourse or by looking at the standings as amateur sailors were constantly in the top pack, finishing in the top 10 of each race and even finishing in the top 10 overall.

Under the tent, this reflection became even clearer as I observed pros and amateurs swapping stories around the keg and bar, laughing with and learning from each other, and genuinely enjoying each other’s company…whether they were longtime friends or just met at this regatta.

This type of relationship isn’t exclusive to the J/24 Class, it happens all around the country at almost every major regatta. But in my estimation and humble opinion, the pros in the J/24 Class are some of the most friendly, kind, approachable, and all around great people that our sport has to offer. It is truly a special relationship and one that I am thankful I get to experience at every regatta I attend.

All in the Family
Sailing is truly a family sport and activity. The passion for sailing is often passed down from generation to generation and is enjoyed by families together throughout our country and around the world. So, it is by no accident that you can often see families participating and competing together at regattas.

I am a product of a sailing family, albeit a second-generation sailor. My father learned to sail in his early 30s in Boston at Community Boating Inc. on the Charles River. He purchased a J/24 when I was 2 years old and thus started my love for sailing.

I grew up sailing on and racing the J/24 with my father, campaigning our boat “High Five” at various local regattas as well as some Midwinter, National and North American Championships. After graduating from college, my father bought an Etchells and my friends and I purchased the “High Five” from him and continued to race it for the next six years or so.

I have always thought of the J/24 as a “family” boat, both in racing and cruising terms. In fact, I can remember one time Jeff Johnstone told me that when his father created the J/24 he had the idea of family in mind…he wanted a boat that he could not only race with his family, but that could sleep 4 people so they could have overnight cruises and even put a hibachi grill on the back.

This notion of family was reinforced in my mind at the J/24 Nationals. Most of my friends in the fleet, many of whom I hadn’t seen in some time, knew me through racing with my father all of those years. As I was leaving Rochester Yacht Club after awards, no less than 10 people made sure to remark, “Tell your father I say hi”.

As I looked around at the compilation of different boats throughout the fleet, I saw other boats with father/son crews which made me think about how that racing experience will help to shape their sailing lives as well. And it’s not just the child/parent relationship that takes form at these events, lifelong partners and entire families are created through sailing.

Multiple husband and wife teams were represented at this year’s Nationals creating a whole new dynamic on and off the water. This concept even makes its way through the pro ranks with the likes of Carter and Molly White who have been campaigning their J/24 since I was a little tyke running around the Portland Yacht Club.

Even on the National Champion boat Buckaroo (helmed by Will Welles) was Chris and Monica Morgan who met through sailing the J/24 and their 5-year-old Oliver, “Regatta Baby”, has been at almost every regatta I have seen them at.

The one other thing I came to realize is that the idea of family is not exclusive to genetically or legally connected individuals. I know it is true at many other regattas, but it was especially clear to me, and I felt it whole heartedly at this one…we are all family. We all have these experiences together, we all face the same elements and challenges together, we all laugh and play together, and we all compete with and against each other.

Whether we are related or not…that sounds like family to me. All these people I see at every regatta I go to in any number of states throughout the country, these people are my family…always have been, and always will be…and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world!

Editor’s note: This report was edited for brevity. Josh is the Marketing Director for US Sailing and posted the original version on the organization’s website.

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