Is sailing more like football or chess? According to members of the University’s sailing team, it’s somewhere in-between.
At a school where even home football games make a relatively small impact on campus life, sailing is almost invisible. But that doesn’t discourage a small, dedicated group of students who spend three afternoons each week on nearby Lake Pocotopaug (not to mention numerous weekends competing in autumn and spring regattas).
Although sailing is a club sport—entirely student-run, and nominally funded by the Student Budgetary Committee (SBC) rather than by the University’s Athletic department—the team is able to compete at the varsity level. In the sailing world, no distinction exists.
Four years ago, Jacon Mayer ’10 transferred to Wesleyan from the University of Vermont, where he was a member of the school’s highly regarded sailing team. At Wesleyan, he expected to find something at least vaguely similar.
Instead, he found a team that “existed only in name.”
So he set about starting a team of his own.
“Building the team and watching it grow from nothing has been one of the more rewarding things I’ve done in my life,” Mayer said. “I don’t think I would have had that experience on an established team.”
Mayer is currently preparing for a 36-day expedition to scale one of the “classic harder routs” up Denali, North America’s highest peak. The team’s leadership has passed on to Maritza Ebling ’12 and Molly Haley ’13 (like Mayer, a sophomore transfer from a school with a more established team).
“We don’t have a coach,” said team member Angus Page ’12. “Everyone pitches in the best they can, [but] I think it would be awesome if we could get a coach. It’s really hard for me and other people on the team to be running practice, dealing with all the logistics, and trying to get better to the point that we can compete with the varsity schools with really good programs, where all the kids can just focus on racing and going fast, not running the team. The way things are going it really seems like it might be a possibility.”
According to Frances Williams ’14, who joined the team after seeing it advertised in a post to the class of 2014 Facebook group, the team is actively seeking to begin working with a professional coach—another step along the long road toward varsity recognition.
The team has come a long way. Just four years ago, Mayer and a small group of students started out sharing boats with Trinity College. Last year, the Wesleyan club bought a new fleet of boats for $1,000 apiece from Bowdoin College, which was a huge leap forward for the team.
“It caused things to come together in a way they really hadn’t before,” said Gabriel Elder ’11, who has been on the team for four years.
The captains anticipate that the team will continue to develop.
“I’m hoping that the team will grow a lot, to the point that we could be a varsity sport,” Haley said. “But that we could still teach people who haven’t done this before how to sail and race.”
Sailing races, called regattas, occur during weekends throughout the autumn and spring seasons. Teams of four (two to a boat), representing 12 to 30 schools, convene on a body of water and compete on a set course.
“It’s definitely hard to convey the thrill of sailing,” Mayer said. “For me, the appeal is that it’s a sport that combines all the best elements of other competitions that I like. There’s an incredible tactical element to it: knowing a complex rulebook, dealing with all the techniques to make your boat go faster, always on a changing field with different conditions. Then there is the physical component. You need to be very fit, need to achieve unspoken communication with your partner, to act as a fluid pair.”
While sailing becomes second nature to those who practice three times per week, it can be baffling to those who know nothing about the sport.
“I usually have a hard time explaining what we do,” said Rebecca Vaadia ’13, a team member. “When I say I’m going to a regatta, and people will ask, ‘Who’s it against?’ they don’t realize how many schools compete… And I have to explain that it’s around a course, not from one point to another.”
If the sailing team continues its exponential growth, it will soon hold an equal place among the more established teams on campus.
“People see sailing as something relaxing, and not really that athletic,” Vaadia said. “But when you’re racing, for a boat to go fast, you have to do whatever is necessary with your body to make it go that way, from squatting in the middle of the boat to leaning way out. There are very specific physical things you need to do to get the boat to go quickly, and its not comfortable most of the time.”