College rookies hit big time

Matriculating from collegiate dinghy racing to big-boat sailing is like transitioning from T-ball to the Big Leagues. For most college sailors coming from two-man 420’s or FJ’s, the biggest challenge is getting used to the precise coordination of a multi-person crew sailing on boats and courses that are much bigger and more demanding than they’re used to.

This March the Port of Los Angeles teamed up with the Los Angeles Yacht Club and Cal Maritime University to host the second-annual Harbor Cup Regatta. Eight top teams were invited to race identical Catalina 37s in the regatta, which is one of only four intercollegiate races held on the open ocean and the only such event on the West Coast. LAYC junior staff commodore Jim Morgan said that the purpose of the regatta was to infuse younger sailors with a love of big boats. “We’re an offshore yacht club,” he said, “and we hope these kids can develop a passion for offshore sailing.”

Schools from all three coasts participated. For dynastic teams like the Coast Guard, Cal Maritime, and Maine Maritime Academies, the regatta was serious business involving rigorous training, uniforms, and varsity coaches. For others, like rookie-team Cal State University Channel Islands, with their volunteer coach and an inexperienced crew, the regatta was a long shot. The school itself is only five years old, and the Dolphins’ co-captains Nick DeRoulhac and Austin Dias founded the team just three years ago, making it the school’s only official sport. With limited funding, they secured a fleet of three FJs and collected friends from around campus to join their fledgling squad. “Nick and Austin taught us everything,” said sophomore pitman Evan Locke, for whom the Harbor Cup was his third-ever race. “They took nothing and turned it into a competitive team in a short time.”

Aside from Nick, who worked the bow, and Austin at the helm, no member of the team had significant sailing (or racing) experience. But what they lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm. The team was laid back and smiling before and between races, but as soon as the warning gun sounded, they were acutely focused. And they were resilient, competing with a mainsail trimmer, Jessica Williams, whose smile didn’t fade despite the six stitches she needed after an accidental gybe. “Nick’s leadership keeps us laid back. Austin keeps us focused,” said first-time racer Vince Mendoza. “They balance each other out.”

The captains worked hard to maintain this balance while simultaneously teaching their crew how to sail. They finished Day One in fourth place, five points out of third. While other coaches violently flailed their arms at their teams, Channel Islands’ volunteer coach Phillip Dias smiled encouragingly, pairing each criticism with a compliment.

The Dolphins discovered that the toughest part of their transition from dinghies to keel boats wasn’t boat-handling skills — those can be acquired — but rather communication and keeping the crew focused and positive. “That’s the strong point of our team,” said Mendoza, “We may not all know the terminology, but we communicate well. If someone disagrees on board, we don’t yell, we ask.”

This sort of team spirit paid off. The Dolphins began Day Two resolved not to let the tricky light air (3 to 7 knots) derail their focus. Instead, they fought hard. Their finishes steadily improved as they clocked in a 4-4-2-1 for an overall score of 29 that earned them a tie for second place.

The 2009 Harbor Cup forced some of the nation’s top college sailors to step out of their dinghies and into serious big-boat competition. Cal State Channel Islands proved that strong leadership and a positive attitude can bring a team success, even if the team is playing T-ball in Yankee Stadium.

Hey Dolphins, welcome to the Big Leagues.

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