For three days starting Friday October 28 Riverside Yacht Club was host to more than sixty sailors from thirteen states who proceeded to perform some of the most intrepid sailing ever witnessed on this part of the Sound. You will recall that this was the weekend of the big storm with unseasonable heavy snow and high winds that ravaged trees and knocked out power in half the state. The sailors, ages just twelve to fourteen, were members of our national Optimist class team, here to practice for the international regattas that will take place in four different countries in the year ahead. We are proud to report that four of the official team of sixty are members of Riverside Yacht Club’s junior program.
The weather reports were foreboding. Friday afternoon and Saturday morning forecasts called for 25 to 35 mph winds with gusts of 50 and more. Would they call the races? “No way!,” said John Logue, father of Matt and Will, both members of the national team. “These kids can sail in just about any weather.” They could and they did. The tiny Optimist dinghies, a little under eight feet long with blunt bows and hard chines, have three inflatable flotation tanks that provide an important measure of safety for the junior sailors. With active fleets in 120 countries, it is the largest sailing class in the world after Lasers. In last year’s Olympics half the dinghy sailors and 85 percent of the medal winners cut their teeth in Optimists. One wag at a yacht club bar described the Opti as “a bathtub that breeds some of the world’s best sailors.”
After rigging their boats in the parking lot, the sailors attended an hour-long instruction and orientation session in the Junior Club house led by Argentinian Pepe Bettini, head instructor of the U.S. team. Four coaches from around the country were also on hand, including a lovely young redheaded gal in charge of the British team that had been invited to come over for the practice session. Piling out of the clubhouse, the young sailors launched sixty-two boats off the beach in less than twenty minutes and rendezvoused off the yacht club before parading to the racing area in Great Captain’s harbor. Friday morning began with moderate breezes from the NW that became increasingly boisterous during the day as predicted, reaching 18 to 25 with stronger gusts in the afternoon. Still, there were no dropouts or capsizes, and the young sailors seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. Saturday was a different story.
As the fleet headed out to the starting area the next morning the forecast of 25 to 35 with gusts over 40 became an immediate reality. It was an exciting spectacle to see these undaunted young competitors performing like acrobats as they tacked and jibed around the marks. Out of the entire fleet there were only three capsizes, and in each case the skippers righted their boats, climbed back in and sailed on, bailing as they went.
High winds from the NE continued in the afternoon, but this time with heavy, blinding snow. The races were called off, but only because the kids literally couldn’t see. Racing resumed on Sunday with winds somewhat diminished; but with the temperature dropping below freezing, ice and snow had to be removed before launching the boats. The weather didn’t bother James Westerberg or Jack Parkin, the other two members of the national team from Riverside Yacht Club. The kids from California and Texas, however, came unprepared for wind chill temperatures in the teens. They just borrowed clothes and toughed it out.
While these youngsters are highly competitive and individual performance is important, it’s also very collegial. As James Westerberg puts it, “Everyone on the US Team feels proud and lucky to be a part of it. We’re all friends because we travel, sail and stay with each other at regattas all over the US and around the world. As competitive as we are with each other we also cheer each other on.”