National championship youth regatta sets sail from California Yacht Club, helping preserve the future of the sport

By Luke Goldstein

A young sailor feels for wind patterns during the second round of team competition on July 21

A young sailor feels for wind patterns during the second round of team competition on July 21

Whether at home port or visiting from as far away as Bermuda, Canada or New York, each of the racers had one thing in common — a love for being out on the water.

There was a palpable hum of nervous excitement down by the docks of the California Yacht Club as the sailors, more than 100 boys and girls ranging in age from 8 to 15, waited near their eight-foot boats for the second day of competition to begin.

The United States Optimist Dinghy Association’s National Championship Sailing Regatta, a milestone annual event promoting international friendships and cultivating the future of the sport, began July 19 and wrapped up last Sunday in Marina del Rey.

Competitive sailing is a year-round sport for most of these youth sailors, who practice multiple times each week in order to prepare for competitions. At regattas like these, kids can be out on the water for six or more hours a day with their teammates.

“I love sailing because I have a lot of really great friends here and I just get to go out on the water with them,” said Bastien Rasse, 13, who has been sailing for seven years and raced with the Cal Yacht Club team.

That feeling stays with many racers throughout their lives, said Cal Yacht Club Staff Commodore Bill Stump, who served as principal race officer for the second week’s individual championship rounds.

“I still run into friends that I grew up sailing with; we all connect through the sport,” he said. “You make lifelong friends, and when you go to Europe you find you know people there you’ve met from the races. If you’re playing little league or soccer you don’t get that experience,” he said.

Stump has hands as big as Shaquille O’Neal’s and the kind of iron grip that comes from years of pulling and tying ropes out at sea. Stump has been with the club since 1980 and feels that helping run the youth regatta is his way to give back to the sport, a sentiment that most of the 140 other volunteers for this important race seemed to match.

This year saw four international students among the 23 teams of four or five racers each — three boys from Bermuda and a girl from Canada, who joined together to compete under the Lake Ontario Optimist Team banner.

“It’s really nice to have people from different countries come and compete because you have all different kinds of skill levels and it’s fun to meet new kids,” said Georgia Phillips, an 11-year-old from Toronto, who was competing in her first big regatta.

Georgia and other serious international sailors often travel to the U.S. to find a higher level of competition than in their home countries.

“There isn’t great competition in Bermuda, so if I want to get better I have to go away,” said Mikey Wollman, 14.

Unlike other sports that have relatively low financial barriers to entry, the amount of resources available to kids makes a significant difference in the sailing world, which is why the USODA requires that racers in its competitions all use a standardized 35-square-foot sailboat called an Optimist Dinghy.

Kids sail these one-man dinghies alone, even during team competitions, when they must strategize with teammates in separate boats.

“That’s the neat thing about sailing at this age — there’s no socio-economic barometer. Even the boats are standardized. These kids starting out are all on an even playing field,” said Kimberly Cudney, Georgia’s mother.

As competition from other sports increased, U.S. sailing organizations began to reach out to a more economically diverse population

“For young people who don’t have the finances to buy their own boat or even pay to be in a summer program, there are more scholarships available, such as the Santa Monica Sailing Foundation,” Stump said.

Although there aren’t nearly enough of those programs to meet demand, there has never been a better time for youth sailing, he said.

“If you’re a good sailor, you have a great chance of placing and it doesn’t matter where you come from … even if you’re from Canada,” Cudney said with a laugh as she watched her daughter head down the harbor’s main channel.