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Sailing ’Canes chart a winning course

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    Despite an all-volunteer coaching staff, limited travel budget, and borrowed boats, the UM Sailing ’Canes is establishing a reputation for itself, earning a top-20 national ranking from the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association.

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    The UM Sailing ’Canes practice four days week, honing their tacking and jibing skills on Biscayne Bay.

    The UM Sailing ’Canes practice four days week, honing their tacking and jibing skills on Biscayne Bay.

    Their boats are borrowed. When they travel to regattas, it’s by automobile, not airplane. And to cover their travel expenses to weekly competitions, they can’t simply dip into an ever-expanding budget, but must sell T-shirts and hats with their team logo, and appeal to the local sailing community for support.

    Despite such odds, the University of Miami Sailing ’Canes has been able to jibe and tack with the best collegiate sailing teams in the nation, in some races beating powerful programs with huge budgets, vast resources, and full-time paid coaches.

    “It’s proof that if you have the drive and the will to make it happen, you can be successful,” David Hernandez, a sophomore skipper on the squad, says of the team’s accomplishments.

    After an 11th-place finish at the Atlantic Coast Championships on the Charles River at Harvard two weeks ago, the Sailing ’Canes have wrapped up the fall season ranked No. 13 in the nation by the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association, surprising even its own sailors, who set out at the beginning of the autumn campaign with a goal of merely cracking the top 20.

    “We were expecting to finish 18th or 19th, but we actually exceeded our expectations,” says Hernandez, who has been sailing since he was 8 years old and captured the Cressy Cup, the national championship of high school sailing, when he was 17.

    Bill Johns, a UM professor of meteorology and physical oceanography who advises and helps coach the team, calls the No. 13 national ranking “extraordinary.”

    Armada: Sailing ’Canes members group their boats together during a practice session.

    Armada: Sailing ’Canes members gather their boats during a practice session.

    “To have come from a start-up team in 2004 to a top-20 ranking in five years is an amazing achievement, unprecedented in college sailing,” he says. “It’s a difficult [ranking to achieve] because the [top] varsity teams tend to recruit most of the best junior and high school sailors.”


    Hernandez and Johns agree that the lofty ranking will help recruiting efforts. But don’t conjure up notions of UM coaches traveling the country offering scholarships to the best young talent. “We don’t really do active recruiting, except at a few major junior sailing events like the Orange Bowl,” Johns says. “The sailors who are competing for us now came to UM mainly for other reasons.”

    Sailing is not an NCAA activity but a club sport, one of many established at the nation’s colleges and universities to encourage and develop the interests and skills of students in a particular sport.

    Sailing has been a club sport at UM since the early 1970s. Back then club members took special Thanksgiving and Christmas trips to the Florida Keys, went on weekend sailing excursions on Hobie Cat Beach, and taught students how to sail.

    The club didn’t add its competitive team, UM Sailing ’Canes, until five years ago, when a group of students approached Rosenstiel School researcher Kay Kilpatrick and her husband, physics professor Kenneth Voss, with the idea of starting a squad that would compete against other schools. One of those students was UM alumnus Zach Railey, the silver medalist in the Finn class at the 2008 Beijing Games.

    “The only problem was they didn’t have any boats to train,” recalls Kilpatrick.

    Sailing ’Canes members use the facilities at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club.

    Sailing ’Canes members use the facilities at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club.

    So the couple used their contacts at a local sailing foundation to help get the team started, convincing the organization to purchase a fleet of used sailboats from the Naval Academy and Coast Guard and then donate the vessels to the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, which now allows the students to use the boats (a fleet of Flying Juniors and Lasers) and its facilities to hone their skills.

    The team, which now numbers about 30 students, practices four days a week, getting instruction from volunteer head coach Craig Johnson, a former sailing coach at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, and guidance and mentorship from four advisors: Kilpatrick and Voss, accomplished sailors who compete in regattas in a two-person, 16-foot Snipe sailboat; the Rosenstiel School’s Johns; and Rhonda DuBord, associate director of wellness and recreation, who serves as the team’s financial consultant.

    “It’s the only varsity team with no paid coaches and no travel budget,” explains Kilpatrick. “They get some funding from SAFAC (Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee). But the team still has to do a lot of fundraising; it’s expensive to travel to the events.”

    Trips to out-of-state regattas—such as the Atlantic Coast Championship in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the team placed 11th to solidify its No. 13 national ranking—can slice a significant portion from the squad’s travel budget. So members raise funds throughout the year, often selling clothing items adorned with the Sailing ’Canes name.

    The money raised, along with financial support from the South Florida sailing fraternity, has helped the young sailors concentrate on their sport.


    “Competitive sailing is physically and mentally demanding,” says Hernandez. “You have to be on your game and be aware of your surroundings and the wind shifts. It’s a sport of inches out there on the water. I love the competitiveness and camaraderie. You can be rivals on the water but the best of friends when the race is over.”

    Training on the ocean in South Florida has helped the team maintain its sharp skills.

    But “it’s a two-edged sword,” says Johns. “Yes, we get to train year round in one of the best sailing venues in the world, Biscayne Bay. But we also don’t get much practice in cold-weather sailing like many of the top teams from the Northeast, which is where many of the big events are held. The Navy Fall Intersectional this year, held in Annapolis, was in the low 40s with lots of rain and gusts, pretty miserable conditions. And the Atlantic Coast Championship was not much better.”

    Indeed, Nick Voss, a sophomore skipper on the team who is the son of Kilpatrick and Kenneth Voss, recalls how the windy conditions at the championship made sailing strategy difficult. “We experienced a lot of what we call pressure differences—more wind in one spot than another,” he explains. “A boat could be five feet away from another boat, but one sailboat would get more wind than the other and go a lot faster. It was hard to get a handle on it, but we gained a lot of experience.”

    With the fall season complete, the team has throttled back on its training, as students prepare for final exams and look forward to the holiday season. But the spring regatta season, which will focus more on team racing, will be here soon, and the training will intensify once more. They hope to qualify for the national championships, to be held in Wisconsin in June.

    For now they can bask in the glory of their top-20 ranking.

    “It’s gratification for all the hard work and time we devoted to sailing,” says team president Hannah Marshburn. “Prior to the success we achieved over the past year, we struggled really hard just to keep interest in the program and find the time to travel to regattas so extensively. We had so much weight on our shoulders. But we’ve kept the program alive and have brought in so many amazing and dedicated people who are willing to help guide the program to where it needs to go. It’s wonderful to see something succeed that you had a part in nurturing.”

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