July 20, 2001

Local sailors gain experience

By DOM NICASTRO

Times sports editor

ROCKPORT -- A group of young local sailors sat at Granite Pier yesterday afternoon wiping the sweat off their brows as the sun kissed the harbor on this picture-perfect afternoon.

They had just finished competing in the third and final day of the United State's Optimist Dinghy Association's 2001 New England Optimist Championships hosted by Rockport's Sandy Bay Yacht Club.

None of them won the 166-boat Championship fleet or the 30-boat Green fleet, which together combined for more boats any Cape Ann yacht club has hosted for a single regatta. These locals didn't even crack the top 40.

Still, they smiled as they sipped their tonics and chatted about the once-in-a-lifetime sailing extravaganza they just experienced.

"It was good because there were so many boats which prepares us for other regattas," said Rockport's Joanna Clark, 12, whose family has been racing sailboats in Rockport now for four generations. "It encourages us."

"A lot of these kids racing are on national teams," said fellow 12-year-old Sandy Bay Yacht Club sailor Naomi Delphin. "Some kids came from far away because they are really good."

Sailors ages 8-15 representing nearly 50 yacht clubs, several states and a few countries hit Rockport this week to race in single-sail, eight-foot prams in the three-day regatta that began Tuesday and concluded yesterday. The Optis are used by many first-time sailors, and there are 150,000 of them world wide.

Some competitors traveled from Miami Beach, Fla. Some ventured down from Canada -- "It was so funny. They were yelling things in French while they were sailing," said one young local sailor. Others ventured from as far away as Bermuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands and New Orleans.

And here were these local sailors, who were minutes away from Granite Pier, where the boats were launched daily.

They raced against some of the best young sailors around, according to United States Optimist Dinghy Association Vice President Charley Cook, a Marblehead resident.

They are intense sailors. During Wednesday's first race in the bay, one sailor pointed to a competitor and yelled, "720!, 720!" The alert sailor caught an infraction made by the other. His penalty was making a 720-degree turn (two full rotations) in his boat before getting back into the race.

"There's no doubt in this group there are one or two future Olympic Gold medalists," said Cook, who is also the vice president of the U.S. Opti Class. "Some of these sailors certainly have potential to race in the America's Cup. It's a fantastic experience for the local kids. This is as tough a competition as they'll ever see. Plus they make friends they'll have through high school and college."

Picture, if you will, some of the elite Little League baseball players from around the world convening for a three-day tournament at a Cape Ann baseball field. That's comparable to what transpired this week: an elite regatta right here in Sandy Bay.

"I think it was almost a wake-up call for New England, especially Sandy Bay," said event coordinator Jacob Fiumara, a longtime sailor who recently won the Star Class district championship. "It showed the North Shore exactly what was out there for New England and also across the country. I've never seen Opti sailors sail at that level. These kids are sailing at 12 years old at the level where I was when I was 19-20. The learning curve is so much quicker."

It isn't easy getting to that point, Fiumara said.

"A couple kids I talked to from Florida said they hadn't been home in 7 and 1/2 weeks," Fiumara said. "That shows you the commitment. It's a lot of travelling, and it's pricey. Some kids travel in a team of 10-12 opti sailors. This regatta was a tune up for them for the nationals at Barrington, R.I."

Alex Levin was in awe of the sailors he competed with. The experience was worthwhile, he said.

"I thought we were really good, then we saw them practicing," said Levin, a 12-year-old Sandy Bay Yacht Club member. "We knew they were really good. They race from March to November. That's all they do."

Some young sailors compete just within their club, such as those from the local clubs represented this week: Sandy Bay, Manchester Sailing Association and Annisquam.

That's why the exposure this week was crucial, said Charlie Clark, the chairman of the event who's been sailing most of his life.

"You compete against a higher quality in these big fleets," said Clark, whose daughter, Joanna, placed 123rd in the Championship fleet. "For some of these local kids, it's their first big regatta. A lot of these kids were sharing ideas with each other, comparing equipment and watching each other sail. Every regatta builds on the last one. You learn from your mistakes, and the next one you do better."