Sailing’s best kept secret

The 1998 George R. Hinman Trophy saw the participation of 12 sailing teams from the East Coast to Hawaii with such odd names as Molokaian Maniacs and Fat Old Has-Beens. The event has been described as a cross between basketball and roller derby.

Roll tacks in 30 knots of breeze. Traps. Picks. Oops – knockdown! In the land of theme parks, this could be the latest thrill ride. All aboard if you dare. Check out team racing, sailing’s best-kept secret. Some of the hottest dinghy sailors in the country came to Alamitos Bay YC in early December to compete for the 1998 George R. Hinman Trophy that goes to US SAILING’s team racing national champions.

Hinman was a former president of US SAILING when it was called NAYRU and a tough competitor on Long Island Sound in the International One-Design class. But, by George, it’s a good bet he never saw anything like this. When the 12 teams from the East Coast to Hawaii signed in as the Molokaian Maniacs, Erratic Fanatics, Fat Old Has-Beens and other bizarre sobriquets, local old-timers thought it must be a revival of the wild days of Roller Derby – and after they watched for a while, they were convinced.

“It’s a cross between basketball and Roller Derby,” said Chris Ericksen, the principal race officer for the host Alamitos Bay YC. But anyone old enough to remember Roller Derby probably shouldn’t try Team Racing, at least not at the level generated at the Nationals. The winning team was the Boston Cosmos, captain Josh Adams’ bunch of former Tufts University warriors who had already won the ’98 Team Racing Worlds at Miami. Their hot hand is Nick Trot- man, who doubled by winning the 505 Worlds as well.

Team racing is in dinghies for the Nationals, with Vanguard 15s provided by Vanguard Sail- boats. Each team has three boats with crews of two and sails against the other teams in a round-robin series leading to sail-offs among the final four.

Each boat is scored by its finish – 1 through 6, low total team points wins. Here’s the key: a team can clinch a match by finishing first and third – do the arithmetic – leaving its third boat to sacrifice itself by blocking boats from the other team.

That’s where the Roller Derby tactics come in. Those under 40 must understand that their parents revere that sport with a kind of cult nostalgia for mayhem. They followed it in drab converted boxing arenas or on flickering 10-inch black-and-white TVs as teams of skaters, male and female, swirled around banked board tracks. Several skaters, forming a “jam,” held up the other guys so one of their own could lap the field and score points for every opponent he passed.

Add to that such basketball ploys as the “pick” – wiping off a defender on a stationary ally – or laying a “trap” at a mark and riding a foe off into the sunset as your teammates sail by – and you have team racing.

“It’s fun, once you figure it out,” said Brad Dellenbaugh, a U.S. Naval Academy sailing coach and chairman of the ’98 US SAILING Team Race Committee. “You’re part of a team, so you can help out a teammate. Normally, in no other racing would you deliberately slow down and sit on an opponent.”

Team racing isn’t new. It’s big in high school and college sailing on both coasts. The Hinman has been contested since 1981. Members of past winning teams include Terry McLaughlin, Peter Isler, Ed Adams, Dave Ullman, Steve Benjamin, Chris Raab, Kevin Hall, David and Brad Dellenbaugh, John Kolius, and Nick Adamson. The ’98 field included not only Trotman and Josh Adams but two-time winner Zack Leonard.

But the ignorant among us, until exposed to it, tend to dismiss team racing as a contrived this-isn’t-really-sailboat-racing gimmick. Some advice: don’t knock it until you try it – and even world-class dinghy aces who haven’t team-raced should think twice before they do.

“If they tried to do it at this level, they’d have some difficulty,” Brad Dellenbaugh said.

Such is the prestige of the game, which probably should be an Olympic discipline – the skill level is that keen.

Those skills were pushed to the limit over three cold and blustery days on Alamitos Bay. “We thought it would be a great venue,” Dellenbaugh said. Adams said, “We expected light air.”

The bay is a sheltered tidal pond about a half-mile in diameter, surrounded by million-dollar homes and palm trees, which were bent like twigs by a rare northeasterly that often pegged the ABYC anemometer at 40 knots, switched the water into super-wash cycle, and blew the Bay’s 5 mph speed limit to oblivion.

Even Trotman and crew Victoria Wadsworth suffered a dunking – that’s how wild it was. But nobody wanted to quit. Wadsworth said, “I’m fine. The water wasn’t as cold as the air.”

Ericksen’s committee ran 83 races over three days without a hitch, and as the weekend moved along it became clear that the conditions were separating the contenders from the pretenders.

“It was really tricky sailing, puffy and shifty – huge shifts,” Trotman said. “Our biggest strategy was to get out and slow the competition down.”

The Cosmos have been sailing together for several years. They know each other’s moves the way Steve Young and Jerry Rice do. “We pretty much know what we’re gonna do out there,” Trotman said. “We always try to have good starts [so] we can cover all the lanes on the beat. We start in the same positions every time.” That would be Trotman/Wadsworth to weather, Mark Mendelblatt/Suzannah Kerr in the middle and Adams/Brett Davis to leeward. If one or two boats squirt out ahead on the beat, the other one or two take on the opposition. “But we all pretty much go for the one,” Trotman said.

Trotman said team racing is a nice change of pace from fleet racing. “I love them both,” he said, “but fleet racing is a totally different strategy. The 505 races are 2 1/2 hours. These are 15 minutes.”

The Cosmos were back in the pack at 3-2 during the round-robins, trailing the 4-1 Kaiser Sosa team from Bristol, R.I. (Brian Doyle, Zack Leonard, Jon Pinckney, Richard Feeny, Chelsie Wheeler and Katie McDowell).

Then the Cosmos swept their best-of-three quarter- and semifinal matches against the Erratic Fanatics from Stanford and Team NYYC-Con Leche from Ivy League country, and won their last two matches against Cape Cod’s Wishbone, which had eliminated Kaiser Sosa, 3-2.

The victory qualified the Cosmos to represent the U.S. in the 1999 Worlds in Ireland next July.

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